Want to guess the size of the largest beaver ever discovered? Over 200 pounds! Don’t worry though, you won’t run into one: They lived 15,000 years ago. Back then the Assiniboine River was a powerful current draining into a massive lake that covered almost all of Manitoba, called Lake Agassiz. As it entered the lake, the Assiniboine’s drainage created a 6,500-square kilometre sand deposit. Today the bear-sized beavers and Lake Agassiz are gone, and only four square kilometres of sand remain, but this sandscape is still very cool to check out. Spruce Woods Provincial Park offers a hike that takes you through the arid sand dunes along with wooded forests and grassy meadows, to give you a view overlooking the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a blue-green turquoise pond. Called the Spirit Sands, we should come clean they aren’t an actual desert—they receive twice as much precipitation as a true desert—but they sure feel like one! In terms of landscapes that take you across the globe, this hike is hard to beat.
There are two ways to approach the Devil’s Punch Bowl: An easy trail great for families, and one that has many stairs. If you are the adventurous type, take the more interesting stair trail out to the Bowl (but be prepared to climb!). You’ll start in the ‘desert’ surrounded by sand, eventually making your way to the recessed Devil’s Punch Bowl. Photos don’t do the turquoise pond justice, and the surrounding forest is impressive to take in. If you have the energy, follow the short, marked detour to another lookout point offering panoramic views of the Assiniboine River, then enjoy the flatter, easier trail through the forest to return to your car. There are a number of benches along the trail, so take your time to avoid getting tired and to enjoy the scenery.
While on the trail, stop to consider that you’re on hallowed ground. Indigenous communities believe the sand dunes are sacred, and they call the area where you enter the Spirit Sands (the east side) the Place of Beginnings, while the south is the Place of Plenty. The north is the Place of Wisdom, and the west, the Place of Endings. As you wander, also keep an eye out for Prairie skinks, one of just six lizards in Canada (and the only one in Manitoba), and the western hognose snake. While the snake sometimes imitates the sound of a rattlesnake, never fear! It is not poisonous—but the rattling is cool to hear.
The hike can take as little as ninety minutes, but we encourage you to take your time, enjoy the scenery, and snap some photographs, so 2.5-3 hours should be plenty. Arrive before 10:00 AM if you’d like the quiet and solitude of the trail by yourself, as it can get busy during the afternoon. Going early also means you’ll avoid the heat of the day on the sands.
Making a Day of It
If you’d like to feel like a bit like you’ve gone back to the Old West, after your hike head to the Town of Carberry, fifteen minutes north of Spruce Woods. Start off at the Summer Shack Drive Inn (3rdAvenue) where you can grab some food and enjoy some lunch-hour sunshine on the picnic benches, then either walk (ten minutes) or drive (two minutes) to Main Street.
If you’re still hungry, grab dessert at Modern Bakery (42 Main Street) and spend a few minutes wandering. Main Street has a significant collection of heritage buildings dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, great for imagining you’re a cowpoke strolling through town. Head towards 4thAvenue and when you hit that street, turn right for a few blocks to get to the Carberry Plains Museum, or more specifically, the photo-worthy White House (510 4thAvenue). If you’re like us, you’ll take one look at the house and decide ‘White’ is not an appropriate name for it—but the original owner’s last name was ‘White’, so we guess we’ll allow it. We think a better name for it is the ‘Gingerbread House’ though, so you’ll have to let us know if you agree.
Things to Note:
Watch out for poison ivy at Spruce Woods Provincial Park!
There are outhouse-style washrooms at the main entrance and at various points along the trail.
You’ll need to purchase a Manitoba Provincial Park Permit to park in the Spruce Woods Provincial Park parking lot. You can purchase a one-day ($9.50), 3-day ($16.50) or annual ($44.50) pass online at: https://www.manitobaelicensing.ca/privilegepos.page