The majority of maple-syrup wanderers limit their Saskatchewan exposure to cruise-controlling across Highway One, stopping only for a Moose Jaw mega-moose selfie. However, there are those willing to abandon the pavement and for them – Canada’s breadbasket quickly defies its horizontally-challenged stereotype with an unfamiliar beauty. The rolling prairies of Southwestern Saskatchewan are shrouded in a mysterious romance, ensnaring those who unwittingly stray from the beaten path. The most alluring highlight of the south, is Saskatchewan’s younger and lesser known national park – Grasslands National Park.
Our nation’s only prairie-packed national park is divided into two very distinct halves roughly one hundred kilometres apart, each offering completely unique experiences and appealing to differing crowds. The West Block is an African-like safari with all the charismatic Disney wildlife, a picturesque campsite and one or two malaria-free mosquitoes. The East Block is essentially a De Lorean; transporting visitors back in time sixty-five million years to a period when dinosaurs roamed earth – plus there’s a campsite. Regardless which side you decide to explore, you’re guaranteed to find adventure like nothing you’ve experienced previously.
West Block excursions begin on the EcoTour Drive – high above the Frenchman River Valley, among a chatty community of adorable black-tailed prairie dogs. Found nowhere else in Canada, these chubby subterranean squirrels are believed to hold the most developed vocabulary of any animal language – which is overly apparent when they’re caught amidst a heated debate. With patience and a keen eye, other inhabitants of this underground utopia slowly appear from amidst the gossiping prairie dogs. For a portion of the year, critically endangered burrowing owls dwell in abandoned prairie dog burrows, raising their young in the relative safety of an underground nest.
Moving past the endless conversations, the minivan friendly trail is often greeted by herds of plains bison grazing on the lush green valley floor. Watching bison in their natural environment is a privilege and this is the perfect spot to check it off your bucket list. There’s no guarantee, but with roughly four hundred of the beasts inhabiting the park – chances of spotting at least a couple are pretty good. It’s important to emphasize that North America’s largest mammal may appear to be nothing more than gigantic shaggy muppets as they calmly graze and meander across the open plains, but if needed they can effortlessly outrun a person and reach speeds of sixty-five kilometres per hour. In Yellowstone National Park between 1980 and 1999 more than three times as many people were injured by bison than both black and brown bears combined – the former coming into contact with seventy-nine people. It should go without saying: give bison the respect they demand.
Detailing every curious creature living in Grasslands National Park would be a mammoth task, but suffice to say those with the slightest interest in wildlife won’t be disappointed – regardless of what time of year, the park is bustling with life. Snakes, lizards, birds and mammals found few other places in Canada draw many nature lovers from across the country. One park resident who does deserve mentioning is the prairie rattlesnake – yes there is a chance of encountering one of Canada’s four venomous snake species. Although their strikes are rarely fatal, they are venomous and should be given the space they deserve. If you plan on spending extended periods of time hiking, it’s worth wearing proper snake gaiters.
Like any prairie excursion, a few light years spent driving in order to reach this grassland oasis means legs will have undoubtedly begun shrinking. The good news is Grasslands National Park has a wide selection of trails traversing its landscape and there’s no need to be Bear Grylls in order to navigate them – my favourite trail is the challenging sixteen kilometre Timbergulch Coulee loop. Also noteworthy is the short trek up 70 Mile Butte that offers a rare vertical ascent and a spectacular view from the top – looking westward, Eagle Butte stretches upwards as if standing on its tippy toes in attempts to match its neighbour’s height.
No matter the season, the weather can and often will transform the landscape of this prairie paradise – and any outing. At the height of summer, massive thunderstorms crawl across the prairies, dragging tentacles of torrential rain and tossing down blinding bolts of lightning. In the depths of winter the park undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis, adopting a breathtaking blanket of swirling white – ‘breathtaking’ because the cold sucks the air from lungs. Regardless of when you visit, be sure to prepare accordingly and dress appropriately – Saskatchewan’s far south is sparsely populated and finding a MEC to replace your misplaced toque isn’t going to happen. Additionally, cell phone coverage is as spotty as a dalmatian – once again; be prepared.
After a fun day of exploring the West Block, wrap things up in the Frenchman Valley Campground with a crackling campfire and chirping crickets serenading a cozy teepee – that’s right, on warm summer nights you can stare up at the stars from inside a teepee. Speaking of stars, Grasslands National Parks is a designated Royal Astronomical Society of Canada dark-sky preserve, that means it’s one of the best places in the country for stargazing. Of course, if sleeping in a teepee isn’t overly appealing, there are traditional front country camping options, a few snazzy new oTENTik’s and best of all – actual backcountry camping.
Onward to the East Block, past Glentworth and south of Wood Mountain, the sudden descent into the Rock Creek Valley quickly confirms adventures here are otherworldly. From the Visitor Centre, the Red Buttes trail snakes westward into one of Canada’s best kept secrets – The Killdeer Badlands. It was here in 1874 that pioneer geologist George Dawson discovered Canada’s first dinosaur fossil and it’s not uncommon to stumble upon a few fossilized dinosaur pieces while exploring the valley. What you won’t find is drinking water: this extremely arid terrain sees temperatures well above 30°C and any groundwater is far too saline to consume even after treatment – so, bring plenty of water.
The steep buttes and narrow coulees of this exotic valley offer panoramas found few other places in Canada. Resembling stacks of multi-coloured pancakes, the exposed sedimentary layers reveal the ancient origins of this impressive topography. Conquering one of the relatively taller breakfast-like mountains provides a rare elevated perspective of the surrounding badlands. Bring a pair of binoculars and it’s possible to spy on Montana – not that it appears any different nor is there any visible marking of the international border.
Beyond the spectacular views and infinite possibilities for adventure, Grasslands National Park represents the best example of native prairie grassland in the country – and that’s significant because temperate grasslands are considered the most endangered ecosystem in the world. In Canada a mere 30% of our historic grasslands remain, which is rather apparent when discovering Grasslands National Park is home to over 19 federally listed species at risk. So, as you stroll across this vast expanse of grasses, cactus and sagebrush, take a moment to appreciate the importance of this ecosystem and how its conservation provides habitat for species unable to live anywhere else.
There are a few important considerations to point out before you deviate from your Highway 1 trajectory and rush south towards the quaint “Gateway to Grasslands” – Val Marie. Gas stations are few and far between in the southern reaches of Saskatchewan and they’re rarely open past six in the evening. Visitors Centres in both East and West Blocks are open seasonally from May to October, park entry is free year round and overnight fees are very reasonable. As mentioned earlier, the park is home to bison and rattlesnakes, you should know how to respect both of these animals prior to entering the park. Additionally, you may encounter ticks – they aren’t too numerous and I’ve yet to find a dreaded black-legged tick. Finally, there are cacti on the majority of south facing slopes and apparently there’s quicksand in the East Block, but I’ve yet to find any.
Now go get your prairie on!