Snow may not yet be piled high in the Cypress Hills. The landscape may not yet be white enough for a Christmas fairy-tale. Skiing conditions may not have arrived … but winter activities are already well under way.
Hopes are high of repeating last year’s great success of the inaugural “Winter in the Hills”, which saw a dramatic surge in revenues.
“It went extremely well,” said Royce Pettyjohn, manager at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Saskatchewan. “The park saw more traffic than it has seen in the winter for 20 years.”
Pettyjohn, a key figure behind “Winter in the Hills”, said the challenge in 2021/22 was to continue the momentum. To help achieve this, there has been a concerted effort to promote winter camping. For the first time, online winter camping reservations are being offered. Nightly camping fees have been decreased for November 1-March 31 to reflect reduced services during these months. Electrical sites are $29 a night; non-electrical sites are $16 a night.
“We know many families will be staying close to home again this season, so we want to ensure there will be a variety of nearby winter experiences and overnight opportunities available for everyone to enjoy,” said Parks, Culture and Sport Minister Laura Ross.
Another Cypress Hills first is the Camp-Easy experience; two tents have been set up. The sites are equipped with cots, camp chairs, a propane camp stove, wash bin and axe. Costs are $65 per night and can be booked online ahead of time.
Other winter activities and guided programs (pre-registration required), which also started on November 27, run until March 5.
The December schedule has been released and includes:
• “Marvel at the Night Sky” – Fridays at 7.30pm (December 10, 17). Cypress Hill was designated a Dark Sky Preserve on September 8, 2004. It is one of Canada’s largest Dark Sky Preserves at 97,853 acres. Here is a chance to learn about stars around a campfire. Meet at woodlot parking lot (across from Meadows Campground);
•‘Move it or Luge it” – Saturdays at 10am (December 11, 18). Fun-seekers can fly down the mini luge track with a saucer-style sled. Meet at toboggan hill warm-up shack (behind the Visitor Centre);
•“Cypress Snowshoe” – Saturdays at 2pm (December 11 – explore the park’s Ice Age connections; December 18 – how do plants and animals survive winter in the forest?). Snowshoes can be re rented at the Resort. Book free snowshoeing using QR code or call 306-662-5449. Meet an interpreter at the Resort entrance.
People should be aware that if temperatures in the program locations fall below -26 degrees Celsius with the wind chill, the programs will be cancelled.
There are several other self-guided activities available: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing (rentals available at The Cypress Hills Resort), snowmobiling, disc golf, and ice fishing.
Skating is another option, for every winter Sask Parks and The Resort clear a section of Loch Leven. Skaters beware, however: you do so at your own risk.
Of course, there is always the opportunity to go hiking, with the possibility of seeing wildlife like moose, elk, white-tail and mule deer as well as herds of pronghorn antelope. Fewer people in the park means animals are likely to be more visible.
Valid park entry permits are required year-round in provincial parks. 2021 permits, valid until March 31, 2022, are available at a reduced rate of $40. Annual permits will provide access to winter camping, activities and programs at all participating parks.
Pettyjohn said the concept of “Winter in the Hills” was to extend the tourism season beyond May-September.
“The park has always been key to tourism in the southwest,” he said, pointing out that many visitors travelled great distances to experience it.
In 2019, a proposal for a program of winter activities was put to Sask Parks. The idea was well received and Sask Parks provided funding for a 2020 launch – something it has done again for this winter.
Evidence suggested there were positive economic spin-offs for the Maple Creek area, said Pettyjohn. Merchants reported that they did better than expected in 2020/21 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic as people visited their businesses on the way to the park.
Pettyjohn said there was a misconception that the park was shut off during the winter and there was nowhere to stay.
Accommodation is available at The Cypress Hills Resort, he pointed out, which has cabins and townhouses, equipped with kitchenettes. There are also plenty of places to stay at Maple Creek, just 20 minutes away.
Pettyjohn’s message is for people enjoy the wonder that is the Cypress Hills – a four-season natural gem.
So, if your idea of the Cypress Hills in winter is of a hostile, frozen landscape, of snow-blocked roads and paths, of a place that is closed-off and where nothing happens, then think again.
“There is lots to do,” said Pettyjohn.