View from the Height-of-Land tower in Prince Albert National Park (photo: Robin and Arlene Karpan)

Leaf Out: Fall Colours in Saskatchewan

By Robin and Arlene Karpan

The road narrows as we drive up a moraine formed by retreating glaciers. Travelling through thick forest on our ascent, we suddenly reach a high ridge, perfect for gazing over Narrow Hills Provincial Park’s sweeping expanse of forest. Splashes of gold birch and aspen leaves pop against a sea of green from spruce and pine trees. Early morning fog clings to valley wetlands, while just below us the shoreline of the aptly named Grace Lakes winds in sinuous curves.

Best of all: We have this entire magical scene all to ourselves.

Fall is perhaps the best time to explore Saskatchewan. The weather is still nice, summer crowds (and mosquitoes) have retreated and a riot of colour floods the land. The tremendous diversity of our landscape—from vast boreal forest and aspen parkland to prairie river valleys and grassland coulees—truly dazzles.

While any of the northern parks are good places to start, Narrow Hills is special because of its exceptional vantage points. Chief among these is Narrow Hills Scenic Drive, running from the park’s core at Lower Fishing Lake to the Grace Lakes. Before modern roads reached these parts, people living in the northern grain belt followed this route to the lakelands. 

Other Narrow Hills must-sees are the Gem Lakes off Highway 913. Named for gemstones, Jade, Opal, Diamond, Pearl and Sapphire lakes are deep, clear bodies
of water that reflect the blue sky and changing hues of surrounding trees. The 5.5 kilometres of hiking trails lead to photogenic viewpoints like the high path between Jade and Diamond lakes.

No fall-colour tour is complete without a visit to Prince Albert National Park. Sitting almost smack-dab in the centre of Saskatchewan, the park preserves a transition zone between the aspen parkland and boreal forest, with fescue grasslands and waterways. Enter from the south gate along Highway 263, where the high concentration of deciduous trees flaunt their autumn coats, and the hilly road serves up a series of photo ops.

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An autumn paddle on Baldy Lake in Narrow Hills Provincial Park (photo: Robin and Arlene Karpan)

Spruce River Highlands Trail is the ideal walk in the park, with sweeping views over the Spruce River Valley and Anglin Lake in the distance. If you’re not up to walking the entire 8.5-kilometre route, it’s an easy 10-minute stroll to the viewing tower.

Back on the ground, boardwalks cross wet, boggy terrain on the Boundary Bog Trail. Moisture-loving tamaracks dominate here, but unlike other conifers, they turn deep gold before dropping their soft needles. Combine this with orange-tinged plants on the bog’s edge, and we enjoy a fall show like no other.

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Fancy more orange red leaves in your leafy displays? Head east where mountain maples thrive. Duck Mountain Provincial Park, especially the southern region around Little Boggy Creek, is a choice area for this brilliant red-leaved tree. Be on the lookout for mountain maples along Highway 9 in the Pasquia Hills.

A Saskatchewan colour quest goes well beyond forests. Prairie river valleys deliver a spectacle. Anywhere along the South Saskatchewan River Valley is worth a look. Try the easily accessible stretches around Batoche and St. Laurent Ferry, or next to the Estuary Ferry near the Alberta border, where river and rolling hills provide a backdrop to groves of cottonwoods.

For the ultimate fall drive, it’s tough to top the Qu’Appelle Valley. Grassy slopes covered in little bluestem grass turn shades of crimson, while golden aspens meld with evergreens. Take the short drive northwest of Regina to Craven, then follow the delightful winding road east of the village on the south side of the Qu’Appelle Valley.

Be sure to stop at Hidden Valley to hike the scenic hills and coulees. Nature Regina owns this special piece of land, with the sole purpose of preserving its natural state. Only a few minutes farther east along the road stands the quintessential country church, St. Nicholas, looking its finest nestled against brilliant valley slopes.

To see just how magnificent fall can be without a lot of trees, wander the prairie coulees of Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park. Spots such as Brunyee Coulee, reached by the road running straight west of the park visitor centre, become a kaleidoscope with changing shrubs, grasses and marsh plants.

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In a class by themselves, the Cypress Hills are an enchanting blend of open grasslands, mixed-wood forest and highlands. In autumn, the mix of vegetation and hilly terrain makes for drop-dead gorgeous views. Prime spots include the Lookout Point and Bald Butte in the Centre Block of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

In the West Block, get a bird’s-eye view by driving or walking up the steep South Benson Road. Or hike the Trans Canada Trail to the Hidden Conglomerate Cliffs for stunning views of Battle Creek Valley.

fall colours in saskatchewan qu'appelle valley church
St. Nicholas Anglican Church in the Qu’Appelle Valley (photo: Robin and Arlene Karpan)

COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHY
How to get great, vibrant pics throughout the season and across the province.

Know when to go: For northern forest, the last two weeks in September are prime viewing times. Cypress Hills and other southern parks could have attractive displays up to Thanksgiving.

For panoramas: Aim for a sunny day, but wait for the best light when the sun is low in the sky; shortly after sunrise or just before sunset.

Embrace grey skies: Cloudy conditions are perfect for shooting close-ups or snapshots under the forest canopy. Clouds soften the light, eliminating shadows, which makes it easier to capture subtle tones.

Bigger isn’t better: Try some intimate setups, like individual leaves or small shrubs, which can be every bit as dazzling as towering trees.

Look down: The pattern of fallen leaves on the ground may be as impressive as leaves on the trees. From viewing towers, try shooting down for a unique take.

GETTING THERE
Give yourself about six hours to drive from Edmonton to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (or 7.5 hours from Calgary). Much of the journey takes you through smaller prairie towns. Consider upgrading to a Plus or higher membership, which allows for extended towing distances, free passport photos, free fuel and deliver and even-more trip collision reimbursement. And don’t forget you can pay for your membership monthly for as little as $9 a month.

HOW TO SAVE
Pump more money into your wallet with a prepaid reloadable Esso Card. Use it for gas and goodies at Esso service stations across Canada. Pick up a card at any AMA centre to earn 2 percent back in reward dollars on the purchase amount. Plus, earn 2 percent every time you reload the card in-centre, online or set up Automatic Reload—we’ll maintain your card’s balance as you use it. All you need is a credit card and we’ll make sure your savings never run out of gas.