Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, about 100 kilometres south of Brandon, Manitoba, has more than 200 shallow nutrient-rich lakes which has led to a high concentration of western painted turtles, which can be spotted as they bask in the sun on floating branches or skipping te water for food. The 184-square-kilometre park is also home to some of the largest oak trees in Manitoba.
The 500-kilometre Pine to Prairie Birding Trail traverses southern Manitoba, and includes 23 recognized sites favoured by specific bird species, many of them endangered. The self-guided trail, which is an extension of of the international birding trail that starts in Minnesota, includes such sites as Oak Hammock Marsh, Whiteshell Provincial Park and Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park. Expect to see the great grey owl, Connecticut warbler, spruce grouse, the black-backed woodpecker and Black Warbler. Bird enthusiasts typically drive through a range of bird habitats in a single day (boreal forest, tall grass, mixed-grass prairies and aspen-oak parkland) which ensures they will see a diversity of winged species in a single outing. Many start the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail in Buffalo Point, Manitoba, just north of the Canada-U.S. border.
Riding Mountain National Park is essentially a 3,000-square-kilometre “island” of wilderness in southwestern Manitoba. This national park is unique in that it contains three distinct ecosystems within its borders, which is rare: grasslands, upland boreal forest and eastern deciduous. This accounts for the diversity of flora and fauna that nature-lovers can find in the park: moose (about 3,000 roaming freely), elk, bison, black bears, white-tailed deer, 669 plant species, over 200 bird species. There are plenty of camping, cycling and hiking options throughout the park.
The two tallest waterfalls in Manitoba are found in Pisew Falls Provincial Park: Kwasitchewan Falls (the highest at 14 metres) and Pisew Falls (the second-highest at 13 metres). If you’re keen to go chasing waterfalls, Pisew Falls Provincial Park is 75 kilometres south of Thompson. You can visit both falls if you’re up for the 22-km return hike – ideal for anyone wishing to sleep outdoors back-country-style for a night. The near constant-mist created by Pisew Falls has resulted in the growth of mosses, lichens and fungi that reportedly date back to the Ice Age and aren’t found elsewhere in Manitoba.
Ignore the park name. You’re more apt to see white-tailed deer in Birds Hill Provincial Park which is a 25-minute drive from downtown Winnipeg. In fact, the park is home to about 450 white-tailed deer. But birders won’t be entirely disappointed: Birds Hill Provincial Park is home to songbirds, chickadees and woodpeckers, among other species.
There are heaps of reasons to visit Whiteshell Provincial Park. This 2,721-square-kilometre gem of a nature hot spot is home to Manitoba’s deepest lake and a glacier lake that gets covered over each summer in lilies. A special draw is the Alfred Hole Goose Sanctuary, which is visited by over 1,000 Canada geese during fall migration. While Whiteshell is hugely popular during camping season, it’s worth a trip in the fall to see the most iconic of Canadian nature scenes: the V-shaped flight of the Canada Geese in the sky above.
Well, 50,000 red-sided garter snakes can’t be wrong. The Narcisse Snake Dens site is an underground network of caverns and crevasses in the limestone (which provide warmth during the winter season) in Narcisse, about a 90-minute drive north of Winnipeg. Visitors can view the snakes (from designated viewing platforms during the spring mating season when the snakes emerge from their winter dens to mate, and then again in late-summer to early fall when the garter snakes return en masse to the warmth of their underground homes as the cold weather arrives. You cannot enter the snake dens. The garter snakes, while harmless, can get agitated. Of course, where there are snakes there are also birds of prey (hawks, eagles), as well as raccoons and bears who are known to feed upon the slithery creatures.
Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world, largely because it’s the biggest denning area for bears. Many visitors head to this northern outpost specifically to see mama bears and their cubs. This sub-Arctic region is also popular for whale-watching: 50,000 belugas congregate on the shores of Hudson Bay from June to September. The other big draw: Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. Northern Lights. Churchill Wild runs a handful of lodges on a seasonal basis where visitors can view polar bears on a walking safari or from the safety of a tundra buggy.
Manitobans voted Clearwater Lake Provincial Park the best provincial park largely because of the crystalline, circulator lake which covers half of the 593-square-kilometre park. There are also dolomite caves on the southern shore of Clearwater Lake, which is almost 39-metres deep in places.
The Lake Audy Bison Enclosure, while located within Riding Mountain National Park, merits a mention on its own. It’s home to one of Canada’s few remaining herds of bison, which once numbered 30 million before industrialization, the fur trade, human settlement and human-wrought disease wiped them out. The herd of 40 roams freely within a 500-hectare fenced-in area that can only be toured by vehicle. Bonus: listen for the bugle-like calls of the elk late in the day.
For another 100 nature hot spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, get the entire 110 nature hot spots in “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan: The Best Parks, Conservation Areas and Wild Places,” by Jennifer Smith Nelson and Doug O’Neill https://www.amazon.com/110-Nature-Spots-Manitoba-Saskatchewan/dp/0228101697