Located near the village of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, Grasslands National Park is only 28 kilometres from the US border crossing to Montana and is one of only two National Parks in the province, the other being Prince Albert National Park.
The park is divided into two blocks. The West Block, accessed from Val Marie, encompasses the Frenchman River Valley and contains herds of plains bison and thousands of prairie dog colonies. The East Block is more of a wilderness area and is located about 160 kilometres east of Val Marie. The East Block is noted for its views of Saskatchewan’s Badlands.
As much of the park and region is still in its original grassland state, thousands of archaeological sites are still visible on the ground’s surface. These features provide archaeologists with amazing insight on how people lived centuries ago so to me that meant tread lightly and don’t disturb any rocks, wood or anything else you see.
The weather definitely looked iffy so we decided the Ecotour Scenic Drive through the park would be a good option for the day. It was about 100 kilometres on a dirt road that promised to be a mud bath if the ominous weather continued. Lucky we selected this option because our voyage was ultimately cut short by a horrific storm.
A sign cautioned bison were nearby and one should not travel in excess of 60 kilometres per hour. My only thought was, yeah right even though there was bison poop right at the sign. As it turned out, it paid to pay attention. The speed caution sign for bison was at the side of the road just past the #1 Stop marker. There in the field was a bison! Give me a break! I usually have to Photoshop this; truly amazing!
Prairie dogs span the Great Plains from northern Mexico to southern Saskatchewan. Only 3% of their historic, continental population remains. In Grasslands there are numerous signs warning you are entering an area of high wildlife collisions. That is a little misleading. Perhaps it should say a high rodent squashing area. There are thousands of these little guys along the fringe of the roadway, all popping out to have a look as you pass by.
It took a lot of determination and courage to set up a homestead anywhere on the prairies, unforgiving as they are. To withstand the hot and dry summers, frigid and hostile winters, remote isolation and to still flourish despite it all was, and still is, no small feat. This region is one of the last remaining areas where you can discover the “Wild West”. The remains of the Larson ranch were a sad reminder of peoples lost hopes and dreams.
Leaving the homestead we started the loop road but after a short period of time it got even more heavily overcast and the clouds were black. Shortly after that the weather changed dramatically as we had been warned might happen. The sky got black, bolt lightning all around and vicious gale force winds. With thoughts of flash floods and tornados the closure of the road we were on made it easy for us to decide perhaps we’d better head back. Abandoning ship now looked like a good idea.
Heading west out of the park we returned to our loft with lightning all around and decided to stay put for a while. The clouds continued to darken and the wind picked up. I immediately returned to the SUV to get my camera equipment. While there all hell broke loose with lightning, ferocious winds and driving rain. The vehicle was shaking violently in the wind as I sat basically waiting for a tornado. It was a bright sky at the horizon but very black sky all around. I decided, “I’m staying here for a while because this is nuts!” I guess we’ll wait it out and see what comes next.
What came next was surreal. The wind died down, the clouds broke up and the sun came out bathing the landscape in a beautiful soft golden light as the day drew to a close. When all was said and done, there was a pretty sunset and we were left thinking just how unusual, at times bizarre, the day had been.
On the following day our plan was to take a couple of hikes, each about two or three kilometres. That should be easy, after all this is Saskatchewan and we didn’t expect anything too strenuous. I think each hike may entail about a 100 metre rise – around here that’s a mountain! It was cool (about 8 degrees) and windy but in a lot of ways a perfect day for such an undertaking.
It was a short drive from our loft to the trailhead of 70 Mile Butte. Eagle Butte, a hike into the mixed-grass prairies, a vast and special ecosystem that’s home to a diverse array of life; maybe but it was a fun hike on a very pleasant day, especially after yesterday’s inclement weather.
The Eagle Butte Trail climbed gently around the butte then morphed into the 70 Mile Butte Trail which was “mountainous” to a much larger degree than I had anticipated. It was well-graded with short, steep sections and switch-backs. It was challenging but worth the effort to get to one of the highest points in the West Block (at 923 metres above sea level) and rewarded by breathtaking views of the Frenchman River Valley and an endless sky.
On the return trip we had some welcome visitors – a herd of deer. They were quite close so we waited for them to cross the path before proceeding. Don’t want to get between mama and the kids.
West and East Grasslands National Park are separated by 150 kilometres of land that is not part of either park. It took two hours the next day but was an interesting drive in the rain as we travelled almost deserted roads and passed through towns too small to even have a name. However, they did have names, often known just by a look at the grain elevator.
A wrong turn in our search for the East Block Visitor Centre brought us past the access road by a couple of kilometres and we saw a herd of pronghorn antelopes. We watched them from the SUV and even though we posed no threat it wasn’t long until they turned their backs on us and took off with their white flags held high. I insisted I missed the turn just so we could see the antelopes.
The Badlands Parkway is an 11 kilometre one lane paved road with two way traffic, although today that was certainly not going to be an issue; rarely would a rainy day at the end of September ever be but I’m sure in July and August it’s a nightmare. The single lane means half the disturbance on the landscape as it was built with the utmost care for prairie conservation.
The frequent pull-offs allow oncoming vehicles to pass or offer a place to stop to take photos. The Parkway was carefully designed to provide outstanding vistas while protecting the very things that characterize the badlands landscape: unique habitats, various wildlife species, hidden archaeological secrets and a timeless horizon.
Once again Grasslands National Park fulfills their mandate to provide enjoyable experiences for visitors while protecting the landscape it manages. The Parkway is situated on lands where Indigenous people lived for centuries, followed by the caring hand of ranchers. The road rises and falls along an escarpment, much of it an historic trail, with westward views across a wild prairie expanse.
If I were to show you a photo from our visit to the East Block and ask you where it was taken, I’m pretty sure Saskatchewan would not be among your top 10 guesses. The Badlands are what distinguish the East Block from the West in the park and the two sections are two totally different experiences.
On our return journey something darted across the highway. I quickly backed up (no one on the road) because I never turn down the opportunity to see the local wildlife. Sure enough, there he was, as if he was waiting for us. Wylie Coyote sat watching us and the roadrunner got away. He hung around a bit then came up onto the road to cross.
The only disappointment I had was the lack of stars in the sky. Grasslands National Park is a dark preserve and that was the main reason I selected it as a destination. The stars in a truly dark sky are said to be spectacular. Not so on our visit and we learned in the East Block the reason was the season. The rotation of the Earth is such that the stars are most visible in the summer, July and August in particular.
Grasslands was a place I was sad to leave. It was so peaceful and relaxing. The landscape was fascinating and varied from west to east and wildlife sightings were frequent – an absolute, unheard of pleasure for us. We probably saw more wildlife in Saskatchewan than any decade of trips before. The star gazing was not meant to be but the serenity was unanticipated and it was that aspect of the park I enjoyed the most.
Much more travel writing by this author in his book, That Road Trip Book.