Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site is near the Town of Rocky Mountain House along the Cowboy Trail north from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
The early morning drive north from Calgary on Hwy 22 (The Cowboy Trail) passes through Cochrane and Cremona to the T intersection west to Sundre. Weather is fickle with sunny periods punctuated by cloud and light rain. Endless fields of grain and canola are mystically animated by gentle breeze and complemented by the motion of sun and shadow in a perpetual mosaic of mesmerizing flow on a very relaxing beginning for a two week day hiking adventure.
From Sundre, the highway jogs west and north past the infamous Caroline History of Wheels Museum and Historical Village. Well signed intersections lead to the Town of Rocky Mountain House where there is time to confirm reservations at the Walking Eagle Inn and Lodge and to obtain simple instructions to the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site about 8 KM (5 miles) away.
The recovery, after missing the important turnoff from Hwy 11A to the Visitor Centre, is a well-signed route to the camping entrance. Continuing past the canoe launch near Brierley Rapids on the North Saskatchewan River, there is a small, gravel parking area past Brierley Rapids along the North Saskatchewan River. The road into the Visitor Center is gated at this approach.
From the Town of Rocky Mountain House there is also another 5KM (3⅛ mile) option to walk or cycle to the Visitor Center on the picturesque Petro Canada Bicentennial Bicycle Trail.
At the gated entrance near parking, the David Thompson Trail is prominent beside the kiosk and the hike quickly descends into a left turn through forest along the North Saskatchewan River and past the signature twin, red, wooden chairs on the back deck of Highwater House. All hiking on trails at the Rocky Mountain House National Historic Exhibit are well defined and relatively flat.
There are curious structures along the interpretive trail including tipi skeletons and rock circles which indicate the trail is used for interpretive and educational purposes. The relatively flat David Thompson Trail passes through varied forest and wetland terrain with excellent river views until arriving at a large, grassy meadow near the Visitor Center following a pleasant and entertaining walk.
Leaving the David Thompson Trail and entering the groomed grass meadow reveals a restored river boat used in the period to move cargo into Rocky Mountain House. There is an authentic teepee and a mock fort reconstruction near the Visitor Center.
Each section hosts covered kiosks where very informative and interesting relevant recorded historical information, in French and English audio narrative can be accessed by push button to bring the surrounding landscape alive.
Working exhibits outside the Visitor Center are set up to illustrate life of the time when Canadian, American and European business interests would meet with surrounding Aboriginal populations to trade goods. Villages were set up around the fort and fur trading tents were established.
A young Métis woman is making bannock over an open fire and we chat for a few minutes about the past and present. The Métis flag with a white infinity symbol on a solid blue background flies over the area.
The four original Rocky Mountain House forts were designated as a National Historic Site on May 22, 1926. Decades of archaeological activity have assembled a fascinating array of exhibits which are displayed within the Visitor Center. There is a relief map illustrating the sequence and location of the forts which occupied the area between 1799 and 1875. The Visitor Center contains engaging exhibits, a wealth of fascinating artifact and a well-stocked gift shop.
One interesting and enlightening exhibit is an aerial view, relief map of the entire area showing the sequence and location where forts were constructed. It is important to begin the adventure at the Visitor Center to establish base knowledge and a visit strategy with the assistance of the helpful, friendly and enthusiastic Parks Canada Interpretive staff.
The Chimney Trail initially skirts the North Saskatchewan River and passes a large stone monument which provides brief historical overview and acknowledges Mrs. Mabel A. Brierley for her donation of land.
The preserved remains of the original stone chimneys remain standing in the field as examples of chimneys constructed during the fur trading period prior to establishment of a settled population.
During archaeological investigation, human remains were discovered in a specific area between the two latter forts and a reconstructed cemetery has been placed on the site.
Sturdy Red River carts have been preserved on-site. Each could carry 400 kg of cargo pulled by a single horse or ox. For river crossings, wheels were removed and lashed to the cart which was then floated over deep water. These practical carts were instrumental to the initial establishment of commerce in Western Canada.
The outdoor exhibit, on the return hike past the Visitor Center, contains a small reconstructed likeness of a fort. It is actually an innovative playground for children, or adults when children are not present. Outside the entrance are full size examples of a teepee and a tripod to hold a cooking pot over an open fire.
The hike back to the parking area begins along the road.
Partway down the road there is an exhibit honoring the significant contributions made by David Thompson and Charlotte Small in this area. Their fascinating lives, and the detailed documentation developed by this important historical couple, provide larger-than-life visions of early life and significant development in Western Canada.
Deep furrows and depressions in the ground mark the location of the first trading post constructed by the North West Company beginning in 1799.
Nearby a trail leads past the interpretive plaque illustrating the perceived layout of the fort. Adjacent to this location is a viewing platform over the fenced off Buffalo Paddock but there are no signs of roaming herds today.
The trail continues toward the camping area and a dip through marshland is assisted by a wooden platform bridge. To the left is a reconstruction of an Indian Village with several full size tipis which are available to the public for overnight camping. On the other side of the road is Highwater House.
In the distance is a skeleton replica of the first Hudson's Bay trading post established in 1799. The reconstruction has an imposing presence. Walking through the site, the realistic scale of the model provides a palpable sense of history.
The canoe exhibit is actually the entrance from the parking area where the car is parked. It appears this tour has been done almost exactly backwards.
The visit to this historical site is a fascinating experience for those so inclined. An important part of the early existence of Western Canada resides here. It is easier to understand where we are going if we know from where we have come.
From this experience, it becomes axiomatically obvious and important to exercise a bit of due diligence at the Visitor Center before beginning hikes on the 3.2 KM (2.0 mile) David Thompson Trail and/or the 0.8 KM (½ mile) Chimney Trail. The experience will be enhanced by a logical and sequential flow through past times. In-depth investigation could easily consume a full day or more. There is fascinating history here with detail about substantially different hardship than we endure in present culture.
Photographs for this post about Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site were taken near the present-day Town of Rocky Mountain House, north of Calgary and west of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada on Sunday, July 19, 2015.