Manitoba: Canada’s heart is calling

When your heart needs to roam, these 10 iconic Manitoba experiences will be waiting

  • Published May 18, 2023
  • Updated May 19
  • 1,660 words
  • 7 minutes

Blame it on Farley Mowat, the grandfather of Canadian literature. His evocative descriptions of blue-tinged waterfalls, citrus-scented black spruce and the midnight-black form of a moose lurking in the willows sent me in search of his landscapes. And I didn’t have to go far from my home in the Interlake, where my family first settled two generations ago, for Manitoba’s 650,000 square kilometres promise a lifetime of adventures. Fifty years later, I’m still traveling these landscapes, still being transformed by what I see, hear, taste and touch, but mostly, by what I feel. Here are 10 experiences in the heart of Canada that offer an unparalleled rush.

  1. 1. The Caves

    Technically, they aren’t caves, but that doesn’t make these mossy crevasses in Clearwater Lake Provincial Park near The Pas any less magical. I was thoroughly mistaken when I assumed this less-than-one-kilometre self-guided hike would be quick. Nope. The Lord of the Rings-esque landscape en route to the shoreline of Clearwater Lake had me unable to peel my eyes away from the massive slabs of dolomite forced open by thousands of years of freeze-thaw cycles. Inside, I spotted rare blooms and plenty of fungi. I got down to my knees, held my phone steady and captured the dimply surface of a perfect puffball.

    Pro tip: There are plenty of lodges in which to rest your head around Clearwater Lake Provincial Park.

  2. 2. Little Limestone Lake

    The images I had seen of Little Limestone Lake seemed too good to be true, the result of a deft Photoshop hand, but as I stepped onto the shoreline, I realized that Manitoba’s true-blue lagoon is for real. It’s the world’s largest and most dramatically colour-changing marl lake. A marl is created when calcite, a kind of limestone, is triggered by heat, turning the water from turquoise to deep sea blue throughout the day. On a sunny day, your images from this spot north of Grand Rapids will resemble a Caribbean vacation. Stroll the shoreline and skip a few rocks.

    Pro tip: The drivable path—and I do mean path— from the highway to the lake is not for the faint of heart. It can be impassable after a rain. There are no services (not even an outhouse) at the lake and camping is only with advance permission from the Mosakahiken Cree Nation.

  3. 3. Waterfall Alley

    Thank the big, beautiful Grass River for Manitoba’s Waterfall Alley. It starts by making a big splash near Snow Lake at Wekusko Falls, where the 12-metre drop sends a clear, cold spray onto the walking path and a pair of suspension bridges. Up next is the crown jewel of Manitoba’s waterfalls (but not the highest!), Pisew Falls, where the boardwalk gets you up close and personal to the 13-metre falls. My favourite time to visit is early summer, when river ice is still piled high and the spring melt means an even mightier flow. For serious waterfallers, Kwasitchewan Falls is Manitoba’s highest falls. The hike in is not for the faint of foot. Boggy sections, plenty of tree roots, fallen branches and steep climbs are the norm over this nearly 30-kilometre trek.

    Pro tip: Both the Pisew and Kwasitchewan trailheads are accessible a stone’s throw from the highway, about 65 kilometres south of Thompson.

  4. 4. Paint Lake Provincial Park

    With over 80 sites and six yurts clustered on a peninsula, it’s easy to soak up the boreal beauty of Paint Lake Provincial Park. And if you really need to get away from it all, two backcountry campsites are there for the taking, no charge. This writer, however, prefers a cozy cabin at Paint Lake Lodge, a slab of ribs at the full-service restaurant and a Paint Lake iced tea on the spacious patio overlooking the eponymous lake. 

  5. 5. Boat the Big One

    There’s a point in the northern Manitoba landscape where water trumps land, and it’s here you’ll find really, really big fish. I’ve spent an afternoon on the aptly-named God’s Lake, miraculously catching and releasing six—count ‘em—six lake trout that each qualified as a Master Angler, Manitoba’s record-keeping program. At North Haven Resort on Utik Lake, I promised myself one last cast off the dock only to be really surprised when a massive northern pike—also qualifying as a Master Angler—decided she wanted a late day snack. And on the picturesque Seal River, I hooked an equally pretty Arctic grayling on a lure half the size of a Canadian dime. It’s your turn.

  6. 6. Waterway to History

    Where the mighty Nelson and Hayes rivers spill into Hudson Bay sits a single white building, glowing on the landscape. The Depot at York Factory was built in 1831 and is the oldest and largest wooden building in Canada standing on permafrost. Seeing it made me realize just how vast this province really is, for getting to York Factory National Historic Site is no easy feat. A few weeks, strong shoulders and a good canoe will do the trick, but I hitched a ride with Nelson River Adventures on a boat that takes the scenic river route. I spent an entire day immersed in the 250-year history of this remote Hudson’s Bay Company trading post.

    Pro tip: Inside the Depot, take a deep breath and you can almost smell the beaver, martin and lynx furs that were stacked three storeys high, waiting to take the voyage through Hudson Bay and across the Atlantic to an auction house in London.

  7. 7. The Manitoba Mountain

    While it’s been attracting visitors for more than a century, Riding Mountain National Park has recently become the province’s hippest vacation spot thanks to recent refreshes of my old favourites. At Wasagaming townsite (or Clear Lake, as it’s known to locals and frequent visitors) reminders of yesteryear, including log buildings that were constructed during the 1930s Depression relief work plan, rub shoulders with the most modern of accommodations, shops and dining options. Pop into T.R. McKoys, where generations of visitors have gathered inside the log-clad room. On the menu: steaming plates of penne with Italian sausage and poached salmon with coconut curry and fresh mango salsa.

    Get up close and personal with the park’s bison herd at Lake Audy. Venture down the 30-kilometre gravel road that leads to the park’s most visited residents and keep your eyes peeled for moose, bear and elk too. A drive through their pasture—safely inside your vehicle—makes for some memorable encounters, not to mention fabulous photographs.

  8. 8. Wake at the Lake

    I hear it before I see it, but one look out my cabin window at Falcon Trails Resort confirms a neon red scarlet tanager is perched on a spruce over the lake. Here in Whiteshell Provincial Park, wildlife is never far away. Share their landscapes with a paddle on Caddy Lake and through a series of low and echoing tunnels that connect three lakes. Meet up with Diane Maytwayashing, Anishinaabe knowledge keeper, for a guided walk of the sacred Whiteshell petroforms as she shares stories and teachings about the site known in Anishinaabemowin as Manidoo-Abi (“where the spirit sits”).

    And check out West Hawk Lake, an ice-cold and impossibly deep lake made by a meteor!

  9. 9. Island in the North

    The sunrise floats over the horizon as I take a final sip of a perfectly brewed latte in Seagulls Restaurant inside the Lakeview Hecla Resort. It’s a posh place, complete with a spa—but now it’s time to get outside. A slow drive through Hecla Village reveals a Manitoba landscape like no other. Tidy cottages on manicured lots devoid of trees sit far back from the pebbled lakeshore. A cluster of historic buildings—a school, community hall and church—tells the story of Icelandic settlement on the island more a century ago. From the public pier, anglers cast pickerel rigs baited with minnows hoping for the delicious walleye to bite. It’s Manitoba’s version of the Maritimes.

    Pro tip: Hecla Island sits in a channel of Lake Winnipeg that separates the vast south basin from the even larger north basin. Moose, wolves, fox and deer move around the island but Hecla is really for the birds. Grassy Narrows Marsh (just as you come off the causeway onto the island) has five trails ranging up to 10 kilometres in length that will put you within binocular distance of waterfowl species including Western grebe, red-necked grebe, eared grebe and the American white pelican. Also look for flycatchers, wrens and sparrows on your walk. You might even get lucky and catch a glimpse of a striking Blackburnian warbler like I did on my most recent trip.

  10. 10. The Best of Brandon

    When a touch of city fun beckons, Brandon offers that perfect mix of not too big and not too small. Admission to the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba is always free and offers a glimpse of the robust art scene here on the western side of the province. Don’t miss the gift shop! Take your pick from Empire Ale, Blue Hills Brew or Slam Dunk, a dark unfiltered wheat beer with hints of banana and clove at Black Wheat Brewing, one of the city’s taprooms. Get your blood pumping with a visit to the Brandon Hills Wildlife Management Area where a dozen trails invite winter hikers, birdwatchers and fat bike tire enthusiasts. Trails range from two to 7.5 kilometres through these rolling ‘blue hills’ as they are sometimes called because of the way they appear in summer from a distance. Ah, those landscapes.

  11. 11. The Something Extra

    “The Arctic fever has no effect on the body but lives only in the mind, filling its victim with a consuming urge to wander again, and forever, through those mighty spaces where the caribou herds flow like living rivers over the roll of the tundra.”

    Thanks for explaining my ailment, Farley Mowat.

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