A new side of an old family friend: Riding Mountain National Park in winter

Posted February 16, 2017 | Author Jillian Recksiedler

I’m guilty of avoiding winter, especially since my kids are young and getting them outdoors can be a lot of work. I know the season can be magical, but rarely do I take time to discover it.

To remedy that, I packed up the kids and hit the road. Our mission: make indelible family memories in Riding Mountain National Park…but this time, in winter.

Like most Manitobans, I have many fond memories of vacations to Clear Lake, dating way back to the age that my kids are now. My husband and I have already brought our kids to Riding Mountain a couple of times in their short life. But all these memories only involve summer. Yours too?

While my 4-year-old daughter was simply thrilled by the idea of “going on vacation” and my 2-year-old son just wanted to “stay home” (sigh, will planning a family trip ever be easy?), I was excited to explore a new side of this old family friend.

What I discovered: our beloved national park has what it takes to be a winter hot spot.

“But where will I sleep?”

We checked into the Tamarack Suite at Arrowhead, right on Wasagaming drive in the heart of town. The Arrowhead (formerly The New Chalet) is a now sister property to the nearby trendy hotel The Lakehouse, but it’s entirely geared to welcoming families. We loved that our motel suite had a total cottage vibe. It was stylishly furnished, and with two interconnecting rooms there was plenty of space to spread out and run around (and play a few games of hide-and-seek) when we weren’t exploring outdoors. Any parent on vacation can appreciate the convenience of a full kitchen, in-suite laundry and separate sleeping/living areas: the Tamarack Suite has this all. An added bonus to staying at the Arrowhead is the complimentary (and made-from-scratch) continental breakfast available at The Lakehouse, a quick jaunt down the road. It gave us the excuse to head outdoors early each morning.

“Where are we going?”

We had Wasagaming Drive to ourselves each morning during the walk to breakfast.

If there was any moment that stuck out the most during our winter getaway, it was those early morning walks to breakfast. Sounds simple, but there’s something mystical about exploring a town before it wakes up. Clear Lake, in all its winter glory, is lonely but inviting, calming but excited, stark but hypnotic. I felt as though we were discovering a whole new place, even though my family has been coming here for generations.

Exploring a sleepy town site by sled.

Are these Parks Canada red chairs lonely or inviting?

Calmness at Clear Lake beach, a place I had only experienced bustling with activity.

“Whatta we do next?”

In winter, The Lakehouse steps up to become the meeting place in town. It’s the stop for food, drinks, (ice cream for the kids) and mingling – all that indoor stuff. With its rustic chic decor, it has a total après ski vibe, minus the downhill skiing. There is no mountain in Riding Mountain, after all, but there are loads of other prairie winter activities for families to do. The Friends of Riding Mountain Learning Centre is where visitors need to head to plan their outdoors time. Maps of well-groomed cross country ski trails; fat bikes and snowshoe rentals; interpretive programming that range from quinzee building to guided snowshoe hikes – it all runs out of this cozy log cabin. And of course, it’s always recommended to do the magical skate through the forest.

Skate among the spruce trees. Bring your own skates and let your little ones learn the way nature intended.

We discovered quinzhees beside the skating trails.

“Where all the other kids?”

Our getaway happened to be during the park’s annual Winter Adventure Weekend, a program supported by the local volunteers to show off that Riding Mountain is open for visitors in the off-season. The combination of unique events and gorgeous weather (in the minus single digits!) resulted in an absolute hive of activity in the town come late morning. But go any weekend in winter, and there is enough to discover to keep a family entertained. My daughter was stoked to play with big kids during the Winter Olympics programming, in which they tossed hockey sticks javelins and pulled each other in a snow tube race. We also made our way onto Clear Lake to watch an old-fashioned pond hockey game, a throwback to 1933 when the park’s war-time relief workers played against a team from Dauphin. The game was the official kick-off to all the events that Parks Canada has planned in Riding Mountain in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation.

Parks Canada staff offers a guided snowshoe trek through the grasslands to a bear den.

Parks Canada staff donned the original jerseys from 1933 for Winter Adventure Weekend’s classic outdoor hockey game on Clear Lake.

“We can go there again, right?”

On the car ride back home, I asked my daughter the mandatory parent question: “So what was your favourite part of the trip?” “The toy you bought me. And jumping on the beds.” (sigh). At this age she might not understand winter, travel and nature…but one of these years she and Riding Mountain will become good friends.

“Actually, spending time with you and daddy.”

Mission accomplished.

Jillian Recksiedler, Travel Manitoba

About The Author

Hi, I'm Jillian, a marketer, communicator, traveller and Manitoba flag waver. Growing up in rural Manitoba during the '80s means I have a penchant for daytrips, maps (the paper kind), and prairie sunsets. I never tire of sharing stories about my home.

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