Grasslands National Park is one of the most unique national parks that we have in Canada. It aims to protect and showcase one of the few remaining areas of undisturbed dry-mixed grass/shortgrass prairie grassland, and for that we should be very grateful. Longtime visitors of the park Robin and Arlene Karpan walk us through how to get the most out of our visit.
Grasslands National Park sprawls across a sparsely populated region of Saskatchewan’s deep south.
It’s where we can explore a stunning landscape of eroded buttes, broad valleys, breathtaking views, rare wildlife, and some of Canada’s baddest badlands. The park’s most valuable feature lies in its preservation of a critically endangered ecosystem – the mixed-grass prairie.
The Village of Val Marie, SK
The park is divided into the West Block and East Block, with farms and ranchland between the two. The village of Val Marie, bordering the West Block, makes a convenient starting point. It’s home to Parks Canada’s visitor centre where we can pick up maps and hiking guides, register for camping, and check out park tours and interpretive programs.
Just across the street is Prairie Wind and Silver Sage – Friends of Grasslands. Located in the Little Brick School House, it is an eclectic combination of museum, bookstore, coffee shop, and art gallery featuring works of local artists.
Val Marie has a small number of bed & breakfasts, a campground, eateries, a grocery store, and a traditional wooden grain elevator from 1927 being restored as an historic site. One service not to overlook is the town’s only gas station – driving distances in and around the park are long and gas stations are few and far between.
What Makes Grasslands National Park Special?
70 Mile Butte
The park’s most prominent landmark rises above the plains only a few minutes drive south of Val Marie on Highway 4. 70 Mile Butte is a massive flat-top butte and the highest point in the area. It was named by early North West Mounted Police patrols because it was 70 miles from Wood Mountain Post to the east and 70 miles from the Eastend Post to the west. A popular hiking trail heads to the top of the butte, with amazing views in all directions.
Another pleasant spot a bit farther south is the Two Trees Day Use Area in a former ranch yard near the Frenchman River. A couple of easy hiking trails start here, one into the hills and another along the river, providing an excellent introduction to the park.
Frenchman River Valley and the Ecotour Road
A highlight of the West Block is the 20-kilometre Ecotour Scenic Drive. We get there by heading east of Val Marie on Highway 18 then following the signs into the Frenchman River Valley. The road has pull-offs at several hiking trailheads, and many stops with interpretive panels providing insights into the prairie landscape, wildlife, and human history.
Use of the area dates back thousands of years, having been home to the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Cree, Sioux, Blackfoot, and Métis. While hiking, keep your eyes peeled for some of the park’s 12,000 teepee rings. Archaeological sites are so plentiful that Parks Canada calls this “one of the largest concentrations of undisturbed pre-contact cultural resources in Canada”.
More recently, this area was and still is, cowboy country. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, massive ranches grazed cattle on the open range. The homesteading era dramatically transformed much of the prairies, turning grasslands into cropland. But the hot, dry climate, poor soil, and rugged terrain in this region weren’t suited to crop production. Large tracts remained in their natural state where cattle ranching continued.
Grasslands National Park was formed from these ranches, with much of its success due to how land was acquired. There was no confiscation. Ranchers could sell to the park if and when they wanted on a willing-seller, willing-buyer basis.
The park bought the first land in the 1980s and the process is still going on as more land is gradually added.
Every time we drive the Ecotour road we come across wildlife, especially where the road runs near the Frenchman River.
There’s a good chance of seeing mule deer, pronghorn, and the occasional moose, along with some of the 400-500 bison that now roam on their ancestral land. Rare or endangered species such as the swift fox, greater short-horned lizard, greater sage-grouse, burrowing owl, and ferruginous hawk also call the park home. This is one of few places in Canada to find the prairie rattlesnake, a mostly shy and non-aggressive creature that suffers from bad public relations.
The Ecotour drive goes right past cone-shaped burrows of sprawling black-tailed prairie dog colonies that seem to stretch to the horizon. At first glance, the “dogs” look somewhat similar to the ubiquitous gophers (or Richardson’s ground squirrels if you’re a stickler for accurate naming) throughout the prairies. But these critters are bigger with that tell-tale black tip on their tails. Their range stretches south to Mexico, though this is the only place in Canada to find them in their natural habitat.
Roadside stops at the colonies give us a ringside seat to watch their antics. Highly social, they constantly chatter, nuzzle, and hug, all the while keeping a close eye out for predators. Hawks and eagles might swoop down from above, and hungry coyotes often prowl through looking for a quick lunch at the fast food buffet.
At the end of the Ecotour road, we have the option to venture farther into more remote parts of the park on the Backcountry Loop drive, but only in dry weather. We always pull in at the Borderlands Lookout (named for being near the border with Montana) along the road climbing out of the Frenchman River Valley.
On the plateau, we relax in Parks Canada’s red chairs while gazing over some of the wildest country around. Farther along, signs indicate the trailhead for the rugged Otter Basin Route, a remote 15-kilometre hike suggested only for those with solid wilderness navigation skills.
To get to the East Block of Grasslands National Park, we head farther east and south on Highway 18. The park’s Rock Creek Campground (the only accommodation option in the East Block) is set amid gorgeous prairie scenery and next to breathtaking badlands. The campground has oTENTiks and campsites, plus a day-use area and visitor centre.
The East Block’s prime attraction is the Badlands Parkway, an 11-kilometre road winding along the valley rim overlooking Rock Creek and the spectacular badland formations below – free-standing weather-beaten buttes, slopes resembling melted chocolate, and strange formations that look like they belong on another planet.
The erosion reveals millions of years of geologic history. It was in these fossil-rich badlands that Western Canada’s first dinosaur bones were discovered in 1874. Badlands are usually dry and sparsely vegetated, but after significant rainfall, the landscape transforms into a bright carpet of green grass and a profusion of multi-coloured wildflowers.
Stops along the parkway drive offer closer views into the badlands valley. It’s easy to look over the terrain and pick a hiking route that looks appealing. The park also has suggested hiking routes that start near the campground. One is to the jumble of badland formations called the Valley of 1000 Devils, reached by crossing Hellfire Creek. With names like that, you know it’s going to be a memorable trip.
Camping on the Prairie Grasslands
The Frenchman Valley Campground along the Ecotour road is the ideal place to stay, with oTENTiks and campsites. A nice touch is the large indoor cooking shelter, complete with gas barbecues for campers’ use.
Here we can fully appreciate the famous prairie sunrises and sunsets, and take advantage of the early morning hours when most wildlife is out and about. At night it seems that we can almost touch the sky since this is one of the largest and darkest Dark Sky Preserves in Canada. Never mind 5-star accommodation. Here we get 5 billion stars!
You can find out more information about booking a campsite here.
At the end of the day if you spend a few days in Grasslands National Park and you’ll never look at prairie the same way again.
Robin and Arlene Karpan are award-winning writers, photographers, bloggers, and authors of several travel books, including Canadian Bestsellers. Their work has appeared in over 100 publications around the world. While their travels have taken them to all seven continents, they find that some of the most compelling destinations are close to home in Canada. They have a special interest in the natural world and outdoor photography. Robin and Arlene publish the travel blog Photo Journeys which looks at travel through a photographer’s lens, and is rated by Feedspot as among the Top 100 Travel Photography Sites.