The River Flats Trail is a short, easy hiking experience in Big Knife Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada.
Just prior to this hiking mission, the mysterious existence of Big Knife Provincial Park is revealed via brief reference on Facebook. There are two short trails and a small campground, in this previously unheard of Provincial Park occupying a total of 244 hectares (603 acres) which is less than several of the larger City of Calgary Parks. And, it is purportedly the former home of One-Eyed Nelson and his notorious moonshine operation. How can this not be totally irresistible? Note: There is NO alcohol allowed in this park. Thanks, One Eye.
Following a good rest at the Badlands Motel in Drumheller and an excellent, hearty breakfast at the integral and interesting WHIFS Restaurant, the drive north begins nearby at the junction of North Dinosaur Trail with Highway 56. Google Maps will provide a variety of potential routes between Drumheller and Big Knife Provincial Park. Choose any route which passes the Rumsey Natural Area.
This late Spring, less than two hour drive, offers a matrix of incredibly beautiful images over rolling prairie and forest terrain rich with ponds, wetlands and temporary marshland virtually alive with avian activity. The Rumsey Natural Area contains the restricted Rumsey Ecological Reserve with unique and incredible natural features. A relatively quiet highway provides the opportunity to intermittently reduce speed and absorb the beyond-surreal imagery.
The drive North on Highway 56 to Stettler, Alberta continues East on Highway 12 to the huge windmill farm near Halkirk for the left turn North onto Hwy 855 and past the Paintearth Mine Viewpoint to the well signed left turn into Big Knife Provincial Park for the final 3 KM (1⅞ mile) approach to the central parking area. Expectations are completely unknown. For reference, Big Knife Provincial Park is near Forestburg about halfway due East between Red Deer and the Saskatchewan border.
Arriving a few days before the May long weekend is a major advantage. There is no-one here and the grounds are meticulously maintained in preparation for the long weekend rush which traditionally opens the formal, fair weather recreational season.
The trailhead for the 4.5 KM (2⅞ mile) River Flats Trail (aka Lowlands Trail) begins from the public parking area and heads obviously across the lawn and past interpretive signage to descending, wooden stairs which drop to lower ground hosting the playground before crossing the wooden bridge over Big Knife Creek. Erosion and deadfall along the banks of the now quiet creek indicate a robust Spring runoff.
Note: The River Flats Trail can also begin alternatively from the campground loop.
Past the wooden bridge, the trail continues to the right of a formidable gazebo standing on groomed lawn in an open area. The trail is predominantly over grass mowed to form a hiking carpet along the route. Every trail intersection hosts a clear map of exact 'You are here' location. Getting lost is virtually impossible. Taking the exterior of multiple loops provides the best intermittent views over the Battle River complex. Views of Badlands terrain are visible on the far side of this river encased by rich and vibrant marshlands.
Soon to arrive full foliage will reduce river views. For the first kilometer or so, time is spent avoiding an unusually large collection of deer turds on the trail. Finally, closer inspection reveals they are not deer turds but a large collection of rather unusual, ground hugging clumps of cacti. So, the hike continues, avoiding them for an entirely different reason.
Birds and deer are abundant prior to the rush of impending summer crowds. This is a very good time to be here. The hike is mainly an immaculately maintained field and forest adventure with frequent spectacular views. Benches are frequently placed along the way to provide rest and encourage enjoyment of viewpoints.
Barbed wire border fences are flagged to allow deer to see and jump over them without injury. This hike is a continuous collection of ever changing, incredibly beautiful images accompanied by warm sun against the skin with a gentle, cooling breeze adding rich forest aromas to the blend.
Towards the end of the hike, there is a short spur trail departing uphill on a shallow rise towards Badlands features in the near distance. At the trail junction an ornate, wrought iron bench pays tribute to a local young man whose physical presence ended far too soon. As is customary, the opportunity is taken to relax on the bench for a few minutes to enjoy the company of Dustin Dean Derr who shares a profound presence with his community.
Views from the crest of the short Hoodoos Spur feature dramatic, long range vistas. The short diversion is definitely worth the small time and effort. Along the final stretch of the Lowlands Trail, the catalog of natural views expands relentlessly until arrival at the shared trail returning to the gazebo. All that remains for this short, worthwhile hike is crossing the wooden bridge over Battle Creek and climbing the wooden stairs to the day use parking area.
Not a single person has been seen or heard since arrival for this initial exploration of pristine and beautiful Big Knife Provincial Park. It is an incredible and very unusual gift.