Lethbridge River Valley
For most who have grown up in Lethbridge, the coulees and the Oldman River Valley are a normal part of the landscape and daily activities, but for someone who’s not from Lethbridge, the River Valley is truly an extraordinary natural and heritage asset that truly distinguishes the City of Lethbridge. The valley is one mile (1.6km) wide and its banks, deeply scarred by coulees, are 300 ft (100m) high. A rich profusion of shrubs and trees grow in the River Valley microclimate, providing a migratory pathway and a wildlife habitat in the heart of the modern city. Within this breathtaking natural environment are a host of historical, cultural, recreational, and educational attractions that provide something for all ages and abilities.
Events and Festivals
There are a wide array of festivals that take place in the River Valley over the course of a year including Canada Day events, Heritage Days, Aboriginal Days, and a number of charity walks and runs.
In addition to the festivals, activities and events occur daily down in the River Valley. These events usually occur in relation to the wide amount of amenities located here, including:
- Oldman River Observatory (Popson Park), run by the Lethbridge Astronomy Society.
- Softball Valley (Peenaquim Park).
- The Lethbridge Fish and Game Association Shooting Range (Peenaquim Park).
- Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Centre (Indian Battle Park), is a replica of a whiskey fort originally established by Montana traders in 1869.
- Helen Schuler Nature Centre (Indian Battle Park), an urban interpretive nature center that recently became Lethbridge’s first LEED credited building.
- CPR High Level Bridge – longest and highest structure of its kind in the world. Completed in 1909 and still used every day by CPR Rail. 5,327ft long and 314 ft above river bed.
- Coal Banks Regional Trail (Botterill Bottom Park), 30 km of continuous pathway.
- Pavan Park’s equestrian trail takes riders on a 6.5 km ride through the park to viewpoints overlooking the valley.
- Elizabeth Hall Wetlands – a 78 acre Nature Reserve that includes a unique cottonwood forest, oxbow pond and wetland.
- Cottonwood Park was so named because of its extensive cottonwood forest. A shale trail offers hikers a peek at an increasingly rare ecosystem, which is home to a number of animals including Western prairie rattlesnakes.
- Pavan Park has two facilities that can be used for group gatherings. The John Martin Recreation Area is popular for weddings, and The Madame Jeanne Sauve picnic area is used for more informal events. Both facilities have playgrounds and horseshoe pits.
The importance of the River Valley runs deep in the region’s shared history. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area in and around Lethbridge was for many generations used and occupied by the Blackfoot peoples. The oral tradition of the Blackfoot rendered their territory into a rich tapestry of storytelling indicative of traditional land use, ceremonial activities and spirituality. The Oldman River Valley is no different. In fact, the area at the confluence of the Oldman and St. Mary Rivers was particularly important as it offered shelter from the elements and year round access to plants and animals for subsistence and medicinal use, sites for temporary or seasonal camps, places for ceremonial activities (including reportedly grounds for the Sundance), and occasionally burial sites.
In the late 19th century, a community, known as “Coalbanks,” named after the prominent exposed coal seam that ran along the banks of the Oldman River spawned in the river valley of present day Lethbridge. The success of the coal mining operations saw settlers flock to Lethbridge, and the population grew from just four to over 2,000 by 1901. The first homes in Lethbridge, were built in the river valley close to the mine offices, in a community called Riverside. By 1884, the population was about 250 and the settlement included houses, a general store, hotel, and sawmill. As Lethbridge began to grow and prosper many residents moved into company or private boarding houses located on the prairie flat lands, perched above the Oldman River. Residents still made their homes and their small businesses in the river valley up until 1952, when a flood forced Lethbridge City Council to move all of the families out of the valley and designated it as recreational parkland.
Over the years, a great deal of careful planning has been done to protect the River Valley, an essential community asset, by balancing ecological preservation with the desire for public access to recreational space. In the 1960’s the City of Lethbridge began deliberately acquiring parkland in the River Valley for the sole purposes of preservation and public enjoyment. In 1970, the growth of Lethbridge and its centennial University, caused urban development to jump the banks of the River, beginning new “West Side” communities. The Oldman River Valley was now truly at the heart of our City.
In 1975, the Lethbridge River Valley Development Bylaw was enacted. This was followed by the Alberta Government’s Urban Parks for the Future initiative in 1980, that established the Urban Parks Program. In turn, this lead to a number of key river valley property acquisitions, resulting in the network of ten nature retreats that currently compose the River Valley Park System, including: Helen Schuler Nature Reserve, Elizabeth Hall Wetlands, Alexander Wilderness and CottonWood Park are established as preservation areas, and Indian Battle, Pavan, Peenaquim, Popson, Botterill Bottom, and Bull Trail. In 1986 the River Valley Area Redevelopment Plan was completed to provide direction and guide the development of the River Valley. The plan focused on public protection, resource protection and land use management to address bank stability.
As we speak, the City of Lethbridge is continuing its proactive long range planning of this community asset by completing a River Valley Parks Master Plan. This plan will set out a comprehensive, long term vision that plans for current and future use, land ownership, policy guidance, biophysical inventory, recreation and heritage opportunities, connectivity, and wildlife corridors.
As this public space cuts through the city it is extremely accessible to residents and visitors of all ages and abilities. The park system has a host of trails and pathways, many of which have trail heads on the top of the bank including a paved pathway system that is designed for handicap accessibility, a shale pathway system for more advanced hikers and mountain bikers, and trails designed for horseback riding. Safety for all ages is top of mind in the design of all the trails and pathways.
There are several vehicle access points with parking, including handicap accessible spots for all vehicle types including tour buses!
The river valley can also be accessed via canoe or kayak as there are several boat launches throughout the system.
The River Valley is a favorite destination for residents and visitors to learn, explore, and enjoy a variety of vegetation and wildlife right in the center of the urban built environment. Vegetation includes south-facing slopes littered with cacti, blue grama grass, sage and skunkbush, or north-facing slopes, filled with rich vegetation including chokecherry and saskatoon berry; these mini canyons offer a variety of thriving ecosystems. Wildlife includes, but certainly not limited to, deer, red foxes, and cottontail rabbits. Bird watchers are in heaven with the varied species of migratory birds, so be sure to bring your camera and binoculars. But while your eyes are scanning the skies, don’t forget to watch out for rattlesnakes!