Hiking in Grasslands National Park

Val Marie, Saskatchewan

Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan

I've hiked all over Canada, from the heights of the Rocky Mountains to the coastal shores of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Ocean. When the opportunity arose to venture to southern Saskatchewan, I was a bit hesitant since Grasslands National Park was one of the lesser-known and least visited national parks. I figured it must not be particularly interesting, but I went anyways. I'm glad I was so wrong!

Grasslands National Park is the only national park in the Canadian prairies. The park is home to ancient plants, animals and geological history. It's well off of the beaten path, in southern Saskatchewan, about 100 kilometers south of the TransCanada Highway. It holds a strange and lonely beauty in a place known as the "Land of the Living Skies".

The park is made up of two large blocks of land about 531 square kilometers that extend to the Canada/US border. As surrounding ranchlands come available, the size of the park may continue to grow. It's interesting to see active ranch lands on one side of the barbed-wire fence and undisturbed, rolling terrain on the other.

A landscape covered in wild grasses and studded with small cactus stretched on endlsesly. Rolling hills were everywhere. Trees are rarely seen, and water is scarce. The dilapidated shells of former homesteads stand crooked and weathered.

This place is hot and remote. Even in the summer, when tourism in Canada is at its busiest, Grasslands National Park typically receives fewer than 10 to 12 thousand visitors. Adventurous travellers may not see another human for as far as the eye can see. Standing on top of a hill, with a hot wind drying our lips, we were the only humans around for as far as the eye could see. Not one other hiker, park employee or even a distant vehicle could be seen in any direction. And staring at the far-reaching prairie, I swore we could see the curvature of the earth. It was like nothing I'd ever imagined on a hike.

 

Looking out at the desolate plains, it's easy to imagine the long-vanished buffalo herds roaming these plains with resilient native camps on the periphery. In fact, there's over 12,000 ancient teepee rings in the park.

Wildlife is returning to the natural prairie. Pronghorn antelope, the second fastest land animal in the world, still inhabits the area while other endangered species such as prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls are making a comeback with some human help.

 

Plains bison from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton were re-introduced years ago. Visitors can take self-guided tours of their new refuge along the many dirt roads that criss-cross the park.

A couple of other random, interesting facts:

  • The first dinosaur remains to be found in Canada by Europeans were discovered in 1874 in the Killdeer Badlands in the East Block.
  • Sitting Bull and about 5000 Sioux natives took refuge in the area after the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Things To Do in Grasslands National Park

This place is big! Outdoor adventures include multi-day backpacking, hiking, horse-back riding, and astronomy (and it gets REALLY dark here). The park and surrounding communities were designated as a Dark Sky Preserve in 2009 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Check for guided tours and events ranging from night visits to the ferret colony to star gazing. When was the last time you saw the Milky Way?

Camping is limited in this hot, dry area and be wary as your tent pole may be the highest lightning rod around. Watch for rattlesnakes too. In the summer, temperatures can exceed +40°C. Bring lots of water.

Hiking Tips

Here are a few tips if you're planning on visiting Grasslands National Park:

  • Carry lots of water. We were there in July, and the air-temperature was +42°C on the open plains. There are no water sources in the valley bottoms.

  • Wear proper hiking boots. It's understandable to think you wouldn't need them, walking through the plains. But I started the grassy hikes in runners and learned that cactus can easily puncture the soft soles. Yeowch!

  • The sun roasted our heads under our hats and we wished we brought an umbrella to use to as a sun block. No one would have been around to see our parasols.

  • Make sure your car is good operating condition and carry a cell phone. There are few visitors to this park, so flagging someone down for help isn't a good plan. Cell phone coverage can be spotty, too.

  • Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan
    Most hiking trails are clearly marked with navigation posts. Since the terrain is almost identical in all directions, stick to the marked routes to avoid getting lost.

  • Don't rely on a GPS unit for directions. If the batteries die, it's easy to get lost in terrain that looks identical in all directions. Cell phone coverage is limited, especially in the valleys.

  • We were going to spend the nights camping on the open plains but there were no wind breaks on the land, not even a tree, to shelter our tent from the strong wind. Instead we bunked at a local hotel in Val Marie and made daytrips into the park. Tip - Stores & restaurants close early in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, so plan accordingly.

  • The East Block section of the Grasslands National Park has some of the highest concentration of dinosaur fossils in Canada. Keep your eyes peeled.

  • Don't miss the night sky. It had been years since we viewed the brilliance of the Milky Way. Parks Canada offers astronomy tours and also night-time guided tours of the black-footed ferret colony.

How to Get to Grasslands National Park


View Grasslands National Park in a larger map

The park is made up of two widely-separated sections, the East and West Block, with the park administration office located in Val Marie, Saskatchewan. Getting here is a lot of fun. It feels like you're travelling back in time the further you get from the TransCanada Highway.

The only way to experience the park is with a vehicle. The surrounding highways are in okay condition, with some potholes and rough patches. Most roads in the park are graded dirt strips.

RVs won't have a problem, nor will motorcyclists (you may eat lots of dust though). Cell phone coverage is pretty good but service is intermittent in the valley bottoms.

Because of its remote location, Grasslands National Park is one of the least visited reserves in the national park system. It's a worthwhile trip to explore the quiet beauty of this park, in a secluded corner of Saskatchewan.

Check out other things to discover in Saskatchewan!