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Explore Manitoba’s parks off-season

If you’re one of those who can’t manage a holiday during the busy summer and fall seasons, don’t be afraid to take off-season drives or holidays around our province. Hotels usually have plenty of space available and may even offer special off-season deals; it’s often possible to make last-minute bookings. You can watch the forecast and book a room if the weather looks good — or stay home, if it doesn’t.

Or, if you only have time for day trips, Manitoba’s parks offer a good place to visit just before winter really sets in. Last year in November my husband and I spent a few days in Riding Mountain National Park. There were about two inches of snow in the south part of the park, not enough to stop hikers, so we were able to take walks on some of the trails — out to Kinosao Lake and along the shores of Clear Lake. Farther north in the park, more snow had fallen and we did manage a little cross-country skiing there, although trails hadn’t been set yet. The smaller ponds and lakes had frozen, but Clear Lake was still open. If you’re lucky, as we were, there may be some early-morning hoarfrost to add to the beauty of partially frozen lakes. We also stopped at the wishing well at the east end of the lake, a scenic spot at any time of the year.

The scenery alone can be worth a trip. Even the browns of November are beautiful, especially if you add a few green spruce trees or a little fresh snow to the view. In early November there may still be golden needles on the tamaracks. Last November, the stark beauty left by the previous summer’s fire in the southeastern section of the park contrasted with the fresh snow that had just fallen.

Autumn is also a good time to watch for wildlife. By November the bears will be hibernating, but whitetail deer, moose, elk and coyotes are still around. If there’s a little snow, you can examine the trails and open sections for tracks. Drive slowly and watch for animals crossing the road. You might be rewarded by the sight of a moose or elk, or perhaps a herd of deer in one of the open areas. Blue jays, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks and redpolls add a spot of colour to the stark landscape at this time of year.

If you like to explore some place new, check out a different section of Riding Mountain. Take a drive through the park to Lake Audy to see the bison, or drive along Highway No. 19. A region we sometimes explore is the “Rolling River Road” east of Onanole. This road connects with Highway No. 19, so you can start from either end. (Check a Riding Mountain Park map, or a copy of Manitoba Backroad Mapbook.) The section near Highway 19 was a stark “black on white” where the summer’s fire had burned.

Manitoba’s provincial parks are other good spots to visit in the off-season, although in hunting season you may want to avoid walking there, except in the built-up areas near the campgrounds — or if you do, then wear hunters’ orange clothing. But once hunting season is past, you can walk anywhere if — like last autumn — there’s not much snow. Last year it was possible to hike on the park trails even into December.

We took a day hike in Spruce Woods Provincial Park the last weekend before Christmas, out to the Punch Bowl, and back via the Spirit Sands, and we weren’t the only hikers taking advantage of the fine conditions. We didn’t see any animals except squirrels, but the scattering of snow added to the beauty of the brown, grey and tan-coloured landscape.

Birds Hill Park and Beaudry Park are also good for late-autumn/early-winter hikes. Both are near Winnipeg, so are more likely to have hiking trails that have been travelled by others. If you just want to enjoy a drive, Birds Hill is excellent for that.

Don’t get trapped into believing that holidays must only be taken in summer or in winter. Off-season trips can be just as relaxing and scenic.

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