Road Trip: Manitoba, Canada
The region's richest farm country provides the backdrop for rolling prairie hills and river valleys.
This bucolic ramble among the rolling prairie hills, highlands, and river valleys of western Manitoba loops through the heart of the region's richest farm country.
The main attraction of this relaxing prairie drive is the sense of infinite space, with rolling farmlands stretching to the horizon beneath the vast blue dome of sky. Museums here tend to emphasize turn-of-the-century rural life, with a special reverence for the grand steam-powered tractors and other complex farm gadgetry that signaled the arrival of the industrial age. But there are some surprises, such as a Cretaceous marine reptile museum and the International Peace Park, marking Canada's border with the United States with a swath of flowers.
Start in Brandon
The route starts in Brandon (Visitor Center, tel. 1 204 729 2141 or 888 799 1111), a once booming 1880s railroad hub, now a major agricultural center and university town along the Assiniboine River. Trains and grain built the city's attractive downtown area, but airplanes and fighter pilots kept Brandon jumping during World War II. For a glimpse of how crews prepared for combat, drop by the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum (at the airport, tel. 1 204 727 2444; fee), which displays restored vintage aircraft as well as bomb sights, machine guns, radar scopes, radios, parachutes, staff cars, and an extensive archive.
West of Brandon, visit the Stott Site (Grand Valley Provincial Recreation Park, tel. 1 204 726 0894), a bison-kill area where prehistoric hunters drove the beasts into an enclosure made of brush (now reconstructed).
North of Brandon, and a bit hard to find, the Chapman Museum (five miles/eight kilometers north on Rte. 270, then west four miles (six kilometers) on gravel road; tel. 1 204 728 7396; donation) recalls the region's pioneer days in 16 old-timey buildings stacked to the rafters with cream separators, kitchen gadgets, tools, toys, and other neat stuff.
Riding Mountain National Park
Follow Highway 10 north over a boundless prairie landscape that eventually tilts up toward the highlands of Riding Mountain National Park (tel. 1 204 848 7275; www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/mb/riding/index_E.asp; fee). Part of the Manitoba escarpment, this varied and rambling preserve offers loads of trails, beaches, and a chance to see black bears, bison, moose, elk, deer, and wolves. Get your bearings at the park's Visitor Center (tel. 1 204 848 7249) in the woodsy resort hamlet of Wasagaming on the southeast shore of spring-fed Clear Lake. For a quick overview of the park's geology, climate, and vegetation, follow Highway 10 around the lake and north to the short Boreal Island loop trail. Farther north, climb Agassiz Tower and gaze across the plains. Returning south, take Lake Audy Road to the Bison Enclosure, where about 30 plains bison graze, ruminate, and roll in the wildflowers. At Lake Katherine (just east of Clear Lake), enjoy the drums, dancing, and traditional native foods offered by Anishinabe Camp and Cultural Tours (off Hwy. 19; tel. 1 204 925 2030; fee).
South of Riding Mountain National Park, Highway 45 leads west to Sandy Lake, a small farm town with two lovely Ukrainian churches: one Orthodox, one Catholic, each capped by silver onion domes and lavishly decorated inside.
Retrace the drive south on Highway 10 through Brandon and detour west to the old railroad and farming community of Souris. Poke around the Hillcrest Museum (26 Crescent Ave. E.; tel. 1 204 483 2008; fee), a creaking 1910 mansion stuffed with antiques, memorabilia, and over 5,100 mounted butterflies and moths. The nearby 582-foot (117-meter) Souris Swinging Bridge, Canada's longest simple, single-span suspension bridge, bestrides the Souris River with planks just wide enough for two adults to stroll along hand in hand.
Turtle Mountain Provincial Park
Farther south along Highway 10, kick back at Turtle Mountain Provincial Park (tel. 1 204 945 6784 or 800 214 7497; www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks/western/turtle.html; fee), a wooded highland of gently rolling hills. Dotted with more than 200 small lakes, this oasis of shaded footpaths, bike trails, and beaches offers a welcome break from the prairies and a chance to see moose, white-tailed deer, and loons.
International Peace Garden
Just south, stroll among regimented beds of pansies, peonies, and daffodils at the International Peace Garden (tel. 1 204 534 2510 or 888 432 6733; www.peacegarden.com; fee during peak bloom, mid-May–mid-Sept.), which straddles the border between Canada and the United States and celebrates generations of friendship between the nations. Every year gardeners plant roughly 150,000 annuals along an extensive promenade of brick walkways, low walls, fountains, ponds, towers, and reflecting pools.
Pembina River Valley
Backtrack to Highway 3 and drive east through the Pembina River Valley. This course skirts the route taken by the International Boundary Commission in 1872-73, and by the North West Mounted Police as they headed for Alberta in 1874. In Cartwright, visit the Blacksmith Shop Museum (Bowles and N. Railway Sts.; tel. 1 204 529 2363—call ahead) and imagine earning your keep on the lineshaft, a menacing contraption composed of large pulleys and great flapping belts that power a drill press, trip-hammer, and grinding wheels.
Continue east to Morden (Chamber of Commerce, tel. 1 204 822 5630), an 1880s railroad town with architecture of the period. Amble through the shaded lanes and extensive plantings of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre (1st and Stephen Sts.; tel. 1 204 822 4471). Then head for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (Recreation Centre, 2nd and Gilmour Sts.; tel. 1 204 822 3406; fee) to gape at the startling eye socket in the mosasaur skull and 43-foot (13-meter) spine of the huge marine lizard that swam nearby during the Cretaceous period. The museum also displays Cretaceous fossils of fish, a turtle, a large flattened squid, various pelvises, flippers, and teeth.
Pembina Threshermen's Museum
- Nat Geo Expeditions
East of Morden, the Pembina Threshermen's Museum (Hwy. 3.; tel. 1 204 325 7497; fee) lovingly maintains a large collection of steam-powered farm machinery—tractors, threshers, feed cutters—as well as early gas-powered tractors, miniature steam locomotives, and a vast array of implements for barn and household. The grounds also include a few old houses, a lovely 1905 train depot, a sawmill, and a church.
More Prairie Museums
Head north to catch Trans-Canada 1 back to Brandon. Near Portage la Prairie, the Fort la Reine Museum and Pioneer Village (Jct. of Hwys. 1A and 26; tel. 1 204 857 3259; fee) is worth a stop just to cringe at the Frankensteinian hair curler and the X-ray shoefitter. West, near Austin, the Manitoba Agricultural Museum (Hwy. 34S.; tel. 1 204 637 2354; fee) shows off its large collection of operating vintage farm machinery as well as a Homesteader's Village depicting rural life in late 19th-century Manitoba.
Spruce Woods Provincial Park
Finally, head for Spruce Woods Provincial Park (Hwy. 5 12.5 miles/20.1 kilometers south of Trans-Canada 1; tel. 1 204 834 3223; www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/popular_parks/western/spruce.html; fee), an intimate landscape of woods, marsh, and open meadows full of long grass and willowy prairie wildflowers. Of particular interest are the Spirit Sands, 1.5 square miles (3.9 square kilometers) of open sand buffeted into dunes by the wind and slowly succumbing to the advance of grasses, shrubs, and trees. This tiny spot is part of a vast sand delta deposited by the Assiniboine River at the end of the last ice age. The rest of the delta, which covered 2,500 square miles (6,475 square kilometers), now lies under a rich layer of vegetation. Venture out into the sand on foot, or ride in a horse-drawn wagon (fee).
May to October is the ideal time to drive this 525-mile (845-kilometer) route. Allow two to three days to complete the drive. For general Manitoba travel information, see www.travelmanitoba.com. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Thomas Schmidt, adapted from National Geographic's Guides to America: Canada