This week brings us to Sheep River Provincial Park, the best place to see bighorns in Alberta. Part of the larger Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, which is also part of the larger Kananaskis Country. K-Country is over 4000 square kilometers, with Peter Lougheed covering over 300 Sq kms. As you can tell from this description, K-Country is HUGE! It would be impossible for the average tourist to cover all of it, and hard to figure out where to go. One basically has to choose and hope for the best. That is why this week I want to take out some of the guess work and recommend one of my favorite places for wildlife viewing and hiking. While not being the only place to go, it’s one of the prettier, and more tranquil of places in K-Country, and is the Best Place to See Bighorns in Alberta.
Table of Contents:
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- Why go
- How to get there
- Best times to go
- Which part of the park to go to
- What to do after
- Wildlife etiquette
- Photography tips
Why to go there:
Sheep River Provincial Park is a chance to get away from it all. Some of the reasons to go to S.R.P.P. are: hiking, cycling, camping, fishing, horseback riding, and cross country skiing. Most people, and those coming from Calgary, are likely to use S.R.P.P. as a day trip. For myself, I have not camped overnight here as in my opinion, it is a fantastic day trip from Calgary; I have been there on several occasions, and in all seasons except winter. The only reason I haven’t gone in the winter is that I don’t own cross country skis, otherwise I would surely go.
The biggest reason to go for me is to see wildlife, specifically Bighorn Sheep. You see Sheep River is aptly named, as it has a resident group of Bighorn Sheep. So while there is not a 100% guarantee of seeing bighorns, your chances are very high. I will go into more details about the sheep in a later paragraph. Other wildlife I have personally observed are, deer, elk, coyote, moose, and several bird species, notably (although rare) great grey owls.
Sheep River Provincial Park is the Best Place to See Bighorns in Alberta
How to get there:
Internationally or out of Province
If you are from out of province and flew here, there are only 2 major airports: Calgary and Edmonton. This park is much too far to get to from Edmonton practically, unless you intend to overnight camp. So I will focus on Calgary, and no, not just because I live there. I do live in Calgary, but the reason I use it as a starting reference is because of its perfect location in relation to other destinations. The Trans Canada Highway runs through Calgary so chances are, if you are from out of Province and still Canadian, you will probably go through if not stay in Calgary.
If you did fly to Calgary, you will need to rent a car if you want to visit here. You are in luck with this park as it is easily accessed by any vehicle, as all roads are paved except the campgrounds and day use areas, so there is no need for a specialized vehicle like a 4×4.
In Province or local.
Getting to the park from Calgary takes about an hour and 22 minutes (traffic dependent) While you could take highway 2a and then highway 7, you could get easily lost if you don’t have a GPS. I recommend the route Google maps suggests (pictured below): it is actually the most scenic and least congested. Sometimes the fastest and most direct route isn’t always the best but in this case it is.
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When to go:
Technically, the park is open year round, but practically access is limited from spring to fall. Sheep River Road closes during the winter months at Sandy McNabb Campground from December to Mid-May. They close a big gate, removing road access during the winter. This does not mean you are barred from entry, but limited to hiking, cross country skiing or horseback. I imagine this is ideal if you are a skier as the paved, un-plowed road makes for an excellent ski track, without the worry of automobile traffic, although you may have to contend with snowmobilers.
I don’t really recommend hiking in the winter, as the distance from Sandy McNabb to Sheep River Falls is 15.6 Km’s one way. Even the “Big Horn” day use area is almost 8km’s (one way). This makes it time prohibitive, without much payoff, especially if you get unlucky and don’t see wildlife. You are probably better off just using the Sandy McNabb trails.
The best time to go is in the summer, even if you have to contend with tourists. Everything is in full bloom, and open. Although spring and fall do have their benefits. Any time of year except winter is the Best Place to See Bighorns in Alberta at S.R.P.P.
Where to go:
The best place to see bighorn sheep is “Big Horn” day use area. The sheep just love the wide open plateau just below this picnic site. Even if you get unlucky and bighorns aren’t there, there are still gorgeous views of the valley below, and IMHO, it is still worth it just for the views. Just be careful driving through this area as sometimes the sheep like to lick the salt from the road and do not care that you are driving through. Also during mating season it is not unheard of that the males can attack your vehicle, or you personally.
A 300lb male can seriously injure, or even kill a human if they aren’t careful. You will also have a hard time explaining to your insurance, or car rental company, a huge ram-sized dent in your car/truck. Approach wildlife with respect they deserve, even the young ones can pack a hefty whallop, and considering their skulls have evolved to absorb this impact, they aren’t deterred by your metal vehicle.
Interestingly enough, the “Big Horn” area is good for other wildlife too. I have personally observed elk, coyote, deer, moose and birds in this very spot. If something is not there be patient, have a picnic, go for a hike or drive onward if you are not patient. It’s likely they are somewhere else at the moment, but may return. Sheep River Provincial park, is the Best Place to See Bighorns in Alberta
Sheep river falls:
If wildlife isn’t your thing or you have had your fill, then this is an excellent option for you. With a decent sized parking lot you should hopefully find a spot even during busy season (summer). A short hike away are the beautiful falls. In the spring and fall seasons, be careful on the trails as snow and ice accumulate and trails become very slippery, combine this with the steepness and you have a recipe for disaster if you aren’t careful. With that being said, the falls are beautiful year round, if you can get to them.
The falls are something I do recommend you experience at least once. If you are already there I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t check them out. As long as you keep your family safe by wearing proper footwear and keeping a suitable pace, this is a good family activity. The trails, although steep in some spots, are not long and should be OK for young children who are capable of walking. If they have a tendency to wander off, you should hold their hand or possibly not do this activity.
There are 2 overnight areas for camping: one at Sandy McNabb, and the other at the extreme end of Sheep River Road at “Bluerock Campground”. Neither are reservable, but both offer a large amount of sites: totaling 216 with 38 equestrian and 133 having power, there is plenty of space but since you cant reserve you should keep a backup plan. I have not camped in either site, so I can’t really comment about the quality of the campgrounds. I have, however, walked/driven by them and can say they look nice enough. Prices range from $26 – $40 night, with equestrian being more expensive, but price includes 2 horses with additional horses being $7/horse. Wood is usually available for purchase at Sandy McNabb, while Bluerock is unserviced.
More information can be found at the Alberta Parks website.
You can also visit the same site, here, for printable PDF summer trail maps and winter trails.
Suggestions for what to do after:
While I don’t have a guide for it, Turner Valley is a charming little town east of Sheep River P.P. that you can’t possibly miss because you have to drive through it to get to the park. This town of just over 2k people has an 18 hole golf course, an outdoor pool, rink and skatepark to name a few activities.
There are also a few mostly Mom & Pop owned restaurants and cafes, perfect if you want to have dinner or didn’t bring lunch. By supporting local businesses, you create a larger bond between you and the community so that locals will be even happier to see you. While it certainly isn’t required to stop, think about this: when you hear about tourists becoming a problem, it’s usually because those tourists aren’t seen as being beneficial to the community. If they can see you aren’t just bringing traffic through their town, but are benefiting them they are more likely to be warm towards tourists, and hey who couldn’t benefit from a few new friends?
Millarville is also a good place to check out. While it is much smaller than Turner Valley, being a hamlet, it may be still worth a stop. You have to actively seek it out as you have to turn off highway 22 to get to it, and there aren’t a lot of businesses. There is something I think is definitely worth checking out, but ironically not actually in Millarville: The Millarville Farmers Market. What better way to support local farmers and businesses? You might just find yourself a treasure, enjoy a healthy dinner, or at the very least get to interact with real locals, which is what any good tourist is looking for right? To get to the Farmers market between June to Oct (check website), drive north from Millarville and take the next major right (hwy 549) or (306 ave W) then follow the signs.
This link to a PDF from the Alberta Parks website has a section on its brochure that I can’t say any better than to put on here verbatim, so I will just link to it directly. https://www.albertaparks.ca/media/6493728/2016_plpp_summer_brochure_low_res.pdf Clicking will automatically download the PDF.Other information is on there, but the aforementioned etiquette is on the right side of the map part.
I will say this: please be respectful of the wildlife. Our ecosystems are fragile, and wildlife can seriously harm you and your family. The average Instagram picture has about 2 days of life, before it gets lost in the sea of other posts, so don’t let 2 days ruin your life or an animal’s.
All that being said: Sheep River Provincial park, is the Best Place to See Bighorns in Alberta
The above advice being said: wildlife opportunities are abundant here, as are landscape photos, and wildflower and insect macros. I recommend a point and shoot with a telephoto zoom, or an SLR with a 300-400mm minimum equivalent. A zoom lens will give you better control over your framing, and a long focal length will let you stay far enough away to stay safe. A wide angle lens or zoom will be better for landscapes. These are not set in stone rules, with certain situations being OK to break the rules, but for the majority of situations, if you follow these guidelines you should be good.
For wildlife, the longer the lens the better. For animals that are standing still I suggest a shutter speed above or just below the focal length 300mm = 1/300th of a second etc. You can get away with lower if you have a camera or lens with image stabilization. I wouldn’t go with much lower than 1/100th of a second, even with stabilization, as if the animal decides to move the shot is ruined. It is better to turn up your ISO (sensor sensitivity). This may produce grain, but you can fix grainy photos. You can’t fix shots ruined by large amounts of blurriness or being out of focus.
For landscapes, the wider the lens the better (in general). Somewhere between the ranges of 16-50mm range is more than adequate. Shutter speed is not as important, unless it is so low you can’t hold your camera steady enough not to blur your shot. Personally, I can hold my camera steady enough at 1/30th of a second without stabilization (with a wide lens). I won’t go too far into advanced photography in this guide, so I will simplify it. If it looks pretty in the frame, take the shot; if it doesn’t, reframe it till it does. Use your feet if you have to.
Sheep River Provincial Park: in general: 9/10
For wildlife: 6/10 to 9/10 depends on your own luck and what you are content with
- Bighorns are common
- Elk are less common
- Moose are rare
- Bears are rare, but not as rare as moose
- Coyote are somewhat rare
- Wolves are very rare, but not unheard of
- Bobcat and other big cats are very rare but not unheard of
- Owls are rare
- Birds of other species are common
Wildflowers: (in blooming season) 9/10
Cycling: untested (you tell me)
Equestrian: untested (you tell me)
Camping: untested (you tell me)
Cross country skiing: untested (you tell me)
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I really hope you enjoyed this entry this week. This is truly one of my favorite places to go, and is the best place to see bighorns in Alberta. . If you have been here let me know in the comments, even if you disagree with me. You can also make suggestions on what you would like me to cover, or if I missed something you think I should include. Thank you for reading and happy trails, You can help me out additionally by sharing me on social media such as Facebook if you think someone will benefit this information.