A visit to historic Riding Mountain National Park takes you to places where bison roam, cinnamon buns are legendary, and a hike puts you at the cabin of one of North America’s greatest imposters.
While it’s been a popular destination for more than a century, the Manitoba park’s western reaches has become the province’s hippest vacation spot thanks to recent refreshes of all your old favorites. Clear Lake — as it’s known to perennial visitors — promises classic touches of yesteryear laced with the most modern of accommodations, shops, and dining options.
We visit Riding Mountain National Park several times a year to be wrapped in the boreal beauty of soaring spruces, roaming elk, and a vast canvas for stargazing. With its historic buildings, unending hiking trails, and impressive dining options, it feels like a vacation far, far away, even though it’s only a couple of hours from our home.
1. Shop ‘Til You Drop
A stroll down Wasagaming’s main drag yields tempting options for those in search of retail therapy. At Moon Lake Trading Company, pick up a one-of-a-kind piece of pottery by a local artisan or stock up on Charleston & Harlow candles including the signature spicy scent called Wasagamazing — a play on the formal name of the townsite, Wasagaming.
Friends of Riding Mountain National Park is a volunteer-run group that works hard year-round to bring awareness to the natural and cultural treasures of the park. And their gift shop is always a must-stop. Take your pick from books, toys, and outdoor gear including bear bells, a good idea if you’re planning a hike.
2. Shop Some More!
While it’s technically not in the park, Poor Michael’s Emporium is a must-stop. It began in the tiny front room of a vintage building in Onanole in 1992. Since then, Murray Evans and Lei Anne Sharratt have added some space — namely a post-and-beam addition — that houses more books, fair trade coffee, light meals, gifts from their wintertime travels to the Far East, curated pieces from local artisans, and, most recently, vinyl. It’s also home to a summer concert series that sees fans gather on the patio to hear musicians, authors, and poets.
Pro Tip: Evenings in Riding Mountain National Park can get cool. Wrap yourself in stylish comfort with a Beyond Borders blanket available at Lakehouse.
3. Go For A Cruise
Sunsets over Clear Lake are the stuff of dreams, and there’s no better place to soak up the spectacle than aboard The Martese. The 1-hour cruise departs the Clear Lake Marina as the sun is setting, promising Insta-worthy vistas of the boreal landscape surrounding the park’s biggest lake.
4. Decadent Dining
For more than two decades, T.R. McKoys has been dishing up Italian-inspired fare in the space that was once home to The Park Luncheonette. Generations of visitors gather inside the log-clad room over steaming plates of penne with Italian sausage and chicken and poached salmon with coconut curry and fresh mango salsa.
Pro Tip: Leave room for the apple berry cobbler.
5. Classic Cocktails
At 1929 Dining & Lounge, locals gather in the lounge post-shift throughout the busy summer season, sipping Caesars that come in five variations including the Darth Vegan — spiked with hot sauce and chili flakes. The French martini is divine, featuring raspberry-rich Chambord, vodka, and pineapple juice. Or crack open a pale ale from Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Brewing Company.
Pro Tip: 1929 Dining & Lounge is legendary for its Outrageous Nachos, a heaping plate that comes with sour cream and salsa and easily serves four hungry hikers. The bacon cheeseburger comes fully loaded with seasoned beef, bacon, onion, tomato, and cheddar.
6. Tee Off
The first nine holes of the Clear Lake Golf Course were designed by renowned architect Stanley Thompson, who gets high marks for his work on Alberta courses in the tourist parks of Banff and Jasper. Designers of the back nine followed Thompson’s lead to build a course that is, well, no walk in the park. Almost every vehicle along the main thoroughfare through the park stops to watch the sunset. It’s most often a beauty, throwing veins of golden light into the streaky clouds and painting an angler’s line in a glowing arch across nearby Clear Lake.
7. Soak Your Troubles Away
Let your hands and feet be wrapped in warm towels as your scalp is gently massaged at Solstice Spa. The Rainbow Chakra treatment is 90 minutes of spa-scented bliss. Leave some time in your day to enjoy the revitalizing mineral pool, steam rooms, and Swiss showers.
8. Where The Bison Roam
Venture down the 18-mile gravel road that leads to the park’s most visited residents — a herd of roughly 40 captive bison. Along the way to the Lake Audy Bison Enclosure, keep your eyes peeled for moose, bear, and elk.
Back in 1931, 20 animals were relocated from Alberta in an effort to bring a little bit of wild back to the park. They’ve been delighting visitors ever since by nudging up against vehicles on the drive-through roadway that offers an up-close-and-personal experience.
Pro Tip: Look for a solitary bull making a beautiful picture without even knowing it, his heavy black coat cutting a fine silhouette against the reddening sumac and that last Prairie blanket flower of the autumn.
9. Superb Stays
The sister properties of Lakehouse and Arrowhead score high when it comes to capturing the lake life vibe. Lakehouse’s 15 rooms feature crisp white linens with reclaimed wood furnishings and are accented with buffalo check details. A Nespresso coffee machine and Treevival sound amplifier are standard in each room. Arrowhead has a room style for every family, from a studio room to a three-bedroom loft suite. There’s even a pet-friendly room so your fur baby can come along.
10. The Whitehouse Bakery
This bakery is known across the Prairies for its iconic and irresistible cinnamon buns. The process of deciding which flavor — maple, cream cheese, or regular — is no easy task. In high season, cottagers, campers, and daytrippers line up outside the door at the bakery. It’s important to get your fill because the shop is open only seasonally.
11. Who Was Grey Owl?
A short drive north of the townsite is a trailhead parking lot that offers several choices for your hike of the day. Grey Owl Trail is named for Brit Archie Belaney, who took on an Indigenous identity (not good) and spread the conservation word to audiences beyond Canada (good) after spending time in Riding Mountain National Park. His cabin still stands at the end of the trail, offering visitors a glimpse into his life in the park.
Pro Tip: The hike is classified as moderately difficult and is roughly 5.5 miles long.
12. The Foxtail Cafe
Foxtail Cafe’s woodfired pizzas are beyond delicious, and a concoction called Cinder + Smoke, which is loaded with chicken, charred corn, bacon, red pepper, and mozzarella and finished with a smoky chipotle aioli, is among its most popular dishes. Make your plans to visit in the summer because, like many restaurants in the region, it closes for the winter.
13. Throw A Cast
Clear Lake comes by its name honestly. The cold and clear waters are home to a variety of species in the area’s largest lake. For a quieter experience, throw a few casts from the dock at Lake Katherine, one of a whopping 1,900 lakes inside Riding Mountain National Park.
Northern pike is the dominant species in this lake, and if you tie into a sizeable specimen, you’ll be in for a good fight. McKinnon Creek and Scott Creek are home to brook trout, a favorite for the fly anglers in the crowd. Learn more about fishing in the park here.
14. Family Fun
Vintage family fun is waiting at the Clear Lake Lawn Bowling Green. Tucked into a residential area surrounded by century-old cabins, these outdoor greens challenge players of all ages. See who can place those “bowls” closest to the jack!
15. A Winter Wonderland
While Riding Mountain National Park throbs with activity in the summer season, it doesn’t sleep in winter.
Winter Hiking In Riding Mountain National Park And Wasagaming
A sunrise walk through Ominnik Marsh is a tender way to greet the day. The relatively short hike (1 mile) largely on a wooden boardwalk affords sweeping views of sparkling cattails and perhaps a weasel in its winter white coat out for a look around. Because the trailhead is right in the townsite of Wasagaming, it’s a convenient outing.
For a longer hike, pick up the South Lake Trail (primarily a biking trail in summer) that heads for the shoreline of Clear Lake then makes a loop back.
And for those in search of a heftier workout, the South Shore Trail is roughly 8 miles long and skirts the entire southern shoreline of Clear Lake.
Ice Skating On Clear Lake And In Wasagaming
Bring your skates to Clear Lake! In addition to areas cleared by enthusiastic souls on the big lake as well as the marsh, the town site boasts two rinks. The courtyard at Arrowhead Resort is strung with twinkling lights where guests can literally step out their front door and go for a skate. And behind the Riding Mountain National Park Visitor Centre is a lighted rink complete with a warm-up shack for lacing up your blades in comfort.
Pro Tip: Riding Mountain National Park is becoming more popular as a winter destination with each season. Still, several businesses and attractions close for the season. Check ahead of time to see what will be open and closed during your visit.