Whitehorse Wildland Park
The 174 sq. km Whitehorse Wildland Park is an excellent representative of the Northern Front Ranges of the Rocky Mountain Region. It is situated 105 km SW of Edson (Hwy 47) or 59 km SE of Hinton (Hwy 40), next to Jasper National Park. A wide range of alpine and subalpine plants and wildlife are found here, as well as many unusual geological features. The Wildland Park can be divided into serveral sub-areas: Cardinal Divide, Tripoli Ridge, Whitehorse Creek, Cardinal River Headwaters, and the Cadomin Cave.
The Cardinal Divide is a wide alpine ridge separating two major watersheds. To the north, the McLeod – Athabasca Rivers drain to the Arctic Ocean. To the south, the Cardinal – North Saskatchewan Rivers drain into the Hudson’s Bay. There are fantastic views from the parking lot on the Divide at 2000 m (6500 ft). See section on Access and the Cheviot Coal Mine. From here, a hike to the east takes you up to the top of a broad, sweeping ridge and spectacular views. Or walk west to the base of Tripoli Ridge over dry, white mountain avens meadows, past moist snow melt channels with dazzling wildflower blooms from mid to end of July.
Tripoli Ridge forms the mountain backbone of the Wildland Park. It includes Tripoli, Prospect, and Cheviot Mountains and their upper eastern slopes above tree line. Following along the base of these slopes you are walking through some of the most extensive alpine and subalpine meadows in Alberta.
The Whitehorse Creek area includes a small campsite huddled beneath large boulders. At the west end of the campsite is a horse and hiking trail that follows along the scenic, fast-flowing Whitehorse Creek. This old traditional trail leads through the heart of the Wildland Park, and into Jasper National Park, over Fiddle Pass. The lucky hiker might see a small dark bird, an American Dipper, bobbing in the water for insects, or even a brightly coloured harlequin duck shooting the rapids.
Cardinal River Headwaters, just outside the south boundary of the Wildland Park, is an enclosed valley with alpine tundra vegetation and striking geological formations. The higher slopes of the upper Headwaters are within the Wildland Park, but the main valley is just outside the south boundary. At present, there is an off-highway vehicle access corridor up to (but not beyond) the Cardinal Falls, near the head of the valley. The 13-km seismic trail to the Falls had been so severely eroded by off-highway vehicle use that a hardened trail to the tree-line was built in 2002, which unfortunately has led to even more impact. Due to the fragility of the valley and the occurrence of many rare plants, this is an area that the Alberta Native Plant Council is actively lobbying to have added to the Whitehorse Wildland Park.
Cadomin Cave is one of the few known locations in the province for hibernating bats. Disturbance of a hibernating bat causes it to use up extra energy. Even a single disturbance may be enough to cause its death. In recent years, a lethal disease, (white nose syndrome) has wiped out several populations of bats, so in order to prevent this deadly disease from being introduced by human visitors, the Cadomin Cave is now permanently closed to the public. Please help by observing this restriction to preserve these increasingly species at risk.
Over 250 plant species have been documented as occurring in the Wildland Park area. Of these, a striking number are rare, and/or have unusual distributions. Several are isolated (disjunct) populations, separated from the main range of their species. This suggests that part of this area may have been unglaciated during the last Wisconsin Ice Age, providing a ‘glacial refugium’, where plants and animals could survive. There may be similarly disjunct insect species; at least one disjunct butterfly species has been described here. Although the theory that the site is a glacial refugium remains controversial, the important point is that this is a highly significant area, providing habitat for an unusual diversity of rare species.
The alpine tundra is a very harsh environment, where plants have to survive freezing temperatures and strong winds year round. What appears from a distance as a barren rock field, is home to many small plants such as white mountain dryas and saxifrages. These grow very slowly and it may be many decades before they flower. If the soil is eroded, it takes a very long time before they recover, if at all. Even moving small rocks disturbs their microhabitat and therefore the practice of building small decorative or memorial cairns is strongly discouraged. At tree line, you can see the small stunted trees (known as krumholz or ‘crippled wood’ in German). These may be well over 100 years old, so wood for an evening’s campfire may not be replaced in your children’s lifetime.
Small groups of bighorn sheep roam the area, as well as elk, moose and mule deer. The alpine meadows and valleys are prime grizzly habitat, especially in the pre-berry season, and the Wildland Park was formed in part to protect important wildlife corridors between Jasper National Park and the Foothills. Visitors should adopt ‘Bear Beware’ precautionary measures as recent studies with radio-collared grizzly bears have confirmed that the WWP is favourite area for them. Wolves and cougar are also present, but rarely seen. Hoary marmots and pikas may be found among the rocks. You can often see bold golden-mantled ground squirrels and least chipmunks at the Divide parking lot (thanks for not feeding them).
Recreation and Education Opportunities
The Cardinal Divide ridge area in particular is a popular destination. There are pleasant hikes along the East or West Divide ridges that reward the hiker with magnificent views. Many groups or individuals that enjoy wildflowers and wildlife and want to learn more about alpine environment also use the area. To conserve the fragile alpine vegetation on the Cardinal Divide, hiking only is permitted from the parking lot and horses or mountain bikes are prohibited.
There are designated backcountry campsites in the Whitehorse Valley, where you should use the existing fire-pits. Random camping is permitted elsewhere, except on the Cardinal Divide or within 1 km of designated campsites and roadways. You should practice ‘leave-no-trace’ camping, with removal of all fire-rings etc. In the high subalpine, camping stoves should be used rather than fires, as trees grow very slowly. Use bear-poles, if provided, or make sure your food is stored safely and away from the tents, as this is a favourite bear area.
There are a number of horse trails, with staging areas at the Whitehorse Creek campground and the Cardinal Headwaters trail end on the Grave Flats road. Horse users should check with the Park manager regarding weed-free hay fodder and trail use.
In recent years, heavy use by off highway vehicles has left badly eroded tracks and progressively widening scars along the hillsides. The stewards of the Wildland Park are working to reclaim some of the damaged areas, using native seeds, which have been collected locally. Please stay on the trails and allow time to heal the scars.
Access and the Cheviot Coal Mine
The current active development of the adjacent Cheviot Coal Mine will alter accessibility at different times in the Mountain Park area. Active mining in the Cheviot and Prospect Ck. pits on the west side of the Grave Flats Road may be finished later in 2014, but reclamation will take several more years. The only access to Prospect Ck, for horses and hikers only, is from a small parking lot on the right-hand side of the public road, through an underpass below the Haul Road. There is currently no other access west of CRO’s Haul Road, which runs alongside the Grave Flats Road south from Cadomin.
The public road provides access to the two (hiking only) trails to the Cardinal Divide east and west of the parking lot. A short distance further south, down a very steep rough hill, is the trailhead to the Cardinal Headwaters; this is not recommended for motor homes etc. The Grave Flats Road beyond this trailhead has been recently washed out so is now closed for the foreseeable future. Mile 12 Cabin Staging Area access is also closed from the west because of the washout. Conditions regarding access are regularly updated on Teck’ s Cardinal River Operations (CRO) website at http://www.teck.com/Generic.aspx?PAGE=Teck+Site%2fDiversified+Mining+Pages%2fCoal+Pages%2fCardinal+River
The Grave Flats Road south of the Cardinal Divide, which was washed out in 2013, is closed indefinitely. To access the Cardinal Divide from the south, you must drive the Forestry Trunk Road, Highway 40, to Coalspur (a rough road, with heavy use by logging trucks etc.) then follow Highway 40 southwest to Cadomin.
Meantime, the Coal Branch Forest Land Use Zone (FLUZ) and Access Management Plan are still in force in areas not restricted by Mine activities.
For more information, contact Tourism, Parks and Recreation, Hinton District at (780) 817-3797, or the District Conservation Officer, Parks Enforcement Branch, Alberta Justice & Solicitor General office in Hinton at (780)865-6964. Note you can call toll free by dialing 310-0000 and enter the number.
Whitehorse Wildland Park and You
Wildland Parks are special public lands whose natural features represent one or more aspects of Alberta’s biological and physical diversity. They provide opportunities for the present and future generations to appreciate, study and enjoy nature.
The Wildland Park is available for public use on foot at all times, but please remember:
- Motorized vehicles are not allowed off the main road.
- Protect the vegetation from trampling. Keep to the trails where possible.
- Be prepared! This is a wild area with harsh and changeable climate. Dress warmly, and if you are hiking, take backcountry precautions.
- Do not cut trees or camp outside permitted areas.
- Take only memories, leave only footprints. Do not remove plants, rocks or natural artifacts.
This area is so special to so many people, that many have wished to have their ashes scattered on the Divide. Because of the fragility of the alpine vegetation, building of cairns is discouraged in the Wildland Park, but it is possible to have a memorial plaque placed at the nearby Mountain Park cemetery.
For More Information
Contact the Stewards: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alberta Native Plant Council
Box 52099, Garneau Postal Outlet
ANPC, Box 52099 Garneau Postal Outlet, Edmonton AB T6G2T5 ; email@example.com ; All content copyright ANPC 2019