In 35 minutes, you could be at the beach. That’s right. From the northern edge of Winnipeg, it takes just over half an hour before you’re dipping your toes in the refreshing waters of the vast Lake Winnipeg.
In case you haven’t heard, Lake Winnipeg is BIG as in 24,514-square-kilometres. It’s the largest lake within in the borders of southern Canada (because many of the Great Lakes share water with the United States). Still, it’s Canada’s sixth largest freshwater lake. It’s the eleventh largest freshwater lake on the planet. Take your pick from these sandy shores along the way.
Milne Beach, Matlock, in the Village of Dunnottar
The most southern public beach on Lake Winnipeg’s western shore welcomes you with a hand-made wooden pier, perched high above the water, stretching out into this vast inland sea. In fact, these piers are the signature landmarks of the village. Every spring the village’s maintenance crew painstakingly pounds saplings into the sandy bottom of the lake to build these piers. And every fall, they take them down again, well before four feet of ice forms on the lake.
The point of the piers is to carry swimmers out to deeper water, over the few rocks that sometimes dot the shallows. The end of the piers offer a place to sit, contemplate jumping into the um, er, refreshing water, dry off or simply contemplate life while gazing over the lake. More than that, they look absolutely stunning in sunset photos, especially when the moon is on the rise.
Insider Tip: At day’s end, make your way to the Whytewold Emporium for wood-fired pizza in the breezy dining room.
People have been frolicking in the waves at Winnipeg Beach for more than a century. Sure, they were doing it in swimsuits that covered their ankles, but hey, they were having fun! First it was the rail line that brought swimmers to the beach. Now you can get there in your car from Winnipeg in about 45 minutes.
Look for the black water tower that marks the southern end of the beach. It says Winnipeg Beach, so you know you’re in the right place. From there, the beach stretches to the north. It’s a narrow beach, lined by a boardwalk to the west that includes interpretive signs that tell the story of a grand hotel, towering roller coaster and a dancehall with live music-all things that once stood at the lakeside town.
Insider Tip: Take a stroll through Fish Fly Gallery where the prairie voices of artists can be heard loud and clear.
It’s all about wide-open spaces here at Gimli Beach, about an hour north of Winnipeg. The beach is so wide that you’ll never be looking over your shoulder wondering why someone else’s beach blanket is touching yours (yuck). There’s plenty of room for everyone! It’s a gradual entry into the water, so it’s not uncommon to see sunbathers perched in lawn chairs a few strides into the lake.
Overnight, the waves push tiny items up onto the beach, so hunting for smooth-edged beach glass and stones with holes in them is a must first thing in the morning. Make your way to the docks that anchor the south end of the beach. Take a walk and listen to those sailboats tinkle in the harbour. If you time it just right, you might also catch the commercial fishers returning from pulling nets, their boats laden with tubs of fresh, buttery pickerel.
Insider Tip: Speaking of pickerel, head over to Beach Boy, order the pickerel dinner with roasted potatoes and Greek salad and grab a table in the screened porch.
Sunset Beach, Hecla Island
It’s best to hit this beach late in the day because, as the name suggests, you’ll be treated to a pretty spectacular show come sundown. Just under two hours north of Winnipeg, Sunset Beach rests on the western shore of Hecla Island. That means you’ll be crossing a causeway and spending some time on an island in Lake Winnipeg.
You’ll notice that the landscape is a little different up here. To get to Sunset Beach, you’ll meander through black spruce trees and you’ll likely have to step over one or two limestone rocks. It’s breezy and cooler too where the plains just start to give way to the Canadian Shield.
The water is high this year so sandy beach space is at a premium. But if you happen to catch a few days of low water, look down. Good-sized chunks of quartz rock are everywhere here or you might get real lucky (like my sister) and find yourself a genuine arrowhead.
Insider Tip: Lace up and hit the West Quarry Trail. Visit Christine’s Fishing Camp, site of an abandoned limestone quarry that operated at the turn of the century.