Visit Spruce Woods Provincial Park near Brandon, Manitoba to hike the Spirit Sands and Devil’s Punch Bowl Trails. The Spirit Sands or Carberry Sandhills (as they are also called) are Manitoba’s only sand dunes. They area is sometimes referred to as Manitoba’s desert but the dunes are not true desert, simply a remnant of a sandy delta on the Assiniboine River. The sands get almost twice the amount of rain of a typical desert – allowing a wide variety of plants to colonize the dunes as you’ll see on the hike.
The easy 6.5 km (approximately) Spirit Sands hike is a must do if you’re in western Manitoba. It’s a fun, family-friendly hike. Go early or late in the day in the heat of the summer as the sand dunes can get stinking hot.
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Why visit Spruce Woods Provincial Park?
The only sand dunes in Manitoba – the 4 square km Spirit Sands are in Spruce Woods Provincial Park where the boreal forest meets the Assiniboine River. They are a great place to hike, play, wander and photograph, especially in summer when the wildflowers make an appearance.
Two reptiles that are unique to Manitoba also call this park home. They include the northern prairie skink (a lizard and the only one that lives in Manitoba) and the western hognose snake. While this snake is non-poisonous, if threatened, it imitates a rattlesnake. Unfortunately we saw neither reptile on our hike.
Location of the Spirit Sands hike
Spruce Woods Provincial Park is located approximately 180 km west of Winnipeg. The closest city is Brandon, 76 km away to the northwest. To get here, drive east on the Trans-Canada Highway until you reach Highway 5. Follow it south for 30 km.
Spirits Sands hike and Devil’s Punch Bowl trail
We spent three to four hours exploring all the trails that make up the Spirit Sands – Devil’s Punch Bowl combination. The differences in ecosystems can easily be seen in the photos below.
The Spirit Sands trail offers easy hiking but it can get seriously hot by noon on a summer day. Avoid that time if possible. All the hiking trails could be covered in as little as 90 minutes but at a meandering pace it could easily take three hours.
There are two approaches to the sand dunes – a, flat easy trail or one that requires a bit of stair climbing. Climb, if you can for the excellent views of the area. If you were a bird, the Spirit Sands would appear somewhat circular from the air, reminiscent of a medicine wheel.
As you reach the dunes, by way of the East Gate, sometimes referred to as the Place of Beginnings, be aware that you are walking on land considered hallowed by generations of native people. Be respectful. The South is called the Place of Plenty, the North – the Place of Wisdom and the West – the Place of Endings.
The Devil’s Punch Bowl Area, Spruce Woods Provincial Park
The Devil’s Punch Bowl area is adjacent to the Spirit Sands trail. Access is via an easy 1.9 kilometre connector trail through fields. The Punch Bowl from first appearances looks like an innocuous pond, one where birds from all over appear to hang out.
But it’s formed by an underground stream. In fact, sand slides into the 45 metre depression and disappears into what has been called eerie blue-green water.
Extensive stairways lead you over the boggy bits and up the sandy banks. Take advantage of well-placed benches to sit and revel in the scene.
The Assiniboine River Canoe Route
Near the Devil’s Punch Bowl you can see the Assiniboine River. There is a canoe route on the river that starts in Brandon and winds through the park to end in Holland, Manitoba. Maps are available showing the location of access points, drinking water and camping spots.
Beware of poison ivy when you’re hiking the Spirit Sands trail
Beware of the poison ivy in Spruce Woods Provincial Park. It’s everywhere. Long pants are a good idea and if you do touch the poison ivy, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.
At the beginning of the Spirit Sands trail, there is also a sign advising you not to touch suspicious objects. The area was a former military testing ground, so there is the remote chance of finding explosives.
Where to stay if you don’t want to camp at Spirit Sands Provincial Park
Brandon is your best bet if you want to night somewhere close by. There are lots of chain hotels – never my favourite – but at least a couple are rated fabulous.
If you’re keen to do a lot of hiking in Manitoba I recommend checking out Hike Manitoba – and purchasing one of the guidebooks. You’ll find Jaime Manness, who owns and runs the site, to be very responsive should you have any questions.
A few things to take on the hike
In summer half gaitersare ideal for keeping pebbles and sand out of your shoes