Backcountry Camping, birding, Bison, Black Footed Ferret, Buffalo, camping, Dark Sky Preserve, Dogs Town, Grasslands, Grasslands National Park, Guided Hiking Tours, hiking, National Parks, Prairie Dogs, Self-Guided Hikes, Self-Guided Tours, Starry Nights, Val Marie, wildlife
I’ve heard about Grasslands National Park, but didn’t think much of it (I mean, it’s GRASS right?). To the best of my knowledge it was just a bunch of bald-assed prairie, whose eco-system was (rightfully so) being preserved. But it’s so much more than that. Something I first got an inkling from after looking at photographer James Page’s photos. Wowsa.
So, when I finally had the opportunity to visit Grasslands for myself, I was quite excited to see what it was that this, one of our National Treasures, had to offer.
First off – let me tell you Grasslands is HUGE. At 907 sq kms there is no way you’re going to be able to see it all. So start off by deciding if you will visit the West Block (located in the Frenchman River Valley, which houses the Eco-Tour Road and 70-Mile-Butte) or the East Block (home of some of the largest Palaeontological finds in Canada, located in the Rock Creek area in the Wood Mountain uplands) – for the purposes of this particular post I’ll talk mostly about what’s available at the West Block – since that’s the area I personally visited – and even then there’s no way I can talk about it all – so I’ll limit myself to just a few of the many highlights – and let you know when I’ve had a chance to head out and explore some more.
The Eco-Tour Road
Located as you enter the Park’s gates, the Eco-Tour Road offers you a chance to drive through some of the most pristine landscapes you’ll ever view.
Offering a self-guide driving tour (you can pick up a free guide at the Visitor’s Centre in Val Marie or download it here), it’s about a 1-3 hr drive and covers a distance of approximately 80km round trip.
So what will you see here? Well, for one thing you’ll get a chance to visit “Dogs Town” otherwise known as a Prairie Dog Colony. I’ve lived in the Prairies most of my life, and for some reason, I always assumed that a prairie dog, was the little thing that skittered across the highway to become roadkill fodder for birds and other scavengers. Not so. Those, I’m told are Richardson Ground Squirrels – who will happily mow down on each other as said roadkill. Prairie Dogs on the other hand are quite sociable creatures who look after one another and they’re BIG. Something you can see for yourself at one of the 25 colonies that exist in Grasslands.
One of the best quotes I have ever heard about Prairie Dogs is from photographer James Page who called them “Little protein packs with “born to die” tattooed on their biceps.” And where there’s lots of “protein packs” there’s also lots of wildlife.
Some of that wildlife includes two animals that were once born to roam the prairies, whose dwindling numbers made them nearly extinct. But thanks to dogged determination, some prudent foresight, and patience galore they’ve both now been re-introduced back into their natural habit.
The first are the Bison. This is truly where the buffalo roam (and the deer and the antelope play). Re-introduced in 2006, their numbers have swelled from the 71 original bison that were released, to over 320 after this year’s calving. I’ve seen Bison as I’ve driven down the highway on farms where they raise them for meat – but there is nothing like the sight of a 100% pure Plains Bison (those on farms are hybrids) – roaming the plains they’re suppose to be roaming. Lucky for me, I was able to see them close up and personal as three of them crossed the road right in front of us. Quite the thrilling sight to be sure!
The second re-introduced animal is the Black Footed Ferret – an animal that was literally saved from extinction – though you won’t be seeing too many of them during a day-trip as being nocturnal they only come out to play at night.
Here’s a great video that shows not only the day the ferrets were re-introduced, but also some of the spectacular scenery you can see at Grasslands.
Aside from the wildlife, the Eco-Tour road also has a lot of cultural history from the hundreds of tipi rings that dot the landscape to the corrals once used by the cowboys of the Historic 130,000 acre 76 Ranch – the largest ranch in history. (Read more about it here).
Yeah, Grasslands definitely deserves many, many more hours of exploration and is definitely one of the places that should be on your GoHere list.
How to Go Here: The park’s West Block can be accessed near the village of Val Marie on Hwy #4 and Hwy #18, and is about an hour and a half drive south of Swift Current. Or you can follow this map.
Gotta Go: This place was obviously planned by a woman! As soon as you enter the West Block gates, you are immediately greeted by a nice clean porta-pottie (all that bumping down the #4 highway takes it’s toll, and you will definitely need it!).
It also has similar clean facilities throughout the park, including at Belza’s Picnic area/campground.
You can also make good use of the facilities found at Grassland’s Visitor’s Centre in Val Mare, or at the Prairie Wind and Silver Sage Museum and Art Gallery. (Where you’ll also find beverages to fill you back up for the bumpy road home!).
Good to Know:
- Visitor Information for Grasslands National Park can be found here.
- There are no amenities (other than above noted porta-potties) along the Eco-Tour Road, so be sure to bring plenty of water, some snacks to chow down on, and the requisite bug dope and sunscreen.
- There are rattlesnakes in the park (though a freak natural accident last summer did kill off 90% of the population) – so look where you walk.
- There are NO Park Fees – unlike the exorbitant amounts charged at other National Parks this one is currently free and everything is dirt cheap here. From walking tours that offer you a personal Parks Canada Guide on weekends for only $4.70, to camping for $15.70.
- Here backcountry camping really means backcountry camping. Park your car and wherever you hike to and plop your backpack down, that’s where you can stay – – all for only $9.80 for a night or $68.70 a year.
- The Eco-Tour can be unpassable in bad weather so make sure to check the forecast before planning your visit.
- Grasslands has now been designated not only as a Dark Sky Preserve – but it’s the Darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada.