North Past Willmore Wilderness Park (Alberta)
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.
Mountains along AB-40