Grasslands National Park is one of Canada’s least visited wild spaces, and that’s both so very good and too bad at the same time.

It’s so very good because this unique and hauntingly beautiful ecosystem is fragile and would be damaged irreparably by too many intrusive visitors. And the lack of visitors – particularly relative to the immensity of the space – only enhances the emotive power of the place. Put simply, too many humans here would be a crime.

Big Sky Country meets endless prairie grasslands

But it’s too bad because the grandeur of the immense spaces reaches deep into one’s soul, acting as a balm against the manic pace of modern life and reminding us of nature’s healing powers. More people need to experience these feelings; if they did perhaps they’d feel more connected to this fragile planet we call home and be more inclined to take better care of the natural gifts we’ve been given.

Now we know that sounds quixotic; perhaps even a bit pagan. But in truth trying to convey the beauty and grace of this place in words and pictures is a nearly impossible task. The immensity of the space, the interplay of sky and land, wind and grasses, rock and scrubland – all leave one at a loss for words and memories that are recalled more as deep emotional impressions than as more conventional stories. But we’ll do our best. 

Rocky outcroppings and prairie grasslands support a complex ecosystem.

A Covid Tale

We visited in June, 2020 – a decidedly odd time to be sure. It was a mere three months after the imposition of the first Covid lockdowns, that pre-vaccine period when people in many parts of the world were in hard isolation due to the spread of the virus.

We were determined to see the Grasslands Park before moving back to Toronto in September. Once we learned that accommodation was available (more on that below), we packed some hiking gear and travelled south in our mobile Covid isolation pod (aka: the Nissan Maxima). Our first stop was a farewell visit to the Cypress HIlls Interprovincial Park – a long-time favourite destination for us. Then it was off to Val Marie and our home away from home.

Better yet were the nights on the long, second story balconies, watching fireflies light up the night while listening to coyotes howl in the distance. It was amazing. The only thing we missed out on were the reportedly amazing breakfasts prepared by Adam (the owners son), but the Inn in still operating so you can partake and let us know if they’re as good as everyone says they are!

Hiking in the Park

There were no staff available to provide orientations or answer questions and no one had been around to restock the information pamphlet and map dispensers (because Covid), so we had to rely on the information posted on panels at kiosks near the Park administration offices. The posted hiking trail “maps” left a lot to be desired, but we were confident that we could way-find our way across a planned 35 km hike (more on that in a bit). But the best part had to be the warnings about avoiding rattlesnakes and quicksand. Now rattlesnakes we could manage; but quicksand?! That was almost too much, considering the rather unnerving admonition that “most quicksand areas are marked”. Most?! WTF? LOL

Not to be deterred, we were keen to lose ourselves (metaphorically) in the beauty of this place, so off we went.

Anyes heading for the hills, trusty rattlesnake stick in hand.

And it didn’t take long for our determination to pay off. Within 15 minutes of setting out we caught a quick flash of movement in some rocks adjacent to the trail. Lo and behold, here was an endangered Greater Short-horned Lizard scampering about a mere metre off the trail. We knew from the kiosk information that we were meant to note the GPS coordinates of the sighting and forward them to Parks Canada – so we did just that.

With apologies for the picture quality (we didn't want to get too close so used digital zoom), meet the Greater Short-horned Lizard.

As if that weren’t enough, a few minutes later we had a reasonably close encounter with another endangered species – a Pronghorn Antelope scampering along a series of hills below the high trail we were tramping. This beautiful animal teased us with its presence for about ten minutes before disappearing for good. We surmised that the absence of people was emboldening these animals to roam more freely than they would if there were lots of folks about. 

So, about that wayfinding challenge. After about 30 minutes of walking the groomed trail gave way to cross-country trekking with no distinct trails to follow. Instead, one is expected to look for one metre high plasticized, painted trail guideposts spaced out at random intervals and distances. For the most part these are reasonably visible, but there were a number of times when we had to stop and stare – sometimes for ten minutes or longer – to find the next marker. While this can be disconcerting (especially given the information kiosk’s note that the resident bison sometimes knock the markers down!), we managed to find all the markers and continue on our way with reasonable certainty that we were on the right track. *Note: this is a place where you want to bring a compass (and know how to use it) just in case you lose track of the trail. 

The Convent Inn

This historic building was opened in 1939 and operated by the Sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (a teaching order based in Quebec). The building has a fascinating history, which you can check out here:

Now, keep in mind that we were visiting during the early days of a global health emergency. While the Inn was open it wasn’t exactly inundated with guests. As a matter of fact, we were the only people staying in the entire building. We had our pick of rooms, and since there were no staff on-site we had the run of the place. It was a pretty wild experience exploring the various rooms, lounging on old-school sofas while eating microwave popcorn and watching cast Netflix shows on an old, analog television set.

The highest point of land in Grasslands National Park - hike to the top for spectacular views

We hiked to our turnaround point, which just happened to overlook a vast Prairie Dog town (yes, they’re called towns). We set up for lunch and just listened to the sound of the town’s residents calling back and forth, their calls carried on the ever present breezes that also brought the scent of prairie grasses and wildflowers to our high perch.

A spectacular view, with the bonus of hundreds of Prairie Dogs yipping and scampering below us.

Finally, a word about the beautiful quiet of this place. You can spend hours walking, or sitting, and hear nothing more than the hum of pollinators, the rustling of grasses touched by the breeze, the occasional “yip” of Prairie Dogs, or the cry of a hawk gliding overhead. It’s one of the most magical and therapeutic places we’ve ever hiked. 

A few safety notes:

This is a beautiful, but harsh, environment. If you plan to hike the vastness of the park you should ensure that you leave your intended route and anticipated return time with someone. As noted, you also need to be somewhat comfortable with navigating unmarked terrain – a compass is a must, as is someone in your party with a good, innate sense of direction. You can get lost out here for a long while, and unless something has changed since June 2020 there is no cell phone service. 

In summer – which in this part of Saskatchewan starts in mid-May – it’s hot! A good hiking hat is an absolute must, as is breathable hiking clothing. If you’re planning to go off the groomed trails solid hiking shoes/boots are a must, and snake gaiters are highly recommended. Take plenty of water (preferably with added electrolytes) and Hydralite tablets. There are only a few, far between camp spots with water service and those aren’t really situated to support through hikes. Having food along is also highly recommended. High protein energy bars – (like Clif Builders) or a big bag of homemade “trail mix” are good choices. Again, if you get lost you’ll need to keep your energy up until someone treks out to find you.

Finally, know your limits. If you can normally hike 20 km in a day, you may want to set a goal of 15 km to start – especially if it’s hot (which it almost always is). And remember, a 15 kilometre hike means 7.5 km out, and 7.5 km back. And be sure to start early, especially for longer hikes. This has three advantages: first, you’ll be able to beat some of the heat by hiking in the cooler morning; second, you’re far more likely to see wildlife when you get out and about early in the day; and finally, you’re sure to get home before dusk or, heaven forbid, dark. Trust us, the last thing you want to be doing is trying to see the trail guide markers in the gloom of dusk, or navigating the grasslands in the dark. That would lead to nothing good happening!

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