North Past Will­more Wilder­ness Park (Al­berta)

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents - Story by James Stoness

Thou­sands of trav­ellers have driven the Ice­field High­way through Banff and Jasper Na­tional Parks. How­ever, only a few take the time for the scenic drive from Hin­ton to Grande Prairie, Al­berta.

This por­tion of Alb-40, of­ten called the Bighorn High­way, starts off at Hin­ton, a few kilo­me­tres east of the bound­ary of Jasper Na­tional Park (NP). As you leave Hin­ton, you will cross the Athabasca River and climb up­ward into the hills.

In 21 km you will en­ter Wil­liam Switzer Pro­vin­cial Park, a park with spec­tac­u­lar scenery and invit­ing places to camp. The park en­com­passes a chain of small quiet lakes, which act as an­chor points for the camp­grounds. In the park, there are op­por­tu­ni­ties for fish­ing,

swim­ming and ca­noe­ing. Jarvis Creek, which con­nects them, is used for dif­fer­ent kinds of ca­noe routes. The four kilo­me­tre in­ter­pre­tive route is great for be­gin­ners and chil­dren. A longer trip goes from Jarvis Lake to Gregg Lake and is more dif­fi­cult. All of the lakes have pike and white­fish, and Jarvis Creek is stocked with brown trout each year. Gregg Lake has sev­eral sites both ser­viced and not ser­viced. Many peo­ple en­joy the op­por­tu­nity to hike along in­ter­pre­tive trails and some of the longer trails will pro­vide for a good work­out.

As you head north­west after leav­ing this park, you will see the huge moun­tains in Will­more Wilder­ness Park. Sev­eral of the moun­tains to the west are quite grandiose, and may have snow on the peaks. This range is an ex­ten­sion of the range seen in Jasper NP. It’s dif­fi­cult to pro­tect all the scenic moun­tains, but the moun­tains north of Jasper NP should be in­cluded in that park. Some of it is pro­tected in the Will­more Wilder­ness Area, but it would be more sat­is­fy­ing to see it be­come part of the Na­tional Park sys­tem.

Th­ese moun­tains have been art­fully

carved by an­cient glaciers, leav­ing sharp crests and deep val­leys. Cold rivers flow down in rag­ing tor­rents through thick forests on the way to the sea. Three en­try points are ac­cessed from Alb-40 - Rock Lake, Big Ber­land, and Sul­phur Gates, which is at Grande Cache.

The Rock Lake area of­fers camp­ing, back­coun­try hik­ing, and boat­ing. At Big Ber­land, there are fa­cil­i­ties for camp­ing, fish­ing and horse­back rid­ing. The Sul­phur Gates Pro­vin­cial Recre­ation Area bor­ders the Will­more Wilder­ness area. It pro­vides camp­ing, hik­ing and is the area where peo­ple col­lect be­fore go­ing into the park on foot or on horse. A walk­ing trail takes cam­pers to a point for awe-in­spir­ing views of the Sul­phur River Canyon. The ver­ti­cally lifted lay­ers of bedrock pinch the river at this point and make it an im­por­tant at­trac­tion. RV’ers should check ahead to see if their size of RV is per­mit­ted.

You fol­low the east edge of Will­more Wilder­ness Park as you head to Grande Cache. Al­though the high­way tends to fol­low the val­leys and open ar­eas, it can still be quite twisty with sev­eral long hills. It’s not too se­vere when you con­sider the old rail­way line par­al­lels the high­way much of the way. Past Muskeg River the high­way trav­els along the river with high hills pro­vid­ing a scenic back­drop to the road on both sides. Three lakes lay nes­tled in the val­ley feed­ing the Muskeg River. Then there is a steep climb into Grande Cache, a town that is built into the moun­tain­top.

The Grande Cache Mu­nic­i­pal Camp­ground is a com­fort­ing place to stay, with easy ac­cess. There are full ser­vice sites and large lots sur­rounded by big trees. Laun­dry fa­cil­i­ties are avail­able, as well as a play­ground and cookhouse.

en­joyed a re­lax­ing sun­set vis­i­ble through the trees of the camp­ground, and later a ra­di­ant moon flooded the camp­sites with its soft light. We en­joyed the quiet at­mos­phere of this camp­ground. If you wish, when you are camp­ing there, it’s a short drive back to those lakes at the bot­tom of the hill, to park your ve­hi­cle and record some mem­o­ries with your cam­era.

When you leave head­ing north, you en­counter the Big Hill and de­scend. It lives up to its name, es­pe­cially if you are com­ing the other way and have to climb it. At the bot­tom is a sub­stan­tial curve. After that you will travel along the Smoky River Val­ley with cliffs to one side for a long dis­tance. This part of the high­way is es­sen­tially level, with oc­ca­sional drops into val­leys to cross small rivers. Ex­pect 7% grades down­hill and up­hill from th­ese val­leys. Views are good from the tops of the hills. It’s a fairly pleas­ant drive, sur­rounded by forests and up­lift­ing moun­tain views, with the ex­cep­tion that clearcut tim­ber har­vest­ing scars many of the moun­tain­sides. Some peo­ple use this route for head­ing to Daw­son Creek and points north.

There are sev­eral camp­sites listed along this route, but some are prim­i­tive and not suit­able for larger RVs. We’ve en­joyed this drive three times, but you do have to be pre­pared for long hills, and some truck traf­fic.

Cache Creek.

Moun­tains along AB-40

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