While summer vacation plans often involve a trip further afield, there are countless places to explore right here in Manitoba. Here's a sampling of some of Manitoba's attractions, with suggestions for interesting day trips for the whole family.
Did you know Manitoba has its very own desert? Surprisingly, many people have no idea that Manitoba is home to the Spirit Sands, a five-square kilometre tract with over 200 feet of sand dunes.
Located in Spruce Woods Provincial Heritage Park, which is about 90 minutes from Winnipeg, this desert-like area features dunes that rise 30 metres above the prairie. You can hike across the dunes to the Devil's Punch Bowl, a lake that never freezes because it's fed by an underground river system.
Spruce Woods is also home to some interesting wildlife. The northern prairie skink is Manitoba's only lizard and the western hognose snake and two species of cacti are also unique in Manitoba. Spruce Woods is full of self-guided hiking trails that you can navigate alone or by horse-drawn covered wagon.
"It's so unique," says Larry Robinson, who owns Spirit Sands Wagon Outfitters. "You have the desert and within two miles some of the most productive farmland in Manitoba."
Robinson offers 90-minute interpretive tours of the Spruce Woods desert and other areas, as well as overnight wagon trips to the back country for the more adventurous.
"Most of the people that come out would never do something like this," he says. "And they are enthusiastic about it the whole time."
Gardens of peace
Sharing land on both sides of the border, the International Peace Garden is a 2,339-acre botanical garden and park celebrating the longstanding peace between Canada and the U.S. Located on the Manitoba/North Dakota border, it is about 22 kilometres south of Boissevain.
"There is no place like this in the world," says Kathy McGhan, administrative manager for the International Peace Garden.
The one-of-a-kind garden features reflecting pools, two 120-foot concrete Peace Towers and terraced walkways. Over 150,000 flowers are planted annually to complement the many perennials and shrubs. There's even a unique 18-foot working floral clock. Floral displays of the Canadian and American flags are the only two floral designs that stay the same each year.
The 911 Memorial is the final resting place of several steel girders transported from New York's World Trade Center site. Over 150,000 people tour the garden each year, but McGhan says most are not local.
"Visitors come here from all over the world, but people are not even coming to see what is in their own backyard," says McGhan. "People really need to be proud that this is in their province."
Digging for dinosaurs
Many people also don't know Manitoba has its very own dinosaur museum in Morden.
With close to 600 specimens in its collection, the Canadian Fossil Discovering Centre has the largest collection of prehistoric marine fossils in North America. You can learn all about the marine creators that inhabited the seaway covering most of North America 80 million years ago. The museum's highlight is "Bruce", a full-scale, complete reproduction of a 43-foot long Mosasaur unearthed in Manitoba in 1974.
"A lot of people don't know about us," admits museum curator Anita Janzic. "But there is definitely a lot to see and do."
For a truly unique experience, those 12 and up can become a paleontologist for the day on a Paleo Tour. You can dig for fossils in the Pembina Hills working alongside museum staff. While they typically dig on private land, Janzic says this year the centre has acquired its own land for excavation purposes.
"This summer we're anticipating creating a mini quarry on our land to work down layer by layer," she notes. "We're hoping to find a larger specimen there."
Celebrating culture in Steinbach
With such a diverse heritage, Manitoba has a wealth of museums and festivals celebrating our different cultures. In Steinbach, it's worth the trip to visit the Mennonite Heritage Village. At least 70,000 visitors a year think it is.
Spread out on 40-acres, the village celebrates the Mennonite way of life from the 16th century to today. The highlight is a street that is reminiscent of the Mennonite villages in southern Manitoba in the late 1800s.
There's a working windmill with 60-foot sails, period-style homes, a granary, blacksmith's shop, church and school, along with interpreters to take you back in time.
"It's a working village," notes Linda Schroeder, the acting executive director. "It's a living history museum."
A trip to the Mennonite Heritage Village takes at least half a day, so be sure to try some traditional Mennonite cuisine at the complex's Livery Barn Restaurant, which is located in the midst of the pioneer setting. There's also a general store where you can buy local handicrafts, stone-ground flour and other souvenirs. Mennonite Heritage Village is open daily, May to September.
Canoeing on Caddy Lake
There's nothing quite like it. If you're a canoeing or boating enthusiast, Caddy Lake is the place to go. Located on Highway 44 in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Caddy Lake is the start of the ancient Whiteshell River canoe route. Not only can you canoe and boat along beautiful Caddy Lake, you can connect to several other lakes. The Caddy Lake Rock Tunnels were created by railroad construction. Today, they are rock caves that can be accessed by boat or canoe. Glide through the tunnels and you're transported into two much quieter lakes that are part of the incredible 170-kilometre Caddy Lake canoe route. If you're looking for more than just a day trip, you can camp along the way and spend days in the midst of the unspoiled wilderness.
Hitting the beaches
When the mercury rises and summer temperatures hit upwards of 30 degrees, who could think of a better spot than Manitoba's revered beaches? Take a drive along Highway 9 to visit Matlock, Sandy Hook and Gimli, popular spots along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, which is the world's tenth largest freshwater lake.
Gimli is an ideal destination for a day trip. The town, which has a strong Icelandic heritage, not only has a beautiful beach and harbour, but it is chalk full of interesting shops, restaurants and museums, including the New Icelandic Heritage Museum.
Be sure to stop at H.P. Tergesen & Sons Store, a provincial heritage site. Built in 1898, it is the oldest operating store in Manitoba. But even though the pressed tin exterior and interior and hardwood floors reflect a different era, H.P Tergesen & Sons is full of contemporary goodies and trendy fashions.
River Road, one of the historic routes of the Red River, has to be a perennial favourite for a long Sunday drive. And there's plenty to see and do along the way.
Pop in to one of the local antique stores along River Road and browse for hidden treasures. Be sure to stop in at Captain Kennedy Museum and Tea House. Built in 1866 by Captain William Kennedy, who was an explorer and trader, the house is decorated in the Victorian era. You can enjoy afternoon tea in the glassed-in Maple Grove tearoom while you look out over the English gardens to the river. Located along River Road Historic Parkway, Captain Kennedy's is open daily May to October except Mondays. If that's not your cup of tea, head over to Skinner's in Lockport for one of their famous foot-long hotdogs.
Then take a step back in time to the 19th century at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site of Canada. Located along the banks of the Red River, Lower Fort Garry is an original Hudson's Bay Company fur trading centre and the oldest stone fur trading post still intact in North America. It has been restored to give people a sense of what life was like back in the days of the voyageurs and the fur traders in the mid-1800s. Visit the blacksmith's shop, the fur loft, the Governor's home and other spots in the settlement with costumed interpreters. Lower Fort Garry is open daily from May 15 until Labour Day.
For the ophiophilist -- or snake lover -- in your family, a trip to the Narcisse snake pits is a must-do this spring. But it's not for the faint of heart. Officially known as the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area, the snake pits are home to literally thousands of red-sided garter snakes. The snakes are most active in the first two weeks of May, when they emerge from the limestone sinkholes to mate.
Although Mother's Day is a perennial favourite for viewing, the snakes can usually be seen in action as long as September, when the cool weather makes them head back underground. The snake pits are located along Highway 17, about six kilometres north of Narcisse.
Exploring a national park
While it's a little further afield, Riding Mountain National Park could be done in a day, but makes a much better weekend trip. The park features almost 3,000 square kilometres of forest, parkland, grasslands and meadows.
And there are all kinds of wilderness experiences to be had. Just hike, bike or take a horseback ride along the network of day and overnight trails. If you're a seasoned hiker or cyclist, try the 8.7-kilometre trail to Grey Owl's cabin.
Riding Mountain is also ideal for wildlife viewing. Whether its deer, moose, bears, foxes or birds, you're sure to spot something on your way. There's even a herd of bison that live in the park. And there are all kinds of accommodation options from camping and cabin rentals to basic motels and the very comfortable Elkhorn Resort.
End of an era
The Parkland region is also home to a fascinating site that celebrates Manitoba's rich agricultural heritage. Established in 1996, the Inglis Grain Elevators National Historic Site is the last remaining row of standard country grain elevators. Five authentic wooden elevators have been preserved along the abandoned rail line in the village of Inglis. Most elevators across prairie towns were torn down and destroyed after the golden age of Canada's grain industry. You can tour the elevators and see the inside mechanics of a grain elevator. The site is open daily from July to September.
Tracey Bryksa is a Winnipeg writer and regular contributor to the Travel/Leisure and Sunday Homes sections of the Winnipeg Free Press