Unlike any other place in Canada, this mountain on the prairies is home to scorpions, rare orchids, petrified figs, and a “wild-west-sort-of” past that actually ignited the formation of the Mounties. Today, Cypress Hills Alberta is an oasis for camping, bird watching, watersports, biking, and so much more.
Cypress Hills Alberta is another one of those beautiful places that just escaped us for many years. I grew up in Alberta and have travelled it more than almost anyone else, but this one little slice in the Southeastern corner of the province was still on my bucket list. That is, until 2021 when I finally made it happen.
Located just 45 minutes from Medicine Hat, Cypress Hills Alberta is this rare oasis on the edge of the Canadian Badlands. From what I could see, it’s basically where the rolling hills of the Alberta badlands meet the forest. In fact, it’s a very unique ecosystem because it’s one of the few places in Western Canada that escaped the glaciation period, which has led to it having some truly unique flora and fauna.
But whether you’re into admiring rare orchids or not, there’s lots of outdoor adventure in Cypress Hills. With lakes, hills, and plenty of trails, there’s no shortage of fun things to do in Cypress Hills for all ages. Let’s dive in.
How to Get to Cypress Hills
Cypress Hills is an Interprovincial park, which means it’s in both Saskatchewan and Alberta. This article is focused on the Alberta side of the park. The only town within the park, which is where all the amenities are found, is Elkwater, Alberta.
Medicine Hat to Elkwater: Located approximately 65 km southeast of Medicine Hat, it takes roughly 45-minutes to drive to Elkwater, Alberta. The drive is nice but you can make it even more scenic by taking Highway 3 to Seven Persons and then Highway 883 to Red Rock Coulee. This will take 1.5 hours to drive, not including the time to stop and admire Red Rock Coulee as well as pick up some beef jerky in Seven Persons, but it’s definitely more scenic.
Calgary to Elkwater: The drive from Calgary to Elkwater is about 360 km and takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes without stopping. The drive is mostly flat and boring, but there are some amenities along the way, including the town of Brooks. You’ll also pass right through Medicine Hat along the way.
About Cypress Hills Alberta
Cypress Hills is a high plateau that stands above the prairies as an island of cool forest in the summer and an oasis of snow in the winter. It’s actually a great place for both summer and winter activities. With its mix of forests, lakes, wetlands, and grasslands, it’s home to a unique diversity of plants and animals. This diversity includes over 220 bird species, 47 mammal species, and several species each of reptiles and amphibians.
Not only is the Cypress Hills the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador, but they also escaped the retreating glaciers of the last ice age, which is why you can find rare orchids, petrified figs, and a unique array of plants and animals.
The Cypress Hills are known as an erosional plateau in geology. The hills were formed by millions of years of sedimentary deposition followed by millions of years of erosion. It has also been home to human habitation for more than 8,500 years, which was revealed by an archaeology project back in the ’70s.
From Whiskey traders to Indigenous Peoples and beyond, Cypress Hills is both a place of history and a unique natural environment.
Things to Do in Cypress Hills Alberta
Cypress Hills Alberta is full of outdoor adventure. Whether you like hiking, biking, boating, or camping, You’re bound to fall in love with Cypress Hills. Below are some of the popular things to do in the area.
Just like biking (mentioned below), there are all sorts of hiking trails in the area. I wouldn’t say any of them are all that difficult, but the forest itself is actually quite beautiful. It almost felt tropical with large ferns and all sorts of mountain flowers. There are a few decent views from various viewpoints and the hikes can be as little as an hour or combined with other trails to make a longer day out of it. There’s also the paved trail that goes along the lake, which I highly recommend. It’s a beautiful way to admire the lake, see the wetlands, spot some birds, and see lots of wildflowers.
If there’s one thing we wish we had during our stay, it’s a mountain bike. Unfortunately, you can’t rent them in town. You can rent e-bikes but those are not allowed on the trails. What’s cool about the biking trails is that they have various degrees of difficulty but they all beautifully cut through the forests, going both uphill and downhill. We saw everyone from experienced mountain bikers to entire families, including young kids that didn’t look much older than 6 or 7. Considering all the campgrounds surrounding the biking trails, this really is one of the best places we’ve seen for mountain biking.
Elkwater Lake is very popular for all sorts of watersports. During our visit, we saw speedboats towing tubes, and water skiers all over the lake. There’s even a small marina for people with boats. We went paddle-boarding, so the lake is also good for things like Kayaking, paddle-boarding, canoeing, and fishing.
Relaxing on the Beach
Elkwater Lake is home to a small beach, not far from the marina. Even during the weekdays, this place was quite busy, so it’s obviously a hit with families. Kids can go out swimming in a small section of the lake they’ve cornered off.
Scenic Driving Tours
Although small, there are a few short scenic drives you can do within the Alberta portion of Cypress Hills, leading to various viewpoints and natural areas. As a side note, you could also rent e-bikes from Elkwater Lodge and use those instead of a car.
West Driving Route: For those in Elkwater, this 50-km loop section of the scenic drive is quite close to town. Stops include Horseshoe Canyon Viewpoint, Head of the Mountain (the highest elevation within the park), Willow Creek Burn, St. Margaret’s Church, and Medicine Lodge Coulee.
East Driving Route: Just east of Elkwater is the East Driving Route, a 60-km loop that goes almost as far as the Saskatchewan Border. Stops include Reesor Viewpoint (the most beautiful viewpoint in the park), Reesor Lake, Police Point Slump, Survival Tree, Graburn Cairn, and Battle Creek.
For those with kids, and Elkwater is very popular with families, there’s a small 18-hole mini-golf right next to the water.
For those into golf, there’s the 9-hole Elkwater Park Golf Club, which is only 10-minutes south of Elkwater. In addition to the golf, they also have a small restaurant that serves food such as hamburgers and hot dogs.
Admiring the Stars
Since Cypress Hills is a designated Dark Sky Preserve, it’s one of the best places in the country to see the stars light up the sky at night, as well as the Milky Way, and perhaps even the Southern Lights. If the conditions are right, such as no clouds and no full moon, you’ll be impressed by how many stars you see!
Where to Eat in Cypress Hills
Since Cypress Hills has only one small town, there aren’t a lot of options for food. Below are all of them.
12-34 Cafe & Pub
This is definitely the most popular place in town. Not only do they also have a gas station, convenience store, and ice cream shop, but they also operate a cafe that serves breakfast, lunch, and supper seven days a week. We are here 6-8 times during our three-day visit as Camp Cookhouse was closed and the lodge’s restaurant wasn’t the best. They make excellent lattes, tasty sandwiches, a really good quiche, and pizzas as well.
Unfortunately, Camp Cookhouse is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so we didn’t get to eat there. I wish we had been able to because this little spot was opened by a former Top Chef Canada contestant and we’ve heard great things about both their burgers and their ribs. If you’re there from Wednesday to Sunday, I’d make this a priority.
Bugler’s Dining Room and Lounge
This is likely considered the main restaurant in town as it’s also part of the Elkwater Lake Lodge. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but we only ate dinner here on two occasions. Unfortunately, it really wasn’t the best. The butter chicken was decent but more oily than any other we’ve had and the steak was quite overcooked. The coconut shrimp appetizer was delicious though as was the sticky toffee cake for dessert.
Where to Stay in Cypress Hills
Like food, there are really only two options for accommodation in Cypress Hills. The lodge or camping.
Elkwater Lake Lodge & Resort
If you don’t want to go camping, this is the other option. It’s actually a very nice resort that offers both cabins and full suites with kitchens. Elkwater Lake Lodge & Resort is about a 5-minute walk from the lake and they also offer a pool and hot tub. In addition, they rent out e-bikes but just beware that they’re only allowed on the roads and not on the trails.
There are a whopping 12 campgrounds within the Alberta portion of Cypress Hills, which include Battle Creek, Beaver Creek, Elkwater, Ferguson Hill, Firerock, Lakeview, Lodgepole, Old Baldy, Reesor Lake, Reesor Dock, Spring Creek Equestrian, and Spruce Coulee. The 7 campgrounds found within the Elkwater townsite are very popular with families as they’re both open to RVs and tents, and some even have showers. From man of the campgrounds, you can easily walk to the town, the shops, the beach, and more.
Where to Go Next
Once you’ve explored Cypress Hills, you might be wondering where to go next. Well, you could drive an extra 30 minutes and explore the Saskatchewan side of Cypress Hills, or head west towards Crowsnest Pass, Lethbridge, or Medicine Hat. For even more spectacular badland scenery, you could check out the Alberta Badlands or Grasslands National Park as well.
For more things to do, check out these guides below: