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Enjoy colourful autumn with trips close to home

Fall is our favourite time to wander around the west. Forests are draped in gold, summertime crowds have cleared out of the parks and accommodation and campsites are more readily available, sometimes at off-season rates.

If you haven’t yet taken advantage of free admission to national parks during 2017, fall is the perfect time, especially if you’re eyeing heavily-visited Rocky Mountain parks such as Banff or Jasper.

Any time we have visited in late September, we’ve found it busy but not overcrowded. Once you get away from the main townsites, the traffic and tourists disperse considerably.

Yoho, Kootenay and Waterton Lakes National Parks get fewer visitors in the fall.

One national park that is often overlooked, but shouldn’t be is Elk Island just east of Edmonton. Though less than an hour from the city, weekdays in the fall are quiet.

The combination of forest, meadows, lakes and wetlands makes for attractive fall colours, though the real draw is wildlife.

You might see elk, moose, a variety of birds and other critters. Finding bison, often a lot of them, is practically a certainty. Big males like to simply wander down the road, making this the only place in Canada where you might get caught in a bison traffic jam.

Keep in mind that the 2017 free admission also applies to national historic sites such as Batoche, Fort Walsh or Lower Fort Garry.

For more information, visit the Parks Canada website at www.pc.gc.ca.

While fall can get cool in the mountains, it usually brings ideal weather to visit southern prairie parks such as Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park or Writing On Stone Provincial Park, which can be uncomfortably hot in summer.

Campground space opens up as well. You almost always have to book ahead in summer for camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park, but when we visited last September, there was plenty of space available. In addition to the famous fossils and spectacular badlands, a fall time bonus was the gloriously golden cottonwood trees lining the Red Deer River.

Colour is the prime fall specialty. Shades of yellow dominate the aspen parklands, mountains and northern forests. But the farther east we go, the more interesting things become.

Eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba have more tree species such as Mountain Maple, adding a reddish tinge to the forests.

Don’t overlook the southern prairie when seeking fall colours. Wooded coulees in places such as Grasslands National Park or Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park contrast against native grasses for a kaleidoscope of hues.

In a class by itself is the Cypress Hills, where the fall colour season usually comes later and the mix of forest and grasslands makes for striking scenes.

Fall brings wildlife highlights such as the elk rut, marked by ear-piercing bugling and males competing for dominance and generally showing off. While the rut is wide-ranging, national parks tend to be the best places to see the show because the wildlife isn’t concerned with hunters.

Jasper is the top spot, though Banff, Elk Island, Prince Albert and Riding Mountain National Parks all have plenty of elk shenanigans.

Fall migration of waterfowl through the Prairies ranks among nature’s great spectacles. Numbers of geese and cranes can be in the hundreds of thousands.

Hotspots include Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh, the Quill Lakes and Last Mountain Lake in Saskatchewan or Beaverhill Lake in Alberta.

Our go-to spot is often Luck Lake Heritage Marsh just north of Lake Diefenbaker because the dyke road crossing the shallow lake provides easy access. A bonus is that elegant tundra swans usually stop there as well.

Coming here at dawn to watch the lift-off of tens of thousands of snow geese is nothing short of breathtaking.

Arlene and Robin Karpan are well-travelled writers based in Saskatoon. Contact: travel@producer.com.

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