Exploring to and around Grande Cache, Alberta

Well, I had planned to stay home yesterday, but when I saw sunshine instead of the forecast clouds at Hinton, those plans changed. I started driving west with the intention of making it a short day in Jasper in case the snow arrived, but as I neared the junction with Alberta Highway 40 (the Bighorn Highway), I could see clouds ahead to the west, and sunshine to the north towards Grande Cache. New plan – I haven’t spent enough time in that area over the many years I’ve been driving through from or on the way back to the Yukon, and this was the perfect opportunity.

Crossing over the Athabasca River reminded me of a funny comment I saw in the Hinton Parklander newspaper. A representative of a group trying to get a park established along the river in town said that “Visitors to Hinton are ‘in awe’ of the Athabasca”. Really? In awe?? πŸ™‚ There are some awe-worthy sections of the Athabasca (like the Athabasca Falls area, of course) and I do think that a riverfront park at Hinton is a great idea, though (you can read the article here).
Athabasca River on Alberta Hwy 40
I turned off to have a look at the Hinton-Entrance airport, and was surprised to find “No Trespassing” signs. Run by the Hinton Flying Club, it is a licensed airport, though (code CEE4).
Hinton-Entrance airport, Alberta
With a telephoto lens, though, I did add C-GXTV, a 1952 Cessna 170B, to my collection at Airport-Data.com.
C-GXTV, a 1952 Cessna 170B, at Hinton, Alberta
Heading back to the highway, I stopped to chat with this very friendly band of horses, who seemed to enjoy the company πŸ™‚
Horses near Hinton, Alberta
Highway 40 needs many more passing lanes, and many more scenic pullouts. Only because there was almost no traffic could I get a photo of spots like this.
Scenery along Alberta Highway 40
How could I not stop at a park called Kelley’s Bathtub??
Kelley’s Bathtub is as lovely as the name is cute.
Kelley's Bathtub picnic area, Alberta
Yes, that’s the sort of view that just keeps me going!
Mountain view northbound on Alberta Hwy 40
There’s a 40-kilometer stretch of the highway signed as a Wildlife Sanctuary, but hunting is allowed as long as you’re more than 365 meters from the highway. HUH?? Officially it’s the Highway 40 / Little Smoky / Simonette Road Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary. I’ve seen caribou in this area on previous trips, but not today.
Wildlife Sanctuary along Alberta Highway 40
I’ve visited the Grande Cache Airport before, but never had a good look around.
Grande Cache Airport, Alberta
Ah, wonderful – another of my favourite type of airport. This is the registration desk for pilots. The small terminal is open and unmanned.
Grande Cache Airport, Alberta
The terminal from the air side. There were no aircraft to see today.
Grande Cache Airport, Alberta
The other big attraction along the airport road for transportation geeks like me is a very large railway bridge. This line was begun by the Alberta Resources Railway Corporation, incorporated by the Government of Alberta in April 1965, but was leased and then in 1994 bought by CNR. I had hoped for a clear distant view of it by walking up the creek but didn’t find a break in the trees…
…so ended up shooting from the bridge itself. I haven’t found any specs on the bridge, but it’s impressive.
Large bridge on the Alberta Resources Railway near Grande Cache
I was surprised to see an “Open” sign on the Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, and went for a look.
Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
The line of old forestry cabins and lookout towers behind the centre, with plenty of interpretive signage, was interesting.
Old forestry cabins and lookout towers at the Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre,  Alberta
Although it took me a while to get up to this level, I’ll start with this photo to show you how impressive this facility is. It really is a must-stop.
Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
I spent a long time chatting with Elesa, the Tourism Hostess who was on duty. I thoroughly enjoy talking to people who are passionate about their community, and Elesa certainly made me understand how much I’ve been missing by passing quickly through on previous trips. One of the indicators of the backcountry experiences that are available is their “Passport to the Peaks” program, which has bronze, silver and gold levels for the difficulty and number of peaks hikers have climbed. Only a handful have achieved gold.
Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
This photo, displayed in the centre, shows a dinosaur trail that is out in the coalfields nearby. There’s no public access as it’s only accessible by a private mining road, but I’m okay with just knowing that such amazing features exist out there.
a Dinosaur trail Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
I love the way these cougars have been displayed. Nice kitties πŸ™‚
Cougars at the Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
Elesa also showed me the meeting rooms that contribute to the centre being able to stay open year-round. The large windows and wonderful views make the artists’ studio simply stunning.
Artists studio at the Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
This is one of the views from the corporate meeting room.
Grande Cache Tourism & Interpretive Centre, Alberta
I went for a very good lunch in town, then was back to exploring. This is the miners’ memorial, which has the names of 28 miners killed between 1969 and 1999 in local coal mines.
Miners memorial in Grande Cache, Alberta
Driving through a residential neighbourhood on the way to the next attraction.
A residential neighbourhood in Grande Cache, Alberta
I really like labyrinths, but unfortunately the snow was deep enough to pretty well hide it. It’s a gorgeous location to have a Labyrinth Park, though. The labyrinth I was going to build in the former corral at home didn’t progress very far – it’s an enormous amount of work.
Labyrinth Park at Grande Cache, Alberta
Back on Highway 40 (and at 2:30, now very conscious of how fast the day was disappearing), this was the view down the Smoky River Valley just north of town.
Smoky River Valley, Alberta
The highway crosses the Smoky River.
Highway 40 bridge over the Smoky River, Alberta
This is by far the largest of the coal mines that’s visible from the highway. Grande Cache Coal has some photos of current operations on their Web site.
Coal mine near Grande Cache, Alberta
Among other things, the coal being mined powers the H.R. Milner Generating Station, a 150 MW power station located along the highway and railway.
H.R. Milner Generating Station - Grande Cache, Alberta
A closer look at the coal operations.
Coal processing near Grande Cache, Alberta
From industry to wilderness – my next and final stop was 6.4km off the highway at the edge of the Willmore Wilderness Park, a 4,600 square kilometre pure wilderness area (no motorized access any time) that adjoins Jasper National Park. On the way in, I was a bit nervous about meeting one of the vehicles that were in there already, as the road was only well-plowed one lane wide.
Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta
My focus here was the Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, which this sign describes: “This trail is rough and unimproved, with direct exposure to unstable rock and dangerous cliff edges. It is unsuitable for children or inexperienced hikers. Do not use during wet, snow or icy conditions.” There were a couple of pickups with 4 men just about to leave, and the oldest of them, about 20 years my junior, advised me on some elementary precautions to take. If I’d seen a vehicle like mine in a place like that, I’d probably also have assumed that I was talking to a city-slicker who was out of his depth, so I just thanked him, showed him the emergency beacon that was already strapped to my arm, and continued getting my gear on. πŸ™‚
Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta
It’s a very short trail, and despite the “welcome” sign, very much improved, with steel railings along much of it. The first of the excellent steel viewing platforms offered this view up the Smoky River.
Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta
Approaching Sulphur Gates. Stunning – I can imagine what it’s like on a day with clear blue skies.
Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta
This is a panorama created by stitching together 3 vertical images shot with an 18mm wide angle lens.You can see the highest of the viewing platforms at the upper left, but this angle hides the fact that it hangs off a cliff, with about a 60-foot drop to the first rocks below.
Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta
The viewing platforms all hang over the edges of the cliffs, and anyone with a fear of heights is not likely to go to the end of them! This one, the highest one, looks straight up Sulphur Creek through the Gates. You’d think that the warning signs, one of which I’ve pasted into the bottom right, would be unnecessary, but apparently not – I saw some old graffiti in a location that just left me shaking my head at the stupidity, never mind the insensitivity.
Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta
This is the view looking straight down from the edge of the next viewing platform back down the trail. That’s a view that I certainly would never have gotten before the trail improvements were made!
Sulphur Gates Viewpoint Trail, Willmore Wilderness Park, Alberta

A few minutes before 4:00, I was back at the highway. I brushed the snow off the back of the car so I could be seen, and started the 160-odd-km drive back to Hinton. The day had certainly taught me a lot about this area, to the point that I’ve added Grande Cache to my fairly new RV Destinations board at Pinterest. As well as the links I’ve posted above, you can keep up with local attractions and events at the community Facebook page.

It started to snow about a half-hour out of Hinton, and today we have a snowy, dreary day. It’s a good day to curl up with the fur-kids, do some reading and enjoy some down time – my first since leaving Whitehorse 10 days ago.


Exploring to and around Grande Cache, Alberta — 15 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your pictures and comments about our town very much,thank you so much for sharing this with us!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing pictures of Grande Cache. We lived there from Dec. 2004 to May 2008 and I miss it very much. My dog and I are one of the few who have finished gold in the Passport to the Peaks program. We are now living in Belize, Central America so looking at these pictures brings back a lot of great, wonderful memories to a place we once called home.

    • I love the Internet! To be able to bring back good memories for people many thousands of miles away is wonderful. Getting gold in the Passport to the Peaks, you must have some amazing memories of the area.

  3. I lived in this paradise from 1969-1982. Miss the beauty of the great out doors!

  4. Went geocaching there a couple of years ago and had a blast. There are some geocachers in the area who have fabulous imaginations, therefore produced great caches in wonderful areas. All the trails we travelled on gave us great views and beautiful vistas! Thank you to those cachers for putting the geocaches out and using such wonderful imaginations in doing so!!!

  5. Great pictures. Was wonderful to read this. I lived there from 1978 to 1988. Beautiful country. Thanks!

  6. Hello. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for describing my home here in Grande Cache in such a step by step, amazing, informative and sensitive way. Grande Cache is truly beautiful, peaceful and calm. This is a really great place to raise your Kids and enjoy the simple life. I love my home, the Mountains and wildlife that wander into our community from time to time. Breathing in the fresh air and friendly “down home” feeling with this Town has kept me here. Thanks again for putting such positive outlooks and words about my home. Cheers.
    Warmest regards,
    Michele McCormick <3

  7. Really nice pictures! We were fortunate enough to visit this lovely area twice in 2013. In May and again in November. We visited most of these spots, but Sulphur Gates was spectacular in the spring!

  8. thanks for the pics and write up. we used to live in Grande Cache and loved it there very much. the pictures made us very homesick for the place. So happy you did the tour.

  9. What a awesome description of Grande Cache from the beginning of highway 40.Kelly’s Bathtub is a great place for a picnic, we have had many there. Animals on the highway was the delight of a trip to Hinton. Sulfur Gates was,the destination of my sons wedding. I could go on and on. Grande Cache was my home for thirty years all my children were born there, two still reside there, along with a brother. Grande Cache was a beautiful place to grow up and then have my children grow up there. Grande Cache will always be in my heart, it is a place I was proud to call home. Thanks for bringing back beautiful memories.

  10. I’m so pleased to read all these comments from former and current residents. One of the fears of any travel writer who goes beyond “fluff” pieces is that we’ll write something that shows that we missed the real character of a place, that we just didn’t “get it”. I’m very happy to hear that I did get it πŸ™‚

  11. Elesa in the tourist centre is my kid sister of whom I am very proud. My wife Maggie and I lived in Banff for many years but have lived in Australia since 1979. We just love the Rockies, and your images brought back many fond memories, but we do not miss the white stuff at all, or the minus 40C temps. Our extreme temps are at the other end of the scale at PLUS 40C.

  12. Wow, you have captured the beauty of our area so aptly! I love the serendipitous nature of your trek into Grande Cache, and thank you for sharing your wonderful journey with so many. If you ever head back this way I would be thrilled to give you a tour of the Labyrinth Park, as I have been with the volunteer committee who created and maintains it for 4 years now. This effort to create a wellness inspired park for our communities benefit began in 2001. The actual Labyrinth was placed in 2006 thanks to the donation of the land from the Town of Grande Cache and the hard work of many volunteers. The pattern used is a replica of the pattern in Chartres Cathedral, France, built in 1220 A.D.. It is a 12 circuit path, and ours measures 1 km when travelled to the middle and back out to the entrance/exit. Our intention has been to provide our community with a space geared towards physical, mental and spiritual health. Even though the snow tries to hide it, we are always grateful for Elesa’s promotion of this beautiful spot, she as well is a Grande Cache treasure!
    Safe travels and happy journey’s. =D

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