East Saskatchewan: Rice River Canyon (2 days / 19 km)

The Rice River Canyon is a loosely defined trail and wilderness adventure in Northern Saskatchewan. The route take hikers in, around and across a shallow river, while walking into the bush. There is no trail, just a river to follow and occasional kilometer markers. The weaving, braided river is surrounded by thick bush, large boulders and fallen logs, often forcing hikers to cross the knee-to-waist deep river. Overall the walk feels a bit more like a long portage than an established hike. The end point is marked by the confluence of two streams, but rough campsites have been established all along the route. Though advertised by local towns and popularized by Saskatchewan hiking blogs, this route should only be attempted by experienced backcountry users with a strong sense of navigation, route finding skills and a lust for adventure and challenge. 

Trip Completed: June 2021

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Rice River Canyon Trailhead

Ending Point: Rice River Canyon Trailhead

Total Distance: 19 km

Elevation Gain: 310 m

Duration: 2 days / 1 night

Difficulty: Advanced

Location

Crown land in Northern Saskatchewan. The trail is located 108 km north of Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan or 93 km east of Carrot River, Saskatchewan. Approaching from either direction requires ~100 km of driving on gravel. 

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Cree, Michif Piyii (Métis) and Niitsítpiis-stahkoii (Blackfoot).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: No guidebook available. The most comprehensive blog post is this one by The Lost Girl’s Guide. 

Map: Canada NTS 063E09, 063E08

Campsite Reservations / Permits: This route is on crown land, no reservations or permits are required.

Outfitters & Shuttles

No outfitters offer trips in this area. A shuttle is not needed as the trail starts and ends at the same point.

Trip Report

Day 1: Rice River Bridge Trailhead to Y Campsite (9.5 km)

The night before our trek began, we camped in the Hudson Bay Regional Park campground, a lovely and spacious campground with a picturesque river running through. We woke up to a sunny morning, cooked some eggs, and then packed our bags for the trip.

We then drove the remaining 100 km to the trailhead in good spirits, excited as we watched prairie and farms turn into the thick spruce and aspen forest of the boreal transition zone. The road north of Hudson Bay is primarily gravel, and lightly trafficked. Drivers should be prepared to pull to the side for logging trucks, and be familiar with travelling on poorly maintained gravel. Phone service past Hudson Bay is limited. We spotted three large black bears on the road, thankfully very far from the trailhead. Around noon, we arrived at our starting location, the Rice River Bridge. There is a signboard on the west side of the bridge outlining the trail, and a large parking lot/gravel pit on the east side. 

There is no trail leading into the Rice River Canyon. Users simply follow the river and river banks to the south. Because the river constantly weaves, and the banks have an accumulation of fallen brush, the quickest and most convenient path often means fording the river. The river and banks are mainly comprised of medium-sized boulders, set into dense clay. Everybody in my party wore trail runners, as they offered good grip on the rocks, and quickly dispelled water. I alone brought a set of trekking poles, and was extremely thankful that I did, as they helped navigate underwater obstacles while crossing deeper parts of the river. There is a slight elevation gain, but it is not noticeable, as most of the time is spent focused on route finding, bank clambering and water walking. 

The river cuts through dense spruce forest. As hikers travel further south, the river plain narrows, and the banks turn into high silty bluffs. The tall beige bluffs and rocky stream are beautiful and definitely live up to the signboard’s claim that “You won’t believe that you’re in Saskatchewan!” Around kilometer four, the bluffs begin to subside and the river widens again. 

Boulder hopping and river crossing is no easy work, and as we passed the occasional trail markers, we were all surprised by how little progress we had made. Though there is supposed to be a marker every kilometer, most seem to have disappeared. The inconsistent marking is sometimes disheartening, as the kilometers feel like they drag on and on. We did not notice any markings past kilometer 6. 

As the river approaches the “Y”, the plain again widens, and the terrain flattens out. Rocky banks give way to long, silty flats which allow for easier distances to be covered. The end of the trail is underwhelming, marked only by the confluence of another small stream and a small carin. There is no outlook or epic campsite, so reaching this point felt more arbitrary than rewarding. There is a wide silt bar on the west side of the river, about 100 m north of the Y. This is a popular campsite, with a large rock firepit and a few logs used as benches. Unfortunately, we missed this spot! We chose a smaller silt bar about 100 m south of the western fork of the Y. 

After pitching our tents, we collected firewood, which was fairly easy given the amount of fallen trees and driftwood in the area. We built a small fire next to the bubbling river and cooked up roasted peppers and tea for dinner. We had packed in rods, hoping to fish along the river, but the shallow water did not look promising, so we relaxed around the fire and enjoyed a long northern evening instead. Surprisingly, the bugs were not an issue at all, so we were able to sit around our fire in peace. As the sun finally set late in the evening, we hung up our food in a nearby tree, then fell asleep to the sounds of the animated river. 

Campsite: Silt bar ~100m south of the Y. The spot we chose offered enough space for two tents and a small fire area. It was tight, but quaint. Firewood is abundance around the river banks. There are many foxes and black bears in this area, so hanging food is necessary. However, the area’s dominant spruce trees do not often have wide limbs, so a proper hanging tree should be taken into consideration when choosing a campsite.  

Day 2: Y Campsite to Rice River Bridge Trailhead (9.5 km)

We greeted the morning with strong coffee and farmer’s sausage cooked over the remains of our firewood. After a slow morning, we hit the trail hard, pushing through the first couple kilometers of easy, flat silt bars. Walking to the north proved to be much easier. The slight descent gave us a much better view of the river and banks ahead, allowing us to pick easier and more efficient routes. Though we probably crossed the river upward of 20 times on Day 1, we got our feet wet less than 10 times on the way out. As we walked out, we noticed other small campsites along the river banks, marked with rock rings. We agreed that, though we had enjoyed the challenge of pushing to the Y, any of the campsites past kilometer 5 would have been just as pleasant, with less effort. The kilometers flew by as we picked our way across the boulders and brush. As we rounded the final corner and watched the bridge come into view, we were surprised to see that we had cut a full hour off of our previous days’ time. 

We reached the car around 1:00 pm, and tore into the bags of chips that had been stashed there. As we drove back toward Hudson Bay we spotted a beaver, fox and cow moose along the road. Though we did not see any wildlife on the trail, the drive to and from the trailhead made up for it. We returned home in the evening wet, tired, but happy that we had taken on this unique and difficult wilderness challenge. 

Reflections

The Rice River Canyon is not a typical hiking trip. The lack of trail and constant boulder hopping, makes it difficult and dangerous for inexperienced hikers. The trail should only be attempted by people who are familiar with backcountry travel, and have a plan for first aid and emergency scenarios. 

I was happy that I chose to bring hiking poles and carry a light pack on this trip. The poles helped immensely while crossing the slippery river boulders, and the small, light UL pack that I carried kept me maneuverable. Light hiking shoes were great, as they dried quickly, but still protected my feet from the rocks. 

Our party agreed that hiking to the Y was not really worth it. The main “canyon” views are around the 4km mark, and past kilometer 6 the route began to drag on. The end point did not offer a stunning view or epic campsite, so it didn’t offer the usual reward after a hard hiking day. I would recommend watching for campsites along the river bank, and choosing and end point based on a good campsite rather than the arbitrary Y. 

Overall I am happy that I took on the Rice River Canyon and enjoyed my experience on the trail. We hiked over a hot weekend in June, so the cool water made the river crossings feel refreshing and welcomed. Because partial submersion is absolutely necessary on this hike, doing it in the shoulder season is not advised. The Rice River Canyon is a tough, challenging and interesting route into a pretty and rugged part of Northern Saskatchewan. For anybody hoping to explore this region with a bit more ease, I would recommend finding a canoe route instead. 

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Author Bio

Hey! I’m Liam! I am passionate about paddling and hiking, and have guided paddling trips in Manitoba and in Algonquin Provincial Park. My favorite river is the Bloodvein in Manitoba, followed closely by the Manigotagan. When I’m not paddling I work as a geologist.

Instagram: @mckinno

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