Visitors to Riding Mountain National Park often spend most of their time in the Wasagaming/Clear Lake area, with perhaps part of a day at Lake Audy to see the bison. But Highway No. 19 on the east side of the park can be rewarding in several ways — stretching your muscles on the hiking and bike trails, enjoying the scenery, viewing wildlife, or checking out the historic gate at the east entrance (originally called the Norgate entrance).
Just inside the east entrance, visitors can access several trails for hiking and mountain biking. The shortest and easiest is the Burls and Bittersweet Trail, not far from the warden’s station. Just over two km long, it is relatively flat and has informative signs describing types of vegetation and birds common in the area. This would make a good hike for families with young children. The swinging bridge across the creek will be a sure hit with most youngsters, and squirrels are often sighted. Some years this trail might have wet spots in spring, but not this year when my husband and I hiked there in May.
Watch, especially, for the features that give this trail its name. The burls — deformed tree growths on the trunk of a tree — are very noticeable. A burl is an odd bulbous outgrowth that has grown in a deformed manner. It is caused by the tree undergoing some sort of stress such as a virus, fungus, injury or insect infestation. The bittersweet, not quite so noticeable, is a perennial vine that twines its way up trees, up to five or six metres tall. In late spring they have yellowish-green flowers but later these change into orange-yellow capsules. By fall, these open to display bright-red berries.
A longer, more challenging hike, the Reeve’s Ravine Trail, begins at the same parking lot. It is much more strenuous, covering an 11.5-km loop and including a rise of 165 metres in elevation up to Bald Hill. This trail was opened in 2013 in partnership with the Manitoba Trail Escarpment Society. Mountain bikers will find it an adventurous trip, too, but it is usually recommended that they start from the top, using the North Escarpment and Bald Hill Trails. Bald Hill lives up to its name; it is a rocky, narrow ridge with a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and forests, and the plain below. Be sure you’re well equipped to hike this trail.
Another moderate to difficult hike is the Gorge Creek Trail, which can be started from either the top or the bottom. Energetic hikers might hike both ways, but many prefer to go with others, take two vehicles, leave one in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill, and then drive to the top with the second. This way, most of the route is downhill, although there are still some uphill sections. Good boots are needed, and watch out for plentiful poison ivy (“Leaves of three, let them be!”). One hiker suggests stashing a bicycle at the top parking lot, driving to the bottom, hiking up and then biking down the road (an hour or two walking up, and 10 minutes biking down). Summer is a good time for this trail, and fall can be spectacular.
If all these hikes sound too strenuous for you, the scenery and chance to see wildlife along Highway No. 19 make it an enjoyable drive without exercise. On a recent trip there we saw two bears with cubs, as well as a couple of moose. Drive slowly past swampy areas to watch for moose or other animals. Early morning or evening drives are often rewarded with wildlife viewing.
The drive up or down the escarpment is worthwhile, as the road switchbacks back and forth up the steep rise. At the top, be sure to stop at the small viewing tower to look down the escarpment to the flat plain below, stretching away to the east. At the bottom, stop to examine the East Gate Complex. Classed as a National Historic Site of Canada, this impressive gate consists of two log and stone pavilions, one on each side of the road, each topped by a cupola.
If you arrive at the park from the east via Highway No. 5 and PTH 19, the Complex is the entrance to RMNP. If you start your drive in Wasagaming, turn off onto No. 19 on the east side of the golf course. From either direction, the east side of RMNP is worth a visit.