A little oasis of green on the rolling prairies, Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is a fun place to explore. There is a natural spring, old creamery remains, wildlife and a short but pleasant hiking trail that takes you past it all, and up to the valley ridge above.
Located less than 10km north of Cochrane, the park is small, yet has lots to offer. And because of that, it’s popular and expect it to be busy. If you want solitude, don’t come, or at least don’t come on a summer weekend.
From the parking spot, start by following the trail that parallels a stream. This is “the spring”, in Big Hill Springs and as you travel upstream you’ll be treated to waterfalls, tufa deposit (more on this below) and all manner of flora and fauna. The water here emerges from a side valley in the west.
Passing the picnic area, one comes to some concrete remains near a bridge. This is what’s left of the Big Hill Springs creamery that once operated here, so long ago. It’s assumed that the water, which maintains a fairly steady flow at a constant temperature all year round (cool but not cold), was perhaps used as a temperature stabilizing medium for the product. This author has seen pictures of the creamery from the early 1890s, but it’s not clear when it closed. On thing is for certain is was one of the earliest commercial operations of this nature in the area or even the province.
Later on, according to some websites, a fish hatchery operated here but I have found no solid evidence of this. Of course, I have been wrong before.
Walking past the remains, you’ll notice a unique type of rock in the immediate area. This is that tufa (too-fa) I spoke of earlier and it’s composed of layer after layer of minerals precipitated from the water over the eons. They slowly build these rocks much like the calcium builds up in your coffee pot, only on a grander scale.
Walking along, we pass a number of lovey water falls, ALL very photogenic.
Soon after we come to the tufa dam. According to a sign at the site, the remains of an ancient beaver dam may be encased in the deposit. Apparently over time, the leeched material coated the dam and built upon it, becoming the large mass we see today. An interesting story, but I am not convinced. Instead I think it’s just a normal deposit that built up over time, eventually forcing the stream to change direction.
I went to the bottom of it and it’s many matres thick, the thickest deposit we saw in the park. The stream flows along the base of it. Careful when walking on this stuff as it’s sharp and craggy, and would likely be very painful if one were to fall on it.
The section described so far is the most busy area in the park and once beyond the tufa dam, the crowds thin out. Along here the trail can be muddy.
Following the stream further, the topography forces you to leave the little valley you are in and head left uphill. It’d be interesting to see where the water actually emerges from the ground, but it’s too boggy, the trees and bushes too thick and the side valley too steep. Maybe I’ll try to find the source, another time, by traversing the side valley further up where the trees thin.
Travelling through mixed forest, you soon top out above main valley. The going is easy, a stroll for us really. Along the way we spot many edibles, gooseberries (yum), strawberries (double yum) and raspberries (triple yum). None are ripe however. There is also Buffalo Berry, many of which are ripe, and while they are edible, they’re at best, awful. Bears seem to love them for some reason.
Meandering along the top between the heavy woods on the valley edge and an open farmers field, (remember this is prairie), we enjoy our stroll. We pass only a few people here, many of them huffing and puffing. We hear some chirping and spot a hole in a dead tree. It’s some baby woodpeckers, but mom and dad come and go too fast for us to photograph them in action (or at least photograph them well).
In spite of being on the prairies, this section of the Big Hill Springs trail has some very un-prairie like features and it would be easy to imagine one is deep in the mountains further west.
Before long the trail heads back down, zig-zagging as it goes, and in short order we are back where we started. We were just getting warmed up!
I take time to check out an old double track, a fenced off continuation of the road into the park, heading south down the valley. It looks like a possible hiking route, although it’s not part of the park itself and indeed I have found some trip reports where people have used it to travel almost to Cochrane. This uninhabited valley is home to a small steam and nothing much else (cows maybe, according to a sign). It’s heavily forested on the east facing side, and basically barren on the other. I see a trip for another day.
One thing I have noticed since our last visits here (perhaps 10 years ago) is how worn out Big Hill Springs Provincial Park looks. Many of the trails are braided, and some people have bypassed the zig-zags, making a steep path that is susceptible to slumping; bridges need repair, there is much deadfall, and overall the place could use some simple TLC. Heavy use and an apparent a lack of maintenance have taken their toll. This should not dissuade anyone from visiting though.
Not terribly far away is an interesting ghost town site, located in Glenbow Ranch Park and to read about it, click the link below…
Town of Glenbow.
If you wish more information on this route, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: July, 2013.
Location: 10km north of Cochrane.
Distance: >3km loop.
Height gain from start: >50m.
Height gain cumulative: >50m.
NOTE: all heights and distances are approximate.