Saskatoon to Prince Albert National Park
A writer returns to his roots in Saskatchewan's little slice of paradise.
Any arguments about declaring Prince Albert National Park as Saskatchewan’s premier vacation destination? None from me. It’s home to Grey Owl’s cabin, the Stanley Thompson-designed Waskesiu Golf Course and all that pristine wilderness and rustic charm. And just outside the gates there’s also the Elk Ridge spa and golf resort, the first in the province to deserve the adjective “posh.”
Ah, but getting there. Highway 11, on its run north from Saskatoon, can only be called frantic—in fact, with some 14,000 vehicles a day, the stretch just outside of town is rivalled by just two other legs in the province, and on summer weekends nothing else jams up quite like it. That might suit just fine if the road tripper wants to be teleported somewhere exotic—somewhere like the freeways of Los Angeles. Not so fine if the plan is to savour the scenery, click the shutter, top up the tummy and be reminded all over again why you’d make a lousy rally navigator.
Fortunately, a couple of much quieter and more interesting roads exist, one for heading up, the other for coming back. For me, there’s the advantage of reliving old times, leavened here and there with the shock of the new. I moved away from Saskatoon 23 years ago, but in the 15 years before that I packed in a lot of miles (that’s what some of us called them back then) on these roads; a half decade spent surveying, a spell reporting for a small-town newspaper, and another half decade commuting on summer weekends to a cabin at one of those sparkling northern lakes will do that. Some things, I can report, haven’t changed, including big chunks of Saskatchewan’s prettiest countryside and two of the most significant battle sites in the entire country. What’s new are the provisioning stops, where it’s now possible to indulge in some surprisingly inventive fare. And all this on the way to and back from—together, now—Saskatchewan’s premier vacation destination.
The plan is to depart Saskatoon no earlier than 11 a.m., even though the trip to Waskesiu via highways 12 and 3 and a bunch of back roads is going to take most of the day. Why? Because the Blacktop Diner’s Olive Tree Restaurant—which is, yes, a Mediterranean restaurant tucked inside a 1950s-style roadside diner—doesn’t open till noon, and scratch-made Cretian dishes like eggplant salad and tiropita are worth the delay. If you arrive a little too early, kill some time at the accompanying (and baffling) roadside attraction: two old trucks protruding from the dirt, an unintentional homage to Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
Only a few kilometres beyond the diner is the North Saskatchewan River, and, just beyond that, the Petrofka Bridge Orchard, which sells a terrific cider made from apples picked from their 2,500 apple trees, along with lots of other produce and preserves. It’s another 10 minutes or so to Tree Road, which winds back down into the river valley to both Saskatchewan’s largest tree and the Doukhobor Dugout Caves, where Russian settlers lived when first arriving here, early in the 20th century. The 160-year-old cottonwood and poplar cross, which is five metres in circumference, can be seen any time, but the dugout house is open only during Saturdays in July.
At Blaine Lake, the logical move would be to turn off Highway 12 onto Highway 40, which angles back northeast toward our destination. But we stay on Highway 12, heading north into parklands and the Thickwood Hills. The highest hills are intermittently visible maybe 30 kilometres to the west, but just off the highway at Martins Lake Regional Park, a steep ridge almost 150 metres high makes for a pretty good ski hill that’s waiting to be exploited.
Eventually, we connect with 263, the old highway up to Waskesiu, a winding road dating back to the late 1920s. The National Park architects wanted a romantic, European-style road that wended its way up the park, and that’s what they got.
They got a lot of what they wanted at PANP, and time spent at Waskesiu is the better for it, but too soon it’s time to head back. Again the plan is to leave no earlier than 11, so that lunch can be taken in Prince Albert at either Amy’s On Second or Two by Dahlsjo (the latter is run by Kevin Dahlsjo, one of Western Living‘s former 40 Foodies Under 40; call ahead to make sure it’s open). The menu at Amy’s is global and eclectic, while chef Dahlsjo concentrates on locally sourced ingredients. From Prince Albert, it’s another 30 minutes or so to St. Louis, and a right onto 782, a beautiful drive that follows the South Saskatchewan River, joining 225 for the final stretch to the Batoche National Historic Site. This was a substantial community back in 1885, when the village became the last stand of Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel and Métis forces in the decisive battle of the North-West Resistance. Only a handful of structures remain, but some of them sport the requisite bullet holes, and interpretive staff do a nice job of bringing the site to life.
The Battle of Batoche was preceded two weeks earlier by the Battle of Tourond’s Coulee/Fish Creek, which we hit 45 minutes south of Batoche by staying on 225. In this lovely spot, Dumont’s Métis dug themselves into a ravine, where they set an ambush for General Fred Middleton’s Dominion forces, inflicting casualties before regrouping. There’s less to see here, but somehow more to feel. It’s only an hour and a half or so now to Saskatoon. Even on busy Highway 11, it’s the quietest hour of the holiday. wl