If you wish to experience a real sense of solitude, endless ocean of prairie landscapes, and scenery that did not change much since the introduction of industrial agriculture, you should head out to southwestern Saskatchewan. Outside regular travel paths and visited by a few adventurous souls, Grasslands National Park is a small patch of green at the bottom of Saskatchewan’s map. It is one of two national parks in the province (the other one is Prince Albert NP), and Canada’s only national park created to protect the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem. The park provides outstanding opportunities for hiking, photography, and nature viewing.
See the photo gallery with sample images from the park and surrounding area.
Grasslands National Park is divided into two separate units. The West Block is located near the village of Val Marie, about 120 km south of Swift Current. A good quality gravel Ecotour road follows the Frenchman River Valley, a broad swath of prairie with deep coulees, gentle plateaus and the famous 70 Mile Butte. The East Block near Kildeer offers true wilderness experience, with exposed badland formations and steep, eroded buttes. There are no roads in the East Block, so you have to explore the area on foot.
The park has several well-marked trails, or you can choose to test your adventure skills and explore the open prairie using nothing more than a compass and a map. Lack of trees enhances wildlife spotting; with nothing to obstruct the view, roaming animals are easy to see. Pronghorn antelopes, golden eagles, prairie falcons, and the occasional rattlesnake inhabit the area. Endangered and threatened species such as the burrowing owl, ferruginous hawk, swift fox, sage grouse and eastern short-horned lizard also call this place home. The park is the only place in Canada where you can see large colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs. It is easy to stop by the side of the road and observe these sociable rodents bark and chirp to one another. You can use your car as a blind to photograph the prairie dogs at a colony near the north entrance to the West Block or at the old Larson’s homestead. A herd of 70 plains bison was released into the West Block in 2006, reintroducing the species to the area they inhabited before the European settlement. If you are lucky, you just might see these mighty animals.
In the fall of 2009, Parks Canada reintroduced 36 black-footed ferrets within the park and on neighbouring ranches. This endangered mammal was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered in Wyoming in 1980s. A captive breeding and recovery program was established in attempt to save the species. Grasslands Park was chosen for reintroduction in Canada as it contains large prairie dog colonies, the ferret’s main food staple. It is not likely that you will be able to see or photograph them as they are mostly nocturnal and secretive.
Although the park is accessible year-round, the best time to visit is in early summer and later in the fall. Temperatures could be rather high from mid July to the end of August. April is good for viewing sharp-tailed, and much rarer sage grouse, showing off their brightest feathers and trying to attract a mate. Depending on the amount of spring moisture, late May to late June are great for flower viewing and photography. If you pick a good year, lush green prairie carpet could be infused with an astonishing display of wildflowers. Late June or early July are the best time to search for prickly pear and pincushion cacti in bloom. However, each season has it’s own charm and can deliver a special experience.
Grasslands NP is not a developed park. Primitive camping is allowed at the old Belza farmstead in the Western Block and at McGowan’s in the East Block. Wilderness camping is allowed one kilometer off road. Be aware that open fires are not permitted and that you have to bring enough water for cooking and drinking. Be very cautious during wet weather as the roads may become impassable.