Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Big Hill Springs Provincial Park

Trip Date: March 2017

Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is an isolated pocket of green in the rolling hills north of Calgary. It's located in the parkland natural region of the province and is only 40km northwest of downtown. The park gets its name from the underground springs that feed streams and small waterfalls throughout the year. The park, although small, is very popular with families, making it quite busy during the summer months. There is a short hiking trail (less than 2.5km with under 50m gained in elevation) that weaves through the park, crossing streams and passing the picturesque waterfalls.

Big Hills Springs Provincial Park
I ventured to the park for the first time just recently and had the pleasure of enjoying the scenery and discovering its varied history. There were several families there, but it wasn't overcrowded and I saw very few people while on the trail. There is a kiosk that greets visitors in the parking lot and tells the story of the unique geological formations, known as tufa (pronounced too-fah), that can be found throughout the park. The interpretive sign reads...
The most interesting geological features in this park are the mounds of unusual rocks called tufa. Tufa is a rock that forms when calcium and carbonate-rich water emerges from the ground. As the water comes to the surface, it releases carbon dioxide into the air and forms calcium carbonate rock we call tufa. These tufa mounds have been forming for thousands of years and are still forming today. Here you can see geology in the making. The evaporated water often leaves behind impurities, such as rust, that give tufa its yellow and red colouration.
The open valley as viewed from the parking lot
The springs also date back to pre-contact times when First Nation people moved about the landscape. The sandstone cliffs that surround the park are part of the Paskapoo Formation and were used as a buffalo jump. The close proximity of fresh water provided by the springs made the coulee a highly prized area for hunting and camping.

The stream as it flows near the parking lot
One of the first small waterfalls
The springs also powered the machinery for Alberta's first commercial creamery that was built by D.M. Radcliff back in 1891. It is believed the creamery supplied the North West Mounted Police, railway construction crews, and the young City of Calgary.

The deteriorating concrete structures you see in this photo are all the remain from the failed fish hatchery
The stream flowing around the concrete ruins
A large mound of tufa
More recently an experiment was conducted to see if the springs could be used to mature fish eggs. 
In 1951, fisheries employee Cecil Barnhardt lived at the site, in an experiment to see if fish eggs could be matured there over the winter months. Barnhardt had to contend with loneliness, blizzards, snow-blocked roads that prevented getting the necessary coal, silt in the water that constantly threatened the fragile eggs, a fire that nearly burned down the hatchery, and even an owl that tried to carry off his dog. In the end the hatchery never succeeded and the project was abandoned.
More cascading waterfalls
Flowing stream and waterfalls over tufa formations
An unofficial trail up a steep embankment leads to this view of the park
A late March hiking adventure may have been a bit too optimistic. Large sections of the trail were still covered in snow and ice and those that weren't were very muddy. For future reference waiting until the ground has had time to dry might be a better option.

Just one of the stream crossings
Some believe this rocky wall is the remains of an old beaver dam that became encased in tufa. It is more likely, however, that the 'dam' formed naturally when the stream became blocked by the growing tufa.
Here the stream flows around the aforementioned dam
Due to its popularity and the curious nature of its visitors the park has numerous unofficial trails, which can make it difficult to navigate. More than I once found my progress blocked by a stream or a fence-line that indicated the park's boundary. Use the small signs that are affixed to trees to assist you on your journey.

These small signs will come in handy as you trek through the park
Someone built an impressive teepee out of deadfall that overlooks the valley below
The park borders private land so it's important to obey these signs and not venture past them
I was pleasantly surprised with Big Hill Springs Provincial Park. Due to its popularity with families I'm surprised it doesn't get more attention, but maybe its famous mountain cousins command the majority of the spotlight! If you're looking for something a little different that's close to home I would suggest giving this park a try. I know these photos are kind of drab, but that's to be expected this early in the spring. I can only imagine how beautiful this area will be in the middle of summer.


  1. Always love to read your adventures. Followed you know and hope you can also feature your SUP experience someday. Cheers! Buy Paddleboards Red Deer

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