Hiking in Manitoba means you never need to worry about altitude sickness. But that's not to say the province's broad, sweeping canvas is bland. Ma Nature painted in tall wild grass prairie, rolling, forested hills, undulating river valleys, vast wetlands and the occasional view-encompassing escarpment. For even more variety, she sketched in innumerable lakes and rivers dotted with granite and limestone outcroppings, set among deep deciduous and evergreen forests.
Distance: 66 km (3 to 5 days, or day hike up to 6 hours)
The longest Canadian Shield trail in Western Canada, the Mantario runs 66 kilometres south to north along the Manitoba-Ontario border in Whiteshell Provincial Park. It's a tough go, one that takes experienced backpackers three to five days, but the trail's wild beauty is well worth experiencing even if it's just a day hike along the first leg. From the south trailhead on Provincial Road 312 near Caddy Lake, day trippers cross rugged aspen, Jack pine and spruce-forested valleys, the Whiteshell River (by footbridge) and two sets of railway tracks-carefully, as both are still in use.
Spirit Sands & the Devil's Punchbowl
Distance: 4 to 11 km (1.5 to 4.5 hours)
Two hours west of Winnipeg, Spruce Woods Provincial Park's pine forest and boreal woods blend with grassy hills and the meandering Assiniboine River. Perfect for families, the main trail affords hilltop views of the Devil's Punch Bowl, a unique crater-shaped lake near the Assiniboine. On the return leg, accessible via easy trails along the edge of the Carberry Desert and through white spruce, oak and aspen forest and mixed grass prairie, is a geological surprise: towering, 30-metre sand dunes. Once a sacred Cree site known as the Spirit Sands, this desert area has been gradually reduced by the encroaching forest.
Disappearing Lakes Interpretive Trail
Distance: 1.5 km (1 hour)
Tucked against the U.S. border in south-western Manitoba, Turtle Mountain Provincial Park's little-travelled day trails make for delightful, scenic strolls through a prairie oasis of aspen forests and shallow lakes suspended 200 metres above the surrounding prairie. Grassy pathways, frequented by moose, wind through the woods and meadows; boardwalks zigzag across still bogs and marshes where double-crested cormorants are common.
Pisew Falls to Kwasitchewan Falls Trail
Distance: 22 km (6 to 8 hours)
In northern Manitoba, off Provincial Highway 6 and 70 km south of the small city of Thompson, a hiking trail skirts the Grass River from the Pisew north to the Kwasitchewan Falls, Manitoba's highest waterfall at 14.2 metres. At Pisew Falls, the Grass River suddenly drops 13 metres, changes direction and jets noisily down a gorge. And it is here that the trail starts, tracing this key waterway of the Upper Track, a late 1700s fur trade route. Spruce, pine, tamarack and poplar provide shady habitat for northern wildlife; backcountry campsites at the far end of the trail service overnight backpackers.
Grey Owl Trail
Distance: 17 km (5 hours)
Grey Owl Trail leads hikers to the Beaver Lake cabin built by the famed naturalist. Along with his pet beavers Rawhide and Jelly Roll, Grey Owl lived here in Riding Mountain National Park for six months in 1931 as the first naturalist hired by Canada's national parks system. The trail weaves through quiet aspen, balsam, poplar, Jack pine and white spruce forests punctuated with swamps and marshes, home to beaver, muskrats, moose and waterfowl. Coyotes and white-tailed deer can be spotted in the evenings.
Hecla Island Trails
Distance: 1 to 25 km (1 to 8 hours)
Across a causeway off Provincial Highway 8, Hecla Island is the major attraction of Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park, and two very different trails here can be easily tackled in a day's outing. The Hecla Village Self-Guiding Trail depicts the history of this small lakeshore settlement, with stops at the village's centuries-old icehouses, sawmill, dockside fish station, general store as well as its modern museum. But first, stop at the Grassy Narrows Marsh, where a 25-km network of trails offers fine birdwatching in this protected area. Boardwalks and blinds provide vantage points for spotting pelicans, terns, hawks, grebes, red-winged blackbirds and bald eagles. A wildlife viewing tower not far from the main road promises early morning glimpses of moose and even the occasional wolf.