“Walk faster!” I yelled back over my shoulder at Henk who was madly collecting camera gear from the car as I semi-sprinted towards the grassy edge of the canyon, tripod number 2 in hand. “The sun’s almost down!”
It was the fabled and fleeting Golden Hour that photographers chase everywhere on the planet, that magical time when the sun is low, gilding everything with its last light before sinking below the horizon. We were in the East Block of Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, keen to capture even a small sampling of the beauty of this place. But like everything else in Saskatchewan, distances are deceiving and what looked like a short walk became a 100-metre dash. Luckily, we made it just in time to catch the final, fleeting rays as they illuminated the contours of the buttes in what we can only describe as ‘Saskatchewan’s Grand Canyon’, a hidden gem within a hidden gem that most people don’t even know exists: Grasslands National Park.
Saskatchewan’s “South West”
We all know the old joke about how “Saskatchewan is so flat that you can watch your dog run away for 3 days”. But Canada’s prairie province poster child is actually much more diverse than people think when it comes to landscapes. Even in the southern part of the province, where big skies and golden fields feed into the stereotypical image of flat prairies, Grasslands National Park has a few surprises in store for visitors.
When Henk and I first arrived in Grasslands National Park, our first impression was that we felt like we had landed in the American Southwest, not any place north of the 49th parallel. With its semi-arid climate and badlands filled with bald buttes and valleys carved out by glacial rivers, the landscape here brought images of Arizona and New Mexico to mind. This was Saskatchewan’s ‘South West’, we realized, but with a critical difference that you don’t find in those southern deserts: the grasses after which Grasslands National Park has been named.
An Endangered Ecosystem
The mixed grass prairie, which is how Grasslands is characterized, is one of the most endangered ecosystems in Canada and on the planet, and protecting it is part of the reason this National Park was established in 1981. While most of the original prairie lands have been converted for use as commercial farmland, Grasslands is doing the opposite: preserving the prairie and even rehabilitating former grazing and farm lands to return them to what they once were. Native plants and grasses have been re-planted here and allowed to thrive, and the Park has even re-introduced bison to the land in 2005.
Beyond its unique ecosystem and the diverse flora and fauna that it supports, Grasslands National Park is also a paleontologist’s dream site, as the Park holds one of the richest treasure troves of fossils in Canada, providing a 70 million-year old window into the planet’s past. The Park’s geology even holds evidence of the actual moment when life on earth changed forever, and dinosaurs were wiped out on the planet.
FUN FACT: The world’s largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found was discovered in Saskatchewan! “Scotty” was found in the Frenchman River Valley near Grassland’s East Block in 1991. You can see the full-scale replica of Scotty (who is actually female) in Regina’s Royal Saskatchewan Museum. (the actual skeleton is too heavy to mount, but the fossilized bones are kept here as well).
Why Visit Grasslands National Park?
With all this talk of grasses and dinosaurs, don’t think that you have to be a biologist or paleontologist to enjoy Grasslands National Park. The beauty of this Park lies in the fact that it is, well…beautiful. But it is a subtle beauty that reveals itself over time and upon closer inspection: what first appears to be an almost featureless landscape of undulating plains under huge skies descends into wide valleys with much more dramatic outcroppings and pockets of green tucked into its coulees (gullies or ravines formed by water runoff).
Groves of aspen trees huddle in these narrow ravines, taking advantage of whatever moisture and shelter they provide while on the more exposed flats, native grasses and sage bushes paint the landscape in shades of green and gold that change with the seasons.
Grassland’s National Park: the West Block
Grasslands National Park isn’t just beautiful; it’s huge, at over 900 square kilometers (350 square miles), and there is a good chunk of Saskatchewan in between the West and East Blocks. Henk and I were lucky enough to visit both the East Block and the West Block of Grasslands National Park, and found different reasons to love each of them.
Grasslands’ West Block, which we visited first, gave us the opportunity to hike the 70-mile Butte trail, one of the Park’s most popular hikes because of the huge views awaiting at the top. It was here, too, that we first explored the coulees, were lucky enough to spot one of the area’s tiniest endangered species (the greater short-horned lizard) and learned how to recognize the funnel-shaped cobwebs used by black widow spiders to trap their prey.
What surprised us most in the West Block was the amount of wildlife we encountered along the Ecotour Scenic Drive, a 20km self-guided drive that takes visitors into the Frenchman River Valley. What may look like an ’empty’ expanse of grass with nowhere to hide for anything larger than a spider or tiny lizard was surprisingly rich in larger animal life.
On our daytime drive along the route we were charmed by dozens of black-tailed prairie dogs, (the residents of ‘Prairie DogTown’) who chattered and scattered when we walked the trail beside their underground burrows, only to re-emerge like meerkats, squatting on their haunches and maintaining a high-alert Neighbourhood Watch.
Later that same afternoon we spotted coyotes trotting through the same neighbourhood, probably ‘casing the joint’ for a nocturnal hunt.
On an impromptu hike down a coulee along a stretch of the Timbergulch Trail, Henk was the first to spot two lone bison in the distance (likely bulls), but even after walking towards them for half an hour we hadn’t gotten much closer (remember how Saskatchewan distances can be deceiving…) But right beside our trail we did find the remains of a not-so-fortunate member of the bison herd, conjuring up iconic images of the lonesome prairie and the wild, wild west.
There’s Space to Breathe Here. Take it.
Close to the West Block’s campground a few kilometres into the Park we found the ideal place to stop, have lunch and appreciate the views: a couple of well-positioned Parks Canada chairs placed on a hill high above Frenchman River Valley. From here we could relax and take in the views, including the herd of about 40 bison grazing in the distance.
With the breeze whistling quietly through the slats of my chair, the tall grasses flowing like waves with the movement of the wind, and a grassy valley stretching out below me, it was hard not to appreciate the reflective, peaceful appeal of this unique prairie landscape.
A Twilight Drive for a Saskatchewan Sunset. Or not.
Saskatchewan is known for its sunsets, so Henk and I decided to return to the Park several hours later at twilight to see if we could capture the colour. Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate quite the way we would have liked with the sunset, but we encountered a surprise as we were driving in: one of the lone bison we had spotted earlier in the day in the distance had decided to meander over to his favourite scratching post, a road sign which was only a few feet off the road where we were driving.
The bison bull was impressive, massive, and intimidating as he roughhoused the signpost to relieve his itch, and we could see why the Park staff recommend visitors get no closer than a football field’s distance from one should you see a bison in the Park.
Even though clouds moved in and cheated us from a more spectacular sunset, Henk and I could sense just how alive Grasslands becomes after dark. We spotted mule deer grazing near the banks of the Frenchman River, and it seemed the darker it got and the more we searched, the more deer we found. Other animals were stirring too, as we heard the sound of coyotes howling in the distance, adding to the wildness of this place and reminding us that we were the ones out of our element here.
TIP: The West Bock in Grasslands National Park is the only section of the Park where you can see bison. It’s also where you may find rattlesnakes, so remember to watch where you walk and wear proper footwear. (The bigger threat is from the low-lying prickly pear cactus which certainly lives up to its name, so you don’t definitely don’t want to be wearing flip flops here!)
Grasslands National Park East Block: Badlands and Great Views
With our visit to the West Block behind us, Henk and I continued on to the East Block, not knowing what to expect but assuming it would be something similar to the West Block we had just left. We couldn’t have been more surprised or delighted to discover that this part of Grasslands National Park was dramatically different from its sister block.
It is here in the most barren centre of the Rock Creek Badlands in the East Block, where sculpted buttes and rock formations created by millennia of erosion give these canyon lands similar characteristics to the ones found in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Like a shallower, greener version of the Grand Canyon, every twist and turn provides a different view with unique rock formations. And we had the best access to take them all via the newly completed Badlands Parkway.
The Badlands Parkway is an 11-km paved road just a short drive from the Rock Creek Campground. The road zigzags along the top of the escarpment, following the edge of the canyon and providing visitors with an easy way to see the canyon via six overlooks along the route.
One of the most impressive of these overlooks has to be Zahursky’s Point where Henk and I had the same “Ooh! Ahh!” reaction to the views that we had had at the appropriately named ‘Ooh Ahh Point” in the Grand Canyon.
But when we saw Ta Sunka Watógia, the farthest overlook along the parkway, we knew that this was where we had to return for sunset. With a pair of red chairs on its overlook, and the length of the canyon spread out in front of us to catch the light, this was THE spot for our photo shoot.
East or West, Grasslands is Breathtaking
Describing the beauty and uniqueness of Grasslands National Park is almost as difficult as trying to capture it in a photograph. There is so much more to this incredible place than simply its geography, wildlife, or location. And while the camera may capture the subtle hues of sage and gold, and even the expansive vistas, there’s a sense of place here that can only be experienced in person.
As Henk and I raced to capture those last rays of sun at Ta Sunka Watógia, catching our breath and positioning our cameras, we hoped we would be able to convey a little of that feeling to share in our images.
“Did you get it?” I asked Henk, after we had watched the last of the sun disappear, and golden hour had begun to transition to twilight.
“I think so,” he replied. “I got something.”
For a place as vast, diverse and unique as Grasslands National Park, even capturing a small part of its beauty counts as a win.
INFORMATION ABOUT VISITING GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK
For complete information about the entry fees, facilities, trail descriptions, etc, definitely check out the Grasslands National Park website. But here are some key things to know about what do do, practical tips and accommodations.
WEST BLOCK Must-Do’s
The 70-Mile Butte Hike is one of the most popular hikes here in this part of Grasslands, as it offers incredible panoramic views from the top of the butte, which is the highest point in all of Grasslands National Park. The hike is rated as ‘moderate’ on the AllTrails website, probably because there of the gain in elevation (but it’s only 145 metres, so not terribly strenuous and the trail is well maintained)
The EcoTour Scenic Drive takes you through the most scenic part of the Frenchman River Valley and gives you the best opportunity to learn about the ecosystem via its self-guided interpretive signs as well as the best chance to see wildlife.
TIP: Slow down when you see the signs near Prairie DogTown – those cute little guys scurry across the road so you need to be careful!
WEST BLOCK Visitor Centre Location
The Park’s Visitor Centre is located in the small town of Val Marie, where you can get information about camp sites, hiking trails, wildlife and more. Val Marie is located about 3 1/2 hours’ drive southwest of Regina or 4 hours south of Saskatoon. There are no gates at the Park entrances, but you do require a park pass which you can purchase at the visitor centre or online ahead of time.
TIP: If you plan to visit many of Canada’s national parks and historic sites during the year, it’s definitely worth getting the annual Discovery Pass that will save you money and give you unlimited access to all.
WEST BLOCK Accommodations
Grasslands West Block offers what they call ‘front country camping’ at the Frenchman Valley Campground, where there are 20 electric-enabled sites and 4 oTENTiks (reservations required for all). There are vault toilets, drinking water and picnic tables on site. but no showers, however, so be prepared for that. There’s also back country camping for the more adventurous (this is NOT Henk or I!)
Near the Park: Val Marie Accommodations
Henk and I chose to stay outside the Park in Val Marie, which is about a 30 minutes’ drive to the Park Entrance closest to the Ecotour Scenic Drive, or about 12 minutes from the 70 Mile Butte Trailhead. Val Marie is a tiny town of about 126 people so accommodations are limited to a couple of B&Bs and The Convent, a former school built in 1939 that was operated by nuns until the 1960s, and was converted to a 9-room inn in 1997. (Henk and I jokingly said we stayed in the “Mother Superior Suite’.)
The Inn is definitely quirky, given its unusual past, but the beds and linens were quite luxurious, the breakfast was very good, and the owners are extremely knowledgeable about the area. (Note: There are no ensuite bathrooms in any of the rooms. Guests have access to 3 bathroom facilities located in the Inn.)
EAST BLOCK Must-Do’s
Grasslands National Park has been designated as one of the darkest dark sky preserves in Canada, so if you like to stargaze or photograph the heavens, this is THE PLACE to do so. You can definitely do this in either Block, but the best way to enjoy the darkest skies is to stay in the actual park. When we stayed in the East Block, we were able to capture photos of the sky from just outside our oTENTik, and the camera even picked up some northern lights!
No visit to the East Block is complete without doing the Badlands Parkway at least once, and definitely at sunset. At Zahursky’s Point you can look due west, but we actually preferred to be a little more perpendicular for the light on the buttes which is why we chose the farthest overlook, Ta Sunka Watógia . Regardless, every viewpoint is beautiful.
If you would like to not just see but actually touch real fossils, including a triceratops leg bone (how cool is that!) definitely take the 70 Million Years in 60 Minutes guided hike.
And if you are lucky enough to visit the East Block when Brenda Patterson is working there, you should sign up for any hike she leads. Why? Because Brenda not only grew up here (her family sold some of their land to the Park), but because as a former teacher, she has a passionate, creative way of bringing her prairie stories to life. Not only are her guided hikes and talks informative and entertaining, her enthusiasm is positively infectious.
EAST BLOCK Visitor Centre
East Block is a good distance from West Block (about 2 hours by car/166 km). The East Block Visitor Centre is located on-site at the Rock Creek Campground where you will also find 24 electric-enabled campsites, 8 oTENTiks and similar facilities to the West Block (but no showers here either).
EAST BLOCK Accommodations
There aren’t any towns really close to the East Block, so the campground is pretty much your only option when it comes to overnight accommodations.
Henk and I stayed in one of the oTENTiks, which are weatherproof and very comfortable, but you need to come prepared with your own bedding, cookware, food, etc. There’s a BBQ on site, which is always a good thing, since fire bans are common here, and the fire pits may be off limits. (BBQs are easier to cook on, anyways!)
TIP: For the closest towns to either the East or West Block, including what services they provide (gasoline, grocery, accommodatons, etc) scroll down to the bottom of this page on the Grasslands website for a list.