All wanderers are welcome on the treasure trove of trails crisscrossing Manitoba’s prairie landscape
By Jared Clinton
Gorge Creek Trail
Riding Mountain National Park
11.6km / Easy / Out & Back Route / Pets OK
There are more than 400 kilometres of trails waiting to be traversed in Riding Mountain National Park, but none is as beloved as Gorge Creek Trail. Beginning seven kilometres inside the East Gate, the ascending trail guides hikers through thickly forested areas and up so-called “goat paths” along the Manitoba Escarpment, which was scoured out of bedrock by glaciers millennia ago. The grind of the rising elevation leads to a spectacular payoff. Moving towards the trail’s zenith, eyes will invariably be drawn to the horizon and a seemingly limitless sightline across the prairie landscape.
Spirit Sands & Devil’s Punch Bowl
Spruce Woods Prov. Park
10km / Moderate / Loop Route / Bike Trail / Pets OK
Nearly two hours west of Winnipeg, on Trans-Canada Highway and tucked south along Highway 5, rests one of the most singular outdoor experiences Manitoba has to offer. Though masquerading as a parkland hike, a journey to the Spirit Sands presents adventurers with towering sand dunes reminiscent of desert terrain. Formed by glacial meltwaters more than 15,000 years ago, the Saharan landscape is a delta of the Assiniboine River. Another wonder is found at the nearby Devil’s Punchbowl, a blue-green lake formed after underground streams collapsed and eroded hills in the surrounding area.
Willow & Deadwood Loop
3.4km / Easy / Loop Route / Bike Trail / Pets OK
Step onto the Willow & Deadwood Loop minutes southwest of Morden for an exceptional view of Lake Minnewasta. The trail can be followed down the lake’s northern bank, along Deadhorse Creek and across to the southern bank, but this particular loop circles back 200 metres past the mouth of the waterway. Head north there and turn east in the direction of the trailhead. A stroll through a denser, treed area awaits and the lake view is more obstructed, but the variety of backdrops is what makes this loop a worthwhile hike.
Assiniboine Park (Aspen to Preston Trail, Harte Trail)
5.5km / Easy / Loop Route / Bike Trail / Pets OK
Traverse the 700-acre Assiniboine Forest, one of the largest urban woodlands of its kind in Canada, on any of its six trails. Varying in length and scenery, the trails stretch more than 10 combined kilometres. Linking a handful of routes together is a surefire way to get the best out of the Assiniboine Forest. The lengthy Aspen-to-Preston trail makes use of five distinct pathways. After strolling the paved Sagimay Trail from its Grant Avenue entrance, head down the tree-lined Aspen Trail passage and across the bustling Harte Trail. Return down the forest’s eastern edge on winding Preston and Oak Ridge trails.
Seine River Greenway
Bois-des-Esprits Window Park
3.1km / Easy / Out & Back Route / Bike Trail / Pets OK
Tucked inconspicuously into Winnipeg’s Royalwood neighbourhood, this hidden gem is an urban escape like few others found throughout the city. Entrances off Shorehill Drive and John Bruce Road bookend the main route, but the secrets of Bois-des-Esprits lie off the beaten path. Trek off the wide and well-populated trail onto the wooded pathways leading to and winding along the nearby Seine River. Waterfowl, whitetail deer and other wildlife are frequent sights here, and Woody, a carved spirit elm, overlooks one clearing. Yielding to bikers on the narrow path will be necessary at times.
La Barriere Park Loop
La Barriere Park
2.9km / Easy / Loop Route / Pets OK
Any Manitoban worth their salt has traipsed alongside the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Rarer are those who’ve roamed the banks of the La Salle River. Minutes south of the Perimeter, however, La Barriere Park offers an invitation to explore the lush greenery, river view and scenic prairie in one loop. Upon entering the trail across a beautiful single-span tied-arch bridge, those with a best-for-last mentality will want to continue straight along the park’s northernmost edge where forest rises to the left and prairies stretch out to the right. It sets the stage for some home-stretch sweetness: the trail concludes with a bucolic riverside stroll.
Gull Harbour Lighthouse Trail
Hecla/Grindstone Prov. Park
5km / Easy / Out & Back Route / Bike Trail / Pets OK
Bordering the Gull Harbour inlet at the northeastern tip of Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park, the Gull Harbour Lighthouse Trail is the quintessential afternoon hike for daytrippers seeking a water view or guests bunking at Lakeview Hecla Resort. Travel along the rim of the bay from the trail’s beginning off Helgi Jones Parkway and arrive at the point on which the century-old Gull Harbour Lighthouse sits. Recognized under the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act, the eight-metre building helped support commercial industry in the early 1900s and safeguarded the area for nearly 30 years before it was replaced with a structure three times its height in 1926.
Birds Hill Prov. Park
4km / Easy / Loop Route / Pets OK
A densely forested area with hills and ridges formed by ancient glaciers, the 35-square-kilometre Birds Hill Park possesses trails for every skill and activity. Chickadee Trail is a natural starting point for any first-timer. Before reaching a wondrous aspen-oak corridor at its northern-most point, the well-shaded path intersects with lengthier Aspen and Bluestem trails for those seeking an extended hike. Make a stop at Griffiths Hill, the highest point in the area at 265 metres, and climb the viewing tower to gaze across the treetops and beyond the park.
Hunt Lake Trail
Whiteshell Prov. Park
12.7km / Hard / Out & Back Route / Pets OK
More than 100,000 lakes dot the Manitoban landscape, and few trails take hikers alongside one of the many magnificent bodies of water quite like Hunt Lake Trail. It is not a trail for the faint of heart with its substantial six-plus kilometre one-way distance and ever-changing elevations, but the scenery provides the motivation necessary to keep feet moving. Dazzling views of West Hawk Lake are a constant while scaling the sometimes-mucky and root-filled terrain. Carving out extra time to reach the summit is suggested, even if only to accommodate a dip in the cooling trail-side waters.
Whiteshell Prov. Park
4.3km / Moderate / Loop Route / Bike Trail / Pets OK
Options abound at McGillivray Falls, but those willing to roam into the wilderness of the Canadian Shield will get the best views. Located west of Caddy Lake, the two-loop trail welcomes all skill levels. The shorter loop first passes the eponymous falls before cutting through the woods to begin a return voyage. The longer trail, however, opens up to provide a lookout over McGillivray Lake and is well worth the effort. The road less travelled is a reverse course along the trail, and undertaking the backwards hike means the best views accompany the trip back to civilization.
Whiteshell Prov. Park
60km / Hard / Point to Point Route / Pets OK
A true test of mettle, the Mantario Trail was created in the 1970s and is the granddaddy of hiking experiences in Manitoba. A days-long adventure for well-practiced backpackers, the trail runs along the provincial boundary between Manitoba and Ontario with a small section crossing into neighbouring territory. See an abandoned airfield, cross backwoods train tracks and experience the boreal forest region, which hosts a variety of wildlife and wide array of tree species, including jack pine and black spruce. Only highly skilled hikers should attempt to complete this trail, which is the most difficult in the province.
Inherent in traversing trail terrain is the possibility of wildlife sightings among the province’s dense natural forests, rivers and lakes, but up-close encounters are at hand for those wishing to learn more about the creatures inhabiting the Manitoban prairie.
Natural wonders abound at FortWhyte Alive (pictured), where the largest urban bison herd in North America is found. Visitors will cross paths with the province’s iconic mammal on guided tours and watch as baby bison join the herd. Eco-tours explain this 600-plus-acre rural oasis’ history, where and how to find wild edible plants and offer insight into this amazing habitat’s features.
Travel throughout Oak Hammock Marsh on more than 30 kilometres of trails, ranging from wooden boardwalks to gravel paths. A bird-watcher’s paradise, the wetland can support nearly 300 species, including mallards, pelicans and wrens. Watchful eyes can also spot beavers, muskrats, turtles and garter snakes.
Assiniboine Park, and particularly Assiniboine Park Zoo, has the most exotic offerings. One popular stop is the polar bear exhibit, but 200 species reside here. Wander beyond the zoo and enjoy the vast and well-manicured green space. The Assiniboine Park Perimeter loop provides the most complete tour of the grounds.