One of the top hidden gems in Saskatchewan, the ancient Nipekamew Sand Cliffs are an amazing natural phenomenon tucked away in a remote section of the province. Featuring three different sets of impressive sand cliffs and even some photogenic hoodoos, at times it feels like you were suddenly transported to the badlands of Drumheller.
Despite all of our years in Waskesiu Lake and plenty of visits even farther north, we remained fully oblivious to the very cool Nipekamew Sand Cliffs until recently. With “lazy river floating” on the Kingsmere River near Waskesiu exploding in popularity these days, it made sense that eventually word would get out about another terrific floating opportunity deep in the northern forest.
And I have to say, as great (and convenient) as the Kingsmere River float is, the one on the Nipekamew River has it beat for both scenery and length (if not convenience). Of course, you don’t actually have to dip your nether regions in frigid northern river water in order to see the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs. They are also accessible by short hike or enjoyable canoe trip.
Dating back to before the last ice age, these unique hoodoos and cliffs were created by erosion starting as much as 120 million years ago. So, they are very old, very unique, and also very fragile, so, you know, try not to wreck them.
There are three separate sets of cliffs, all easily visible from the water and trails on the opposite side (although the first and third sets are a bit tricky to reach on foot). In summer, you will also pass many blueberry bushes on your journey – tasty! – although that is also one of the reasons this is bear country so stay alert and make plenty of noise.
Black bears, at least, which aren’t usually dangerous, but if the whole idea still makes your butt clench you could always carry bear spray, just in case. Or follow my dad’s favourite joke and simply bring a much slower person along to abandon in case of trouble (in his story, that person is my mom).
How to Get to the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs
The reason you probably haven’t heard of the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs before is their location – just slightly left of The Middle of Nowhere. All right, maybe that’s overstating it. People who live in La Ronge (about 45 minutes northwest) are probably familiar with these outstanding natural highlights. However, that still leaves 99.9% of the population who, for the most part, don’t have a clue (about so much, but the sand cliffs in particular).
But the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs are actually on Google Maps and generally accessible by vehicle, so although they are well off the beaten path, it is still easy enough for most people to get there.
You follow a nice, paved highway until roughly 30 km south of the northern hub town of La Ronge, where you turn onto Highway 165, which is actually a gravel road, although it is wider and better maintained than most. You will follow this road for around 27 km to a signed turnoff on the south side of the road.
La Ronge to Nipekamew Sand Cliffs: 60 km / 45 min
Waskesiu Lake to Nipekamew Sand Cliffs: 175 km / 1.75 hrs
Prince Albert to Nipekamew Sand Cliffs: 235 km / 2.25 hrs
Saskatoon to Nipekamew Sand Cliffs: 375 km / 3.75 hrs
Just off the road you will arrive in a small parking area (really just a grassy clearance in the bush). From here, a very primitive track continues for another 1.5 kilometres to the trailhead. If your vehicle has decent clearance (a truck or SUV) you should be able to continue driving, although if you are in a small car you may want to walk from there.
Nipekamew Sand Cliffs Map
How to See the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs
Nipekamew Sand Cliffs Hike
There is an information board at the trailhead with a small map to help you get your bearings, plus a basic outhouse. From there, it is a further 1.5 kilometres to the best view of the sand cliffs. The path is basic but not steep or difficult so it is easy enough to navigate in flip flops if necessary.
Here is an AllTrails Map that leads to the main viewpoint. The downside to visiting on foot is that you really only have access to one of the three sets of cliffs. It is possible to get to a good viewpoint to the first set but it involves some serious bushwacking from the river launch point and can’t really be recommended. And from the main viewpoint, a faint trail leads to within sight of the third set of cliffs but you don’t get a really clear look at them.
The big advantages of hiking to the cliffs are that you can do it any time of year (although you’ll have to trudge through a fair bit of snow in winter) and you don’t have to wear out your lungs blowing up novelty flotation devices (or haul them along the path).
Lazy River Floating on the Nipekamew River
Easily the best way to see the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs is from the comfort of a large, inflatable popsicle (ideally with the “stick” bobbing lewdly in the water behind). Of course, anything that floats should work equally well, although it is worth considering that the entire float can take up to 45 minutes so choosing something that keeps most of your body out of the water will keep you from getting quite as cold along the way.
There are a few small beaches along the way also, though, so if you choose a nice day and have extra time you can easily exit now and then to dry off, warm up and soak up some sun.
To do the full float you will walk for about 10 minutes from the trailhead to a rather obvious viewpoint high above the river (although you can’t yet see the cliffs themselves). You can leave your things here and walk another 10 minutes to a sharp bend in the river where you can scramble down the slope and get into the water.
Getting down the slope into the water shouldn’t be too hard for most people (although several in our group went with the slide and hope plan) but getting out could be a challenging climb for some. If you don’t like the look of the end point that we’ve described you can follow the AllTrails route to the viewpoint (detouring off the main path) and leave your things across from the second set of cliffs. This will shorten the float by around 10 minutes and you won’t make it to the third set of cliffs.
We didn’t do it but were told it is also possible to continue the float all the way to the main road. This means an additional 15 minutes on the water and a much easier exit, although it will also mean having to walk the extra 1.5 km as well, either at the beginning or the end.
Nipekamew Sand Cliffs Canoe Trip
If you prefer a more comfortable, hydrodynamic canoe over a novelty floatie (Laynni, as always, went with inflatable poop emoji), it is possible to visit the cliffs via the river in either direction.
The simplest, but most strenuous, choice is to park just off the main road, put into the river there and canoe up to the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs. Of course, this means paddling against the current. It usually isn’t overly strong but will obviously require more exertion. Then you can finish with a leisurely cruise with the current back to your vehicle. The return trip is roughly 3.5 kilometres.
The other option is to drive to the trailhead and portage your canoe to the spot we’ve described for starting the river float, then do the same route as we floated but without your feet dangling in the frigid water. You can take out at the second set of cliffs and portage back to your vehicle or canoe all the way to the road and walk back up to get your vehicle (1.5 km).
Nipekamew Sand Cliffs Weather: When to Go
Summers in Saskatchewan are short but spectacular, which is why we love them so much (almost as much as the mosquitoes do). If you want to float past the cliffs you’ll have to visit between June and September, with July and August offering by far the best chance of warm weather (and slightly warmer water). You will also need to keep an eye on the water level. The water was particularly high when we visited, making it easy to cruise along without getting “beached” but if the river happens to be low you may end up walking in a few spots.
However, if you simply want to see the cliffs, it is possible to visit any time of year. Just keep the season in mind when preparing for the hike. In winter (November to March) you’ll be plodding through snow and in spring (April/May) the trail will probably be very muddy. Autumn (September/October) features cool weather but gorgeous fall foliage and can be the best time of year to visit. Bearing in mind that northern Saskatchewan weather is ludicrously fickle and not to be trusted, ever.
Nipekamew Sand Cliffs Summary
These prehistorically photogenic cliffs were an immensely pleasant surprise for us (thanks to sis-in-law Tahnni Dupre for bringing them to our attention and being our tour guide) and another excellent attraction to add to the ever-growing list of Northern Saskatchewan highlights.
So, whether you are seriously craving some time relaxing on a $5 flotation device or simply want to enjoy some fantastic scenery, the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs are worth the time and effort it takes to get there.
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