Cypress Hills - Alberta & Saskatchewan | Dark-Sky Preserve

Photos: Tourism Saskatchewan - Paul Austring

Cypress Hills Dark-Sky Preserve was designated in 2004, in partnership with Parks Canada, Alberta Parks, and Saskatchewan Parks, Culture & Sport. The Preserve is located in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan and boasts some of the darkest and most easily accessible dark skies in North America. The 400-km2 Dark-Sky Preserve consists of three sections of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park-  West Block Wilderness Area and Centre Block in Saskatchewan, and the Alberta side - as well as Fort Walsh National Historic Site.

The Cypress Hills landscape extends approximately 250 km eastward across southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and is the highest point in Canada between the Rocky Mountains and the Torngat Mountains of Newfoundland and Labrador and eastern Quebec. They escaped glaciation and are known as an erosional plateau, having formed through millions of years of sedimentary deposition and subsequent erosion. The Hills feature a variety of landscapes, including montane forests, grasslands, and wetlands. The Cypress Hills are home to at least 18 species of orchids, more than anywhere else in the prairies, as well over 220 species of birds, 47 species of mammals, and several species of reptiles and amphibians.

Humans have inhabited the Cypress Hills for over 8500 years. Since the 1870's, the area has been the site of whiskey trading, ranching, forestry, and recreational activities. In response to the whiskey trade, the Northwest Mounted Police established Fort Walsh outpost in 1875. It is now maintained as Fort Walsh National Historic Site. Protection of the hills began with the creation of federal forest reserves in the early 1900's and was strengthened with the creation of provincial parks in the 1930’s in Saskatchewan and 1950's in Alberta. In 1989, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park was created. It is Canada’s only interprovincial park. 

The Dark-Sky Preserve offers superb observing conditions, with very dark skies and a sparse regional population. This area experiences some of the most reliably cloudless nighttime skies in Canada, with a nighttime cloud cover of less than 60% in April and May, and less than 30% during the summer. In the Alberta portion, there is some minor sky glow at the northwestern edge of the park from the Elkwater townsite (inside the park) and the city of Medicine Hat (65 km northwest). The West Block Wilderness Area is the darkest section of the park. There is some sky glow in the Centre Block from cottage and hotel development. Overall, the sky brightness over most of the Dark-Sky Preserve is about 21.8 mag/arcsecond2.

One of the main viewing areas in the interprovincial park is in the Centre Block at the Observatory, offering public programming spring through fall. Night sky programming also extends into the winter months with cultural stories of the constellations and cool astronomy facts around a campfire. Other popular areas are the south-facing hills and plateaus on the Alberta side and at Fort Walsh, and remote campsites in the West Block Wilderness Area. In addition to the dark-sky interpretive programs, the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party is held at Meadows Campground every August by the Saskatoon and Regina Centres of the RASC.

The Alberta portion of the park offers 12 campgrounds, 8 comfort camping sites, and 5 group camping areas. Amenities include dump stations, showers, washrooms, electric hookups, picnic shelters, and playgrounds. Visitors can reserve a campsite through the Alberta Parks website. The Elkwater townsite offers a general store, fuel, accommodations, and the park’s Visitor Centre. A wider range of services can be found in Medicine Hat (65 km). The West Block Wilderness Area offers three rustic campgrounds, one of which is an equestrian campground. Sites have picnic tables, barbecues, garbage cans, and outhouses. The Centre Block offers several campgrounds, including group camping areas, Camp Easy tents and barrier-free sites. Amenities include firewood, playgrounds, picnic areas, and showers. There is also a convenience store, restaurants, resort complex, leisure pool, zipline, golf course, horse riding academy and Visitor Centre. Visit the Saskatchewan Parks reservation site to book a campsite in the West Block Wilderness Area or Centre Block. More services are available in Maple Creek (31 km). Fort Walsh National Historic Site conducts daily tours of the reconstructed Northwest Mounted Police fort and Metis cabins. There is a Visitor Centre, canteen, washrooms, walking trails and picnic areas. This is a day use site only. There are no overnight accommodations or fuel.

The Dark-Sky Preserve is accessible from the TransCanada Highway. In Alberta, follow Highway 41 south from the TransCanada Highway (the junction is 30 km east of Medicine Hat, AB and just west of Irvine, AB) for 35 km to Elkwater. In Saskatchewan, turn south onto Highway 21 towards Maple Creek and drive 39 km to Highway 221, then head west into the Centre Block. Highways 21 and 41 also extend from the US border to the park.


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2018 Video Profile by Travel Alberta
Last modified: 
Tuesday, February 14, 2023 - 11:37pm