Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park and the Historic Reesor Ranch
"An Oasis in the Prairies"
By Dr. Robert Berdan
August 13, 2012
Cypress Hills Interprovincial park joins south east Alberta to Saskatchewan with an elevation of 1468 m (4,816 ft.) and is the highest point in Canada between the Rocky mountains and Labrador. The unique feature of Cypress Hills is the presence of a high plateau and lodgepole pine trees in the middle of the prairies. Archeological digs indicate that humans inhabited the region at least 8,500 years ago and geological studies show that the area was not covered by recent glaciers. Captain John Palliser, an early explorer in the region in 1859, first described the area as "an oasis in the desert".
Until recently I had only passed by the Cypress hills and had no photographs of the area located about 4.5 hours drive east of Calgary. On August 4-7, my wife and I headed to the park and reserved several nights accommodation at the Historic Reesor Ranch which is located near the middle of the Park across the Saskatchewan border. We traveled through all parts of the park and down most of the narrow dirt roads in my Jeep. Some roads are paved, but many are not and their are plenty of warnings not to drive on the dirt roads when wet unless you have a four wheel drive.
West end day use area on Elk lake Cypress hills. Most swimmers congregate around the east end of the lake which offers a larger beach and many more people. I tend to look for less crowded areas and the east end was ideal.
Symons Nobel Cabin along the Battle creek road shows the typical landscape in the park with grasslands and lodge pole pines. The cabin is named after Robert Symons (1898 - 1973) who was a writer, painter, game warden and rancher living in Cypress hills. He often carried a pencil and scrap of paper with him to sketch the landscape and published several books about the area. Cattle are a common site throughout the park.
View from Reesor viewpoint - mid day.
Battle Creek road - many of the roads are narrow and bumpy.
On the Alberta side of the park, Elkwater is the main gateway to the park with beaches, grocery store, restaurants, and the only gas station in the area. We stopped in at the information center and often stopped for lunch or dinner at the Elkwater Landing Restaurant which offers good food for a reasonable price. The lake is the main attraction as swimmers and boaters cooled off on the hot August days. From there we drove to Reesor lake by the Ferguson Hill road which is narrow paved road and leads leads to more campgrounds. We crossed highway 41 and drove to Reesor Viewpoint which overlooks the prairies to the east. At the end of the lake the pavement ends and turns into a narrow gravel road called "Battle Creek Road" which eventually joins with Graburn Road. To reach the Historic Reesor Ranch we turned left on Graburn road and after driving 2 km north we were at the entrance to the Reesor Ranch.
Wild Bergamots grow along the hillsides and roads in Cypress Hills Park
Cone flowers are abundant along the roads in the park
On subsequent days we drove east along Battle Creek Road until it becomes becomes Ranger Station Road and little further we met pavement again at highway 271. We traveled south along a paved road to For Walsh. On subsequent day we travelled further east along Gap Road off highway 271 to Central Block, a part of the park that is separated from the main park region. Gap road isn't pretty and I don't recommend it unless you have a four wheel drive and only when the conditions are good. I did see and photograph one pronghorn antelope along this route, but for the most this hilly prairie region is occupied by cattle and very little else (see below).
Gap road is about 17 km and travels through prairie hills. I saw one pronghorn antelope, one deer and lots of cattle.
We stopped for an ice cream to cool off in Central block and then drove on to Maple Creek, a small town about 27 km north. There we turned around an headed back down highway 271 and stopped at the Cypress Hills Winery which included a wine shop and beautiful gardens. The temperature in the middle of the day hovered around 35°C and having air conditioning in the car made this drive bareablel. We headed back to the Reesor Ranch where I photographed the sunset and late into the evening. While the park has several spectacular overlooks, wildlife was not as abundant as I hoped, we spotted white tail deer, one pronghorn, mule deer, and a variety of bird species. Cattle are distributed throughout the park and in my opinion I would prefer to see buffalo reintroduced to the area as they have donw in grasslands national park.
View from the conglomerate cliffs - inset shows a close-up of conglomerate which consists of stones embedded within a finer matrix. The best time to photograph from this viewpoint would be at sunrise, but as I was not familiar with the roads in the park I did not feel comfortable driving in park after dark. Adams lake can be seen on the top left of the photograph.
Cougars (Felis concolor) are abundant in the park but are rarely seen. (CS) 300 mm F4.
It is estimated there are 6 cougars per 100 square km in the Cypress HIlls Park (CPAWS cougar research - this number was incorrectly posted on their web site as 6\sq km) though sighting a cougar is rare. Cougars are wary of humans, and hunting of cougars is permitted in the park. Cougars breed all year long and usually have litters of two twice a year. Cougars avoid open terrain and prefer to travel in ravines and other corridors that pass through open terrain. Though you are not likely to see a cougar you should always be aware of their presence.
Cypress Hills Observatory and Dark Sky Preserve
Cypress Hills and Grasslands National Park are dark sky preserves which simply means they are a sanctuary from artificial light. The park is attempting to minimize light pollution so visitors and amateur astronomers can appreciate the night sky. The park was declared a dark sky preserve in September 28, 2004 in partnership with Royal Astronomy Association of Canada, the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Every August they host a star party where amateur astronomers gather around the new moon to view and photograph the night sky. The official opening of the observatory was on August 25, 2011 and the next star party is on August 16-19th, for more information see the RASC website or search for Cypress Hills star party.
Observatory at Central Block
YouTube video showing new Observatory in Central Block Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
Historic Reesor Ranch
I discovered the Historic Reesor ranch from the cypress hills web site. The ranch has its own web site which includes information about booking and its interesting history. I like places off the beaten path and its location is just outside the park across the Saskatchewan border providing easy access to the park which is only a couple of kilometers away. The Reesor ranch driveway is about 3 km and passes through rolling hills. We were greeted by Scott Reesor , a fouth generation cowboy who is also a gifted cowboy poet. The first night we stayed in the main house in the Frank and Hazel bedroom which offers its own bathroom. There is a shared shower for guests and we all met in the main living room for a hardy breakfast at 8:30 am. On the 2nd and 3rd nights we booked the cowboy cabin which was perfect for us - the cabin had its own shower, bath, fridge and barbeque. I like to get up early to do photography so I prefer accommodations where I am less likely to wake or bother anyone if I come in late or get out early to catch the sunrise. The Ranch also offers a large barn with rooms where they accommodate group bookings. Behind the barn they have a play area with volleyball and badminton nets. In addition, the ranch offers horseback riding and there are a wide variety of birds on their property including waxwings, barn swallows, wrens, robins, etc.
Entrance to the Historic Reesor ranch off Graburn Road about 2 km outside Cypress Hills Park Gate.
Dolly one of the Reesor's dogs comes out to greet us (16-35 mm lens).
Ranch house and barn as viewed from just inside the inner gate - 200 mm F4 lens
Reesor Home that offers several bedrooms for rent (20 mm lens f/11).
Frank & Hazel bedroom
Dinning & Breakfast area
Front Porch facing west
Bedroom in the cowboy cabin
Kitchen in the cowboy cabin
White tail fawns along driveway
House Wren nesting above balcony
Kestrel feeding on dragon fly
Reesor guests set off on horse back to explore the surrounding country side
Historic Reesor Barn used to accommodate groups of visitors
Pond along side the Reesor driveway attracts coyotes, birds and cattle which come to drink.
Sunset provide warm light over the prairies adjacent to the Reesor ranch driveway. The farm has about a thousand head of cattle and a dozen or more horses. The Reesor's also sell beef directly to their customers and have a business providing bottled water from their springs.
Pond around sunset with fox tail grass around the edge.
Sunset over the cypress hills - photographed with 300 mm F4 lens from the Reesor ranch driveway.
After sunset light rays appear above the horizon in the west, photographed from outside the Reesor ranch house.
Milky way with Sagittarius constellation appearing above the Reesor Home - 10 seconds, 24 mm F2.8 lens ISO 1600
Scott and Theresa Reesor are the owners of the Historic Reesor Ranch Bed and Breakfast, photographed in their modern home office where they access the Internet and take care of business.
Driving down the Reesor drive way just after sunrise. I photographed coyotes and deer next to the road.
Hay bales and oncoming storm beside Graburn road that leads to Walsh and the Trans Canada highway 1.
One feature I really liked at the Reesor ranch is that in the rooms and cabins they provide visitors with a variety of books and pamphlets with information about the history of the ranch and things to do and see in the area. Scott and Theresa are the 4th generation of Reesor's to live here and their children 5th generation. Scott's grandfather, David Reesor and grandmother, Emily headed west in 1900 to the Cypress Hills, Graburn, Assiniboia, NWT (changed to Saskatchewan in 1905). They moved into their house in December 1906. Their home is partially encased in the large ranch house which was completed in 1917 and was one of the first in the area to have electricity. It was built for two families, themselves and one of their sons, Frank and wife, Hazel, who had come west from Nova Scotia. Today, the Reesors proudly display and share their family's history with guests as they carry on with the 100 year family tradition of cattle ranching (source Historic Reesor Ranch Information guide for guests 2012). The Reesor's run between 75 - 150 head of cattle plus their calves and have about 30 horses. They also custom graze cattle in the summer months. Scott's great grandparents William David and Alice are the ones who homesteaded the ranch in 1904, yet they came to the Cypress Hills in 1900. See their web site for more information or to book a cabin or room. I think this is the best place to stay when visiting Cypress Hills and it offers excellent opportunities for landscape and night sky photography. The Ranch is only about a 30 min. drive from the Elkwater townsite which offers a gas station, beach and grocery store.
Fort Walsh was built in June of 1875 and the fort was named after the builder, inspector James Walsh. The purpose of the fort was to curb the illegal whiskey trade, protect Canada's nearby border, and aid with native policy. These factors were brought to public attention when the local wolfers (wolf hunters) killed many natives in the Cypress Hills Massacre in 1873. Shortly after Sir John A. Macdonald established the North-West Mounted police. The fort existed between 1878-1882, was closed and dismantled in 1883. The fort was reconstructed in the 1940's to beed horses for the North-West mounted Police. Today tourists can visit a museum and the reconstructed fort, former townsite, graveyard and whiskey trading port. The fort is located in the east block of Cypress-Hills Provincial Park and the road is paved if you drive along highway 271. It's worth spending a few hours to view this historic site and learn about some Canadian History.
Highway 271 leading to Fort Walsh cuts through a high prairie plateau with a few pine forests. This is where I would recommend locating a campground for amateur astronomers as it offers a wide view of the sky and flat open plains.
Museum at Fort Walsh includes a short multimedia presentation before visitors head down to the Fort.
Fort Walsh from the Hillside that leads down to the Fort.
Approaching the Fort a tall fence surrounds and protects it.
Inside view of the Fort - there are several historic interpreters to guide you or answer any questions you might.
Inside the fort walls
Officier cleaning his gun
Wood working Shop
Cypress Hills Winery
The Winery is located 20 km south west of Maple Creek, SK on highway 27. We visited on a very hot afternoon and there was a tour bus from Maple Creek and many other visitors. The gardens are very well kept and they offer a wide choice of wines. We ended up buying a bottle of their rhubarb wine for our son. It's definitely a place to stop into if you visit Cypress Hills and have the extra time.
Entrance to the Winery which features a wine tasting area, store and patio where they serve light meals.
Inside the Cypress Hills Winery where they feature a wine tasting bar and gift shop.
Patio where guests can order food and wine.
This is my first trip to Cypress HIlls Park and from a photographer's viewpoint I was somewhat disappointed that I did not capture more and better pictures of wildlife. I would like to have photographed some wild turkeys, pronghorn sheep or one or more of the 21 orchids that grow in the park. Realistically, however I know that to get good photographs takes lots of time and also a bit of luck. One also has to get up early and shoot late which I did. Now that I know some sites with photographic potential I will have to return again in a different season and try my luck again. I will focus my attention on the west block region and also explore a few more trails that I missed on this trip.
If you go to the park be sure to bring a wide angle lens, a telephoto zoom lens and tripod. I hope this brief article provides you with some information as to where you might visit and the type of landscape you will encounter. Be sure to download the park map below and if you plan on driving the back roads use a 4 wheel drive vehicle. RB