Penner: Get off-the-beaten path in park playgrounds

A beautiful snow-white mountain goat in Sheep River Provincial Park. Courtesy, Andrew Penner Calgary

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Approximately two hours into my hike I see him (I think it’s a him because he has horns) and slowly inch my way along the slope to get into position for a clear shooting angle. And, when I say “shooting,” I don’t mean shooting. I mean photographing. The snow-white mountain goat, one of the largest I’ve ever seen, seems perfectly content posing for me. Maybe he doesn’t even see me. I don’t know. But in the complete solitude of this remote, high-mountain pass, I photograph this beautiful animal from a variety of angles. And for 10 minutes, or so, this exposed, rocky slope in Sheep River Provincial Park is my perfect, picture-making playground.

Well, to be honest, Sheep River Provincial Park, located approximately half an hour straight west of Turner Valley, has been a preferred playground for me for a couple of decades. Due to its peaceful, away-from-it-all aura, its beauty, and the fact that not nearly as many people seem to frequent this park (when compared to Banff, Jasper, and so on), I simply love it. It’s my speed.

For the record, I don’t mind Banff National Park at all. Or, really, any other “busy” park out there. I just try and pick my spots a little when choosing to visit them. To me, a park experience shouldn’t be about a traffic jam! (For example, there are other places besides Larch Valley to see the golden larches in the fall.)

For me, a park experience is about getting “out there.” Doing it alone if need be. Getting a wilderness “fix.” Avoiding the masses. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t always need to pretend I’m Survivorman and make fish hooks from beer cans, eat bark, or start a life-saving fire with my camera lens. But, like you, often I just have a need to get out of the city for a bit. Stretch the legs. Give the kids a “play date” with Mother Nature. Skip stones by a creek. Have a picnic with my wife. That kind of thing.

And, while Sheep River Provincial Park is one of my favourite places for all of that, there are many other provincial parks within a short drive from Calgary that fit the bill in terms of their under-the-radar ways. So, if you’re tired of the crowds — or the prices or the been-there-done-that “stuff” of all the popular parks — maybe try something different next time. Here are a few of the other less-travelled parks I like to visit.

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park has a beautiful trail system for walking and cycling. Courtesy, Andrew Penner Calgary

Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park — True, Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park, which is located in between Cochrane and Calgary just off Crowchild Trail, will not give you a remote, wilderness experience. But this relatively new park (thanks to a generous land donation by the Harvie family, it was designated a provincial park in 2008) is a pristine place to visit for a number of reasons. The trail system is beautiful and the views — of the Bow River Valley, the Rockies, and acres of idyllic Alberta ranchland — are exceptional. And every time I’ve visited, the small parking lot has had plenty of space.

Nicholas, Nelson, and Aemon Penner on a winter hike at Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. Courtesy, Andrew Penner Calgary

Big Hill Springs Provincial Park — Situated between Cochrane and Airdrie just off Highway 567, Big Hill Springs has an atmosphere unlike any other park I know. Walking along the spring-fed creek, with its rare flora and fauna, can be magical. It’s also exquisite after a fresh snowfall or in spring when the wildflowers are blooming. And on my last visit (with my kids in December), there was nobody else in the parking lot.

Brown-Lowery Provincial Park — Just a few minutes southwest of Priddis on Plummers Road, Brown-Lowery Provincial Park is another great place for a morning (or afternoon!) stroll if you want a quick trip out of the city in a very peaceful place. Hikers can enjoy 12 kilometres of scenic trails and a number of nice loop options that can take anywhere from one to four hours. The hiking is suitable for virtually everyone and the lookouts serve up stunning Rocky Mountain views.

Located approximately two hours south of Calgary, the Bob Creek Wildland is a beautiful wilderness area to explore. Courtesy, Andrew Penner Calgary

Bob Creek Wildland Provincial Park — Strolling along the wind-blasted ridgelines in Bob Creek Wildland can be a surreal experience. Peppered with ancient limber pines, their gnarled and twisted branches a potent testament to the harsh environment of this rare montane ecosystem, this area (many people simply refer to it as “The Whaleback”) is ripe for exploration and adventure. While I’ve gone in a couple of times on solo, multi-day trips, this wilderness area also makes for a great day trip from Calgary. Depending on where, exactly, you go (do some research and be prepared), you may not encounter another soul.

Ancient cottonwood tree in Dinosaur Provincial Park in the Red Deer River valley. Courtesy, Mike Drew Mike Drew / Mike Drew/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

Dinosaur Provincial Park — Somewhat overshadowed by the “famous” parks to the west, the beautiful badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park don’t get their due. True, in summer this park can get fairly busy (the campgrounds are fantastic), but in winter and the shoulder seasons, Dinosaur Provincial Park can be about as peaceful and quiet as it gets. From exploring and photographing the ancient hoodoos to enjoying the self-guided trails (guided hikes are available in the summer), this an excellent park that kids, especially, seem to love.

Without a doubt, Alberta is blessed with a beautiful collection of parks to explore. And, of course, our world-renowned national parks are about as impressive as it gets. My simple challenge to you: this winter or spring make a point to visit at least one park you’ve never been to. And, you never know, you might just have it all to yourself!

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary. You can follow him on Instagram @andrewpennerphotography.

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