As the capital and largest city in the Canadian province of Manitoba, Winnipeg boasts with a lot of activities and things to do that can keep you busy for days. But, if you’re looking to get out of the city for a day or a couple of days, there are plenty of options for all kinds of travelers.
The province of Manitoba is quite diverse and dynamic; a perfect playground for outdoor enthusiasts, adventure seekers, history buffs, and everyone in between. It’s not surprising Lonely Planet named Manitoba as one of the top 10 regions in the world to visit on their 2019 Best in Travel list.
Manitoba is an underrated province waiting to be discovered. To do that, here I’ll share with you six day trips and multi-day trips you can do from Winnipeg that will help you explore the best of Manitoba.
1. Explore the Canadian Outdoors at the Whiteshell Provincial Park
Out of the 50+ provincial parks in the province of Manitoba, the Whiteshell Provincial Park is probably one of the best ones and most accessible from the city of Winnipeg, located just an hour and a half east of the city. In fact, this park is the quintessential image of the Canadian outdoors.
With almost 2,000 square kilometers of protected wilderness parkland, Whiteshell is a giant playground for any outdoorsy and adventurous traveler.
There are dozens of remote lakes, several rivers, boreal forests, bare granite ridges, and even archaeological sites that you can explore quickly as a day trip or at a more leisurely pace if you spend a couple of days in the park.
There’s so much to do at Whiteshell that you can easily spend a week there and have something new to do each day. Among the best activities to do there are camping, kayaking through man-made tunnels at Caddy Lake, river surfing at Sturgeon Falls (only for experienced surfers), hiking, mountain biking, seeing the northern lights, and even picnicking and swimming by a decommissioned dam, among many others.
This park offers so much to do that I dedicated a full post to some of the best activities you can do there. And as a bonus, when you’re driving to the Whiteshell Provincial Park along Highway 1, you can stop for a quick photo at the longitudinal center of Canada!
2. Wander Through Unexpected Sand Dunes at the Spirit Sands and Devil’s Punch Bowl
Two hours west of Winnipeg you’ll find the Spruce Woods National Park, where you’ll see one of the most unusual landscapes to be found in Canada. And what landscape might that be? A desert! Yes, a desert full of dunes!
Ok, it’s not a Sahara, but it’s a drier and much sandier landscape than the typical forest and prairie landscape found elsewhere in Canada.
The 10 km long (there and back) Spirits Sands and Devil’s Punch Bowl trail can be challenging, but it is equally rewarding thanks to its lookouts and the varied scenery ranging from the arid desert with sand dunes to grassy meadows and rolling hills to dense forests.
The dunes appear about one kilometer into the trail, where you see some steep wooden steps that lead you to the top of that first dune. From the top, you’ll see the expanse of this unusual Manitoban landscape.
The trail is lightly trafficked, so chances are that you might have the entirely peaceful and calm scenery for yourself for a while. A perfect place to have solitude in nature.
Ahead on the trail, you’ll find the Devil’s Punch Bowl, which is a crater-shaped small lake with a variety of blue-green turquoise colors and surrounded by tall trees. Curiously, this lake is formed by an underground stream from the Assiniboine River. A great photo spot!
Not far from the lake you’ll also see a beautiful panoramic view of the Assiniboine River, which goes all the way to Winnipeg. Along the way, you can stop to admire the different views and picnic. You can also camp in the national park if you’re looking to spend a weekend in Manitoba’s desert.
The trail takes around four hours. An interesting fact about the area is that it is home to all the different types of snakes in Manitoba and the Prairie Skink, Manitoba’s only lizard.
Hiking the sand dunes is somewhat challenging, so prepare for a good leg workout. If going during the summer, it is recommended to start the trail early in the morning as it can get really hot in the sand dunes. Bring enough water with you. You can learn more about the trail on this page.
3. Head to Churchill to see the Beluga Whales and Polar Bears
This one is quite a side trip as it’s far from Winnipeg –roughly 1,085 km north– but worth it if you can make it there.
The small town of Churchill (population of roughly 900 people) is famous for three things: Polar bears, beluga whales, and the northern lights.
When should you go there depends on what you want to see. If you wish to see the Beluga whales, then the optimal time is July and August. If looking for polar bears, head there October and November. And if looking to see the northern lights, head there February and March.
Of course, you can see polar bears and the northern lights most of the year (it’s said they have up to 330 days of northern lights), but the optimal times are the ones mentioned above.
Why is Churchill so good at these three activities? Churchill is quite close to the arctic circle, which improves substantially the possibility of seeing the northern lights.
It is also located right on the migration path of the polar bears, which is why sometimes you can even see them in the town. And, the beluga whales also migrate to that part of the Hudson Bay where the town is located.
So, how do you get to Churchill? Well, there are no roads from Winnipeg to Churchill, so you must either take the train, which can take 40+ hours since it has to go super slow over the areas with permafrost. Or, you can fly, which takes roughly two hours.
Some companies offer day trips to Churchill from Winnipeg, flying really early in the morning to see the polar bears in their natural habitat and the whales, and then fly back to Winnipeg late at night. If lucky, you’ll get to see the northern lights on your way back.
But, if you have time to spare, I recommend doing a multi-day trip to Churchill, like this one, as you’ll get to see so much more at a more leisurely pace and have even bigger chances of seeing the northern lights and both animals in their natural habitat.
4. Do a Multi-day Canoe Trip in Remote Manitoba
Some places are best traveled through different transportation means, and Manitoba is one of them. In fact, Manitoba is home to some of the best canoe trips in Canada. You can explore some of the most unspoiled and pure wilderness in the province by canoeing along one of its many rivers.
While you can do a canoe day trip at Whiteshell Provincial Park and other parks, it’s with multi-day canoe trips that you can really go deep into the rough Manitoban wilderness. Companies like Twin River Travel offer these kinds of multi-day canoe trips for all levels – from short weekend trips to weeklong whitewater adventures.
Some notable trips take you to Nopiming Park, which is considered the crown jewel of paddling in southern Manitoba, and one of the wildest backcountry areas in the province; Whiteshell Provincial Park, which I’ve already shared how amazing it is; and the Manigotagan River, which passes through ecologically important boreal transition ecosystems, and wildlife-filled marshes.
5. Have a Beach Day at the Grand Beach Provincial Park
A beach, right in the middle of Canada? Yes! The Grand Beach Provincial Park rests along the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, which is Canada’s sixth-largest lake.
Unexpectedly, there you’ll find powdery white sand beaches and grass-topped dunes reaching as high as 8 meters (30 feet), making it one of North America’s top beaches.
This park, which is located roughly 100 km north of Winnipeg, is an excellent place to swim and windsurf. But beyond watersports, you can also hike several of its trails, including the Spirit Rock Trail and the Ancient Beach Trail. Camping is also available as well as several picnic areas.
For those interested in bird watching, a lagoon nearby has a healthy ecosystem that includes many species of birds.
A bit south from the beach is the Brokenhead Wetland Interpretive Trail, located just 80 km north of Winnipeg. This wetland is a sacred area that has been used by the local Ojibway for over 300 years for sacred ceremonies and sustainability.
The trail, which does an excellent job of showing the historical and cultural significance of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation and their ties with the Brokenhead Wetland, takes roughly two hours roundtrip to walk and it’s filled with birds and rare plants such as wild orchids and insect-eating plants, among others.
6. Explore a Historic Fort and take a peek at Icelandic Culture
Last but not least, why not take an easy and relaxed cultural and historic day trip to Iceland? Well, no, not really, but there’s a small town in Manitoba that does feel like a little Iceland. It’s called Gimli (like the Lord of the Rings dwarf!), located 90 km north of Winnipeg, on the western side of Lake Winnipeg.
Gimli is a community established by Icelandic settlers who were part of the New Iceland settlement in Manitoba back in 1875, when a quarter of Iceland’s population (over 20,000 Icelanders) left their homeland due to harsh environmental and economic conditions in Iceland, including the eruption of Mount Askja.
Gimli, which is Norse for “home of the gods,” still maintains a strong connection to Iceland and Icelandic culture today. Unleash your inner Viking at Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Festival which has been celebrated on every august for over 130 years now.
Gimli Beach is also a popular spot in the summer. Take a swim, build a sandcastle or stroll on the beach. Browse through their art galleries, pose for a selfie with the Viking statue at the Harbour Park, and learn about the Icelandic heritage as you roam around the town.
Don’t miss trying their seafood! Like the original Icelanders, this is one of the main industries in Gimli.
Another spot you can visit on this day trip is the Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site. In fact, you should visit it in the morning on your way up to Gimli as it’s just outside Winnipeg.
The Lower Fort Garry was built in 1830 by the Hudson’s Bay Company on the western bank of the Red River, about 32 km north of the original Fort Garry (where Winnipeg is now located) after the latter one was destroyed by devastating floods in 1826.
It was here where Treaty 1 was signed; a treaty where indigenous groups agreed to “cede, release, surrender and yield up to Her Majesty the Queen and successors forever all the lands” in southern Manitoba to the Crown, to allow for peaceful co-existence in exchange for an annual annuity and material goods such as clothing and agricultural supplies.
Take your time to walk amongst Canada’s oldest collection of stone fur trade buildings to experience the life of the trappers and traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company as they lived in the 1850s.
These are just a few of countless day trip and multi-day trip options in Manitoba, but as you can see, there are lots of things to do within a couple of hours drive in any direction from Winnipeg!
And, if you want to learn more about what to do in Winnipeg, check out this post as I share all the top things to do there.
Images Featured, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12 from Flickr Creative Commons. Images 9 and 10 by Travel Manitoba. I traveled to Manitoba in collaboration with Travel Manitoba, but all opinions here are mine.
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