On the Hunt in Medicine Hat

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

We all have those places – spots we’ve been to frequently but have never really visited. And such is the case of us with the city of Medicine Hat in southeastern Alberta. My father moved there several years ago and while we’ve done some limited exploring with him, we had only ever just scratched the surface. What a difference it makes to return with specific quests in mind and with full intent to explore the best of what the city has to offer.

We were on the hunt.

for the best coffee

We were, on our second day, planning to hunt for fall colours via bicycle along the shores of South Saskatchewan River in Police Point Park. The weather had other ideas for us. With a dismal forecast we instead turned our attention to activities that would keep us indoors.For a small city, Medicine Hat has a relatively strong cafe culture. Strong enough that if you were to try and crawl it all in one day, there is a high probability that you would blow past the recommended daily limits for caffeine. We took in Heartwood Cafe and Station Coffee Company, and had to opt only for Italian sodas at Café Verve as we were too wired, but the most memorable stop for us was Madhatter Coffee Roastery.

Not only for the delectable coffee (a Viennese Melange, a cappuccino made with half white milk and half chocolate, and with beans freshly roasted right in front of us, the only spot in town to do so), but also for the encouraging conversation with their new owners, Josh and Katrina. In our brief chat the excitement for their venture was clearly palpable, with ambitious and admirable plans to use their excellent relationships with coffee growers around the world to do further good for causes dear to their heart.

Coffee stop at Madhatter Coffee Roastery
Espresso stop at Station Coffee
Roasting beans at Madhatter Coffee Roastery
Coffee break at The Heartwood Cafe

For hidden treasure

We were thankfully able to return to the Nature Centre in Police Point a day later, but this time venturing by foot and with our noses to the ground. We were on a quest for treasure that was hidden in tree stumps and clumps around the park.

I’m honestly a little surprised at ourselves and that we’ve never tried geocaching before, but it was fitting that we take our first hand at it in Medicine Hat, where the city is on a mission to be regarded as Alberta’s Capital of Geocaching.

The concept is simple, and it was all about the quest. Armed with a handheld GPS, we locked in coordinates and used it as guidance among the paths (and through the bushes!) to pinpoint our destination. On arrival, a small container held a notebook and sometimes other tokens to mark the victorious find. There are dozens to find within the park, and hundreds in the city of Medicine Hat itself.

We were hooked. Especially when we chased a spot down to the river and had that slice of the valley all to ourselves. It then was not at all about the small cache to be found, but about enjoying the places we never would have gotten to otherwise.

For connections with nature

Red Rock Coulee

A couple of years ago we were on a journey by camper van in New Zealand, and one of our stops was the famed Moeraki Boulders. We were stunned by the perfect spherical rocks that sat on the beach, so much so that we were up before the crack of dawn to photograph the sun splitting over them as it began its daily ascent.

Red Rock Coulee Natural Area, just a few dozen kilometers away from Medicine Hat, was so similar, and yet so stunningly unknown in comparison. How is this not a place that tourists and photographers flock to regularly? The science behind the rocks is interesting enough – they are concretions formed over millions of years into red-orange perfect spheres – but to play on them and photograph them (with no one else around!) was a really special experience. You can bet we’ll be back for sunset on another day.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

East of Calgary, most of what people expect is prairie views for days. And despite some dips in the landscape because of the Canadian Badlands, that is mostly what you get. At least until you arrive at Cypress Hills, just a few dozen kilometers from the Hat.

The hills come up suddenly and unexpectedly, rising to the same altitude as Banff, and making it the highest spot of land in Canada east of the Rockies. On the day we visited the weather again was a factor, a sharp wind preventing us from taking to the small lake by canoe as we were so eager to do. Instead, we took a walk on the Old Baldy trail, soaking in all of the alpine fresh air with the town of Elkwater just below us. Had the sun been in the sky, we would have run out of hours in the day just enjoying the views and activities on offer.

The road to Elkwater – Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Alberta
Morning fog over Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Alberta
Hiking Old Baldy – Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Alberta

For food

There are few better quests in a tourist’s journey than that to find the best local food. And Medicine Hat proved to us that the foodie movement sweeping the world does not end at the big cities. The Hat and surrounding area offer a surprising number of excellent eateries.

Camp Cookhouse
Thankfully, the weather couldn’t stop us from eating here while we were in Elkwater, as we will declare it one of the best restaurants we have ever eaten at in Alberta. Started by a Top Chef Canada contestant and her partner, the Camp Cookhouse has a small but inspirational menu that has to be tasted to believe. Make the drive for the burger, and bring friends so that you can all sample each other’s plates.

The ribs at Camp Cookhouse were incredible!

Lela’s Place (The Chocolate Shop)
Given the name, we expected to walk into a candy store with few offerings on the menu, but what we found was indeed much better: an authentic homestyle diner serving up large quantities of fresh and diverse food. Don’t expect a streamlined hipster diner of modern day, Lela’s has been open since the 1930s and is a true piece of the city’s history.

Local Public Eatery
Excellent food in a large pub atmosphere with a huge selection of craft beer from the two local breweries is what Local Public Eatery is best known for. Most importantly for us though was the outstanding service that can be very hard to find these days.

Paradise Valley Golf Course
Wonderful coulee views, excellent service, a surprisingly diverse and delectable menu (this butter chicken was the best we’d had in a long while), and local music to be enjoyed every Friday night – this was a spot that we didn’t expect to like as much as we did.

Butter chicken from Paradise Valley Golf Course

For the big WIN

So there are a very few things that I have found myself to be better than Pete at, and that list is very short on athletic activities (except for axe throwing, which I thoroughly kicked his axe at). Not only will the Cottonwood Coulee Golf Course be memorable to us for its dramatic coulee location and the number of deer that crossed our path on the course, but also for the fact that I beat Pete.

(He will be quick to remind me that he won on the first nine, but that I bested him on the back, but I don’t care. That will likely be my one and only win ever, making Cottonwood my favourite golf course forever and ever and ever.)

Dalene tearing up the Cottonwood Golf and Country Club
Stuck the ball on the green

For inspiration

Alberta is Canada’s most entrepreneurial province, of which we are proud to now say that we are a part of that community. Medicine Hat has seen its share of swings with a resource based economy, but what they have done to adapt in some cases is truly impressive. Medalta is a perfect example. With rare and rich deposits of high-grade ball clays nearby, plus the abundance of natural gas supplying cheap power, Medalta was once a high-production pottery factory that employed hundreds of people during its best days. While the plant itself is now closed, the space was preserved to hold a museum, a beautiful hall regularly holding markets, photogenic kilns used for intimate dinners and concerts, and large artist workspaces. And next door is the Medicine Hat Brick and Tile Factory, abandoned after severe flooding in 2010, but now open for an intriguing tour that is only just a little bit spooky.

Making our own bricks on the Medalta tour
Bricks still in the kiln. After the flood, everything was left as it was
Dinner in a kiln is included with the Medalta tour

With five days on hunt throughout the city, we left with still more to be discovered – art walks, a deep dive into the historic Esplanade, plus more food and coffee spots left to unearth. We’ll make that happen on our next visit with Dad.

where we stayed

To rest in between our scouting hunting missions, we stayed at the Quality Inn, just off of the Transcanada Highway, which gave us easy access to all parts of the city. Our room was spacious but cozy, which allowed us to sleep well but also comfortably sit and work when we needed to.

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