Highway 16 (nicknamed the Yellowhead Route) follows the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy-1) west out of Winnipeg but soon cuts northwest for a more attractive journey across the prairies. It goes through the pretty little town of Neepawa before passing south of the attractive forests, lakes and grasslands of Riding Mountain National Park, 250km from Winnipeg. Just north of the park the small town of Dauphin and its surroundings have a Ukrainian past that’s still in evidence, particularly in the Doukhobor settlement of Veregin and the functional prairie town of Yorkton. From here, the highway embarks on one of its dullest stretches across the prairies towards Saskatoon, but don’t miss Little Manitou Lake – Saskatchewan’s Dead Sea.
Heading north out of Riding Mountain National Park on Hwy-10, you’ll soon hit DAUPHIN. Founded as a French fur-trading post in 1739, it’s now a pleasant prairie town that would be unremarkable, if it weren’t for the preservation of its Ukrainian ancestry. Those who cleared and settled this part of Manitoba between 1896 and 1925 assimilated rather more slowly into local culture, leaving the onion domes of Ukrainian Orthodox churches scattered throughout the region.
The National Ukrainian Festival (cnuf.ca) celebrates Dauphin’s ancestry on the first weekend of August at a purpose-built complex on the edge of Riding Mountain Park. The complex has a splendid thousand-seat hillside amphitheatre, ideal for music and dance performances, and a tiny heritage village dedicated to early Ukrainian settlers.
Though a US invention, there’s hardly anything more distinctively Canadian Prairie than the grain elevator. These tall and traditionally wooden grain warehouses were utilitarian in design and built simply to store wheat before its transport by rail. Yet with their clean, functional lines rising high above the plains, they’ve been likened to cathedrals, earned nicknames like “castles of the New World” and “prairie sentinels”, and found their way into many a prairie heart.
The first Canadian grain elevators were built in the 1880s and by 1938 some 5800 dotted the region, each emblazoned with the names of the small towns they marked. But as grain transport switched from rail to road their numbers dwindled to the present seven hundred. In 2000, the Canadian Wheat Board decided to build massive central concrete terminals at main transit points, to which grain now travels by truck, making old-style elevators even more redundant. Some have already been dismantled, threatening to change the prairie landscape irrevocably, but many still hold out; while in Inglis, a tiny town just to the west of Riding Mountain National Park, a row of 1920s wooden elevators beside an abandoned railway line have been preserved as a National Historic Site (w ingliselevators.com).
A 45km detour from Hwy-16 near the sleepy but likeable town of Minnedosa Riding Mountain National Park is one of the region’s best, a vast expanse of wilderness, roughly 50km by 100km, that provides some of Manitoba’s finest hiking, biking and scenery. Its name comes from fur trappers who changed from canoe to horseback to travel its wooded highlands, and it’s also known as the place where Grey Owl spent six months or so living with his wife and their pet beavers in 1931.
The park’s eastern edge is marked by a 400m-high ridge studded with a dense evergreen forest which soon gives way to a highland plateau whose mixed forests and lakes form the core of the park and surround its only significant settlement, the resort village of WASAGAMING, on Clear Lake on the park’s southern edge. There’s a scrawny beach here that gets overcrowded in July and August (beaches on the southwest and northern edge of the lake are quieter with shallower and warmer water). Some 4km to the south of the park the straggly community of ONANOLE provides additional basic services, particularly groceries and a couple of budget motels. To the west, forests give way to aspen woodlands, meadow and open grassland.
However you explore, the wildlife rather than the landscape will be the likely highlight. Dawn and dusk are the optimal viewing times and some of the best spots readily accessible: elk and a carefully tended buffalo herd graze near Lake Audy, a 45-minute drive northwest of Wasagaming; for moose, try the Moon Lake Trail, just off Hwy-10 or the nearby Boreal Trail which, though only 1km, is usually a good bet. Bears are often spotted alongside all the park highways and trails, so make plenty of noise to avoid bumping into them while hiking or biking.
Most hiking trails in or near Wasagaming are short and easy. The best is the 8km Grey Owl Trail, leading to the man’s old cabin. This trail connects with the nearest of the overnight routes, the Cowan Lake Trail, which branches off through a region of dense forest, small lakes and meadows; all the overnight trails have primitive campsites. If you have your own transport, the best trail for a half-day hike is the 6.4km Gorge Creek Trail near the East Park Gate. Dense with tree roots, this trail descends through thick woodland, continually re-crossing the tiny creek and delivering good views from the Riding Mountain escarpment along the way; the hike is frequently offered as an organized trip by the visitor centre as part of its summer events programme.
Also near the East Gate are some challenging mountain bike routes: the J.E.T. and Bald Hill trails have been developed to offer an alternative to the very gentle Wasagaming options.