The Qu’Appelle Valley may be southern Saskatchewan’s most defining feature: gouged by ancient glacial meltwaters ages ago, and now stretching over halfway across the province, the beautiful river and valley provide a striking contrast to the plains immediately to the north and south.
Did you know that you can travel over a quarter of the way across Saskatchewan while driving entirely in this scenic valley? From the Fishing Lakes near Fort Qu’Appelle to just short of the Manitoba border, the route parallels the Trans-Canada Highway just to the south but is a world away.
The ultimate road trip takes you past historic sites, provincial parks, beaches, nature reserves, farmland, forest, and long sections of lonely backroads with next to no traffic. The roads are a mixed bag with a few paved sections, good quality gravel grid roads, and some stretches that are fine in dry weather but best avoided when wet.
Saskatoon based travel journalists Robin and Arlene Karpan take us on their journey through the Qu'Appelle Valley:
Fort Qu’Appelle and the Fishing Lakes
The chain of the four Fishing Lakes — Pasqua, Echo, Mission, and Katepwa — is the busiest part of the Qu’Appelle Valley. It is home to historic Fort Qu’Appelle (the largest community in the valley), cottage developments, provincial parks, and splendid views practically anywhere you look.
A highlight is Echo Valley Provincial Park, straddling Pasqua and Echo Lakes. A great way to get a taste for the landscape is to walk the Qu’Appelle Interpretive Trail, an enjoyable 3-km loop through shaded coulees, then across grassy hillside meadows and windswept hilltops overlooking the lakes. Don't miss the valley rim viewpoint in Aspen Campground – just keep going north from the campground office to the end of the road.
History abounds. Fort Qu’Appelle was founded in 1864 as a Hudson’s Bay Company post. At the Fort Qu’Appelle Museum, visitors can see the oldest Hudson’s Bay Company building still standing in Saskatchewan – the annex to the factor’s house dating to 1874-75. Another reminder of the Bay era is the attractive stone general store built by the company in 1897 on Broadway Street. Fort Qu’Appelle also took centre stage in 1874 at the signing of Treaty 4 with the Cree and Saulteaux.
Nearby Lebret was founded in 1865 on the shore of Mission Lake, its imposing stone Sacred Heart Church dominating the village. A must-do here is to walk up the trail following the Stations of the Cross to the tiny white chapel near the top of the hill for outstanding views across the lake and valley.
For some quality beach time, head to nearby Katepwa Point Provincial Park, a popular tree-lined beach jutting into Katepwa Lake. Check out the interpretive panels next to the parking lot for a quick introduction to the geology, flora, and fauna of the valley, then head out on wonderful hikes into the hills.
Fort Ellis Trail
At the eastern end of Katepwa Lake, the drive changes dramatically as you leave the pavement, traffic, and cottage developments to wander along the Fort Ellis Trail, named for the historic route between Fort Qu’Appelle and Fort Ellice in Manitoba. The road follows the meandering Qu’Appelle River and crosses picturesque old bridges. The hills are mostly open grassy pastures, contrasting with treed slopes on the opposite side of the valley. This is among the most scenic parts of the valley, but it's best to only travel during dry weather.
A short detour to Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site, just north of the valley near Abernethy, transports visitors back in time. Either take the road directly north from the valley road or take Grid Road 619 from Katepwa towards Abernethy. The site preserves the family homestead of W.R. Motherwell, who is credited with many early innovations in prairie dryland farming. He also served as agriculture minister at both the provincial and federal levels. The farm features a magnificent fieldstone house, huge barn, orchard and plenty of programming to recreate rural life in the early 1900s.
Back in the valley, the tiny, picture-perfect community of Ellisboro is a highlight of the Fort Ellis Trail, with two churches dating to the 1890s. We would rank this as the most beautifully situated community anywhere in Saskatchewan.
The road passes an historic marker for the former village of Hyde. It was founded in 1887 by A.E. Hyde who had grandiose visions of building an English estate. The village thrived for a short time until Hyde ran out of money. The final blow came when the CPR decided on a different route, and most of the settlers followed.
Crooked and Round Lakes
After crossing Highway 47, our route runs along paved Highway 247 as the Qu’Appelle River expands into Crooked and Round lakes. Here we find Crooked Lake Provincial Park, as well as a string of other recreation areas, resorts, and scenic lookouts.
Just past Crooked Lake is the hamlet of Marieval and Cowessess First Nation. Whenever we travel this route, the ice cream shop at Cowessess Gas and Grocery is a must-stop. The top attraction here is the 18-hole course at the Last Oak Golf and Country Club named for Bur oak trees. This is the only oak tree Indigenous to the Canadian prairies and near the western extent of its natural range here.
The route turns back to a gravel road shortly after Round Lake. The valley becomes more heavily forested here, including several patches of Bur oak trees.
Side-trips to historic churches
Highway 247 ends at the junction with Highway 9, with the route through the valley continuing east on a gravel road. From this intersection, it’s worthwhile taking a short side-trip to see the impressive New Stockholm Lutheran Church. Head north on Highway 9 for 7.5 kilometres then turn east. Less than two kilometres along, the imposing brick church, built in 1921 by Swedish Lutherans, stands alone amid the farmland. The Gothic-styled church is noted for its intricate stained glass windows, especially two huge ones in the transepts.
Continuing east in the valley, the road soon crosses Grid Road 637. From here explorers can take a side-trip to Kaposvar Historic Site.. After travelling north for about 6 kilometres, Kaposvar’s grand stone church looms on the horizon. This was the centre of the first Hungarian settlement in Saskatchewan, founded in 1886 by mysterious Count Paul Esterhazy, after whom the nearby town of Esterhazy is named. Besides the fieldstone church, there are restored homestead buildings and a rectory, as well as a grotto and pilgrimage site modeled after Lourdes.
The Eastern Qu’Appelle
The small village of Tantallon is the only valley community in the eastern Qu’Appelle. Watch for its mascot, a larger-than-life sculpture of a white-tailed deer, on the edge of town.
After crossing Highway 8, two historic sites can be seen. One commemorates Fort John and other fur trade posts along the lower Qu’Appelle River. The other is Hamona, founded in 1895, the first co-operative established in Saskatchewan. Hamona's other claim to fame was the first use of a combine in 1910 to harvest grain in the province, an innovation that would have a dramatic effect on farming on the prairies.
The route ends at Road 600, very close to the Manitoba border. Fort Esperance National Historic Site is a short drive west of Road 600 on the south side of the valley. Built in 1787, it was the North West Company’s chief pemmican provisioning post during the fur trade. While the site is fairly low-key, it brings home just how important the Qu’Appelle River was in the history of Saskatchewan.