Alberta Adventure: Cypress Hills road trip – An island of amazing drives among a sea of prairies

By Dave S. Clark

It can be painful, excruciatingly so, to find great roads to drive on through the prairies. The roads are long, flat, straight and beautiful in their own right, but they can be a bit boring if you want to go for a spirited drive. But it’s not all flat and boring. Sitting right on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan and only a short hop from the Montana border is an ancient island rising up from the sea of surrounding plains – Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

When I think of driving in Alberta and Saskatchewan, I think of telephone poles being the only thing that resemble trees and arrow straight roads, dotted on either side with cattle. Cypress definitely had the cattle, free roaming all over the park, but none of the roads were anything but straight.

Getting to Cypress

Coming from Edmonton, following the same route my wife and I took last year to go to Dinosaur Provincial Park, we headed east on Highway 14, down the long, pretty and desolate Highway 36, reluctantly joining the Trans Canada at Brooks, and tolerating it to just east of Medicine Hat. The beauty begins on Eagle Butte Road, which heads south towards the park. I discovered this road as it was the route of the 1968 Shell 4000 Rally, a section which I incorporated into the Canada 5000 Rally. As we travelled south, range land opened up on either side and the highest point of Canada between the Rockies and Labrador came into distant view.

From Eagle Butte Road, we turned on Highway 514, also known as Jackpot Road, the first gravel road of the trip. It skirts along the northern edge of the park and gives a great perspective on this geographical oddity. Rolling hills with hay bales and cattle sprawl out to the north and massive, forested hills rise up like an island to the south. The road was great too, if you like gentle corners, elevation changes and gravel surfaces. I’ve now driven the road three times and have yet to see another car along the stretch.

Highway 514  connects with the paved Highway 41, which bisects the park and leads you to the only town within the park, Elkwater.

Reesor Viewpoint
Reesor Viewpoint, looking out at the Cypress Hills and Canadian Prairies.

Reesor Lake Road

Another road that was impressive enough to be included on the route of the 1968 Shell 4000 Rally was Reesor Lake Road. It’s a fun drive and boasts the best lookout of the entire park. It starts off straight and flat along the plateau of the hills. It’s an easy drive, unless you want to dodge cow pies along the paved surface. That would make it a supreme challenge. As you head east, you’ll reach the viewpoint. It’s at the highest point in the vicinity and the little pull off offers an amazing panorama of Reesor Lake and the surrounding hills. I loved this spot about 30 or 45 minutes before sunset. The golden rays lit up the valley below and I could see the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan stretch out for miles to the east and north. As the sun was just about to dip below the horizon, we went to the other side of the road for the best vantage point. The chorus of moos from the herd of cattle that curiously surrounded us made for a sunset unlike any other.

View the Cypress Hills Driving Map

Expectedly, the road continues down to Reesor Lake, a pretty spot with a squadron of pelicans that peacefully glide across the mirror-like lake. I never dipped my toes in the water, assuming, perhaps wrongly, that it would be bitterly cold like the mountain lakes of Alberta.

Reesor-Lake-Cypress-Hills

After Reesor Lake, the road narrows and turns to gravel. A hilly and twisty section, closed in with dense brush it could be mistaken for a logging road in British Columbia. It’s not something I would imagine straddling the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta. It ends at Graburn Road, which goes deeper into the park, or out of the park to the Historic Reesor Ranch, a relaxing and secluded spot where we stayed for two nights in a little cabin.

Subaru-Impreza-rally-car-river-crossing

Graburn Road

Turning right on Graburn Road will take you south and eventually take you back west to Highway 41. It was by far the most primitive stretch in the park, but one you definitely shouldn’t miss if you have the confidence and the ground clearance. The road was narrow and mostly gravel, but there was also a short section that was made up of large chunks of smooth rock. This is where lower vehicles need to be cautious. There were some bigger rocks that may give your oil pan some trouble if your car is too low. I dodged them all and had no problems in my lowered Subaru. A 2WD car should have no problem on the road as long as it is dry. Like Reesor Lake Road, it was bendy and hilly and could be really fun if you weren’t on constant cow alert. I was never really sure if I’d come around a corner and be greeted with a few tons of beef blocking the way.

I got a bit of a shock when I went through a quick downhill right hander and was faced with a small river crossing. I couldn’t tell how deep the water was from afar, but I was dreading have to turn around and backtrack, assuming it would be too deep for the Subaru to ford across. I got closer and my cursing stopped when I realized it was only about two inches deep. I crossed it as easily as driving through a puddle. Note that this was in mid-August of a very dry year. I don’t know how deep it would be during a wet spring season.

Battle Creek Road

I didn’t follow Battle Creek Road to the end as I was a bit short on time and it wasn’t the most scenic, being very closed in on either side by large trees. I had heard a few times that it was the most beautiful road in the park, but I think that title went to Graburn or Reesor. Follow Battle Creek Road all the way and it will take you to Fort Walsh, the reconstructed North West Mounted Police post. If we had more time, I would have driven down to it. The highlight of Battle Creek Road was a dilapidated log house that we stopped to photograph and sketch. It was built in the early 1900s and was in a gorgeous spot.

Murray Hill and Ferguson Hill Roads

These two roads weren’t particularly notable other than they run to the highest point, the Head of the Mountain Viewpoint. Unfortunately when we were there, it was quite cloudy one day and completely whiteout foggy the other, so the viewpoint was underwhelming. On a clear day, you can apparently see Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills, which are a thing of natural beauty. Being close to Elkwater and campgrounds, these roads had more traffic than all of the others, where we usually never saw another car at all.

Ranchville Road, just west of Cypress Hills.
Ranchville Road, just west of Cypress Hills.

Leaving Cypress

Our next stop was Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and we disregarded all the advice we had received about a route to take since we had a stop to make on the way – the Mars-like landscape of Red Rock Coulee. We left the park the same way we entered, down Highway 514/Jackpot Road. Then we headed south on Eagle Butte Road then turned on Ranchville Road, which is truly one of my favourite roads in Alberta. It was deserted and climbed up a big hill giving an amazing view of the surrounding rolling ranchland and huge southern Alberta sky.

We weaved our way over to Red Rock Coulee, a spot that we expected to be quite popular, given how much of an oddity it is. But we showed up and had the whole park to ourselves for quite some time. Definitely one of the coolest spots in Alberta!

Red-Rock-Coulee

1 thought on “Alberta Adventure: Cypress Hills road trip – An island of amazing drives among a sea of prairies”

  1. absolutely magnificent article, informative enough that we are both wanting to explore this route. for me personally, what is strikingly beautiful, is your writing with no grammatical errors. i have not seen this in either french or english for donkey’s years. Nice work you two.
    xoxo

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