The Grasslands National Park of Canada is one of the forty-four National Parks of the country, with its location alongside the Val Marie village in Saskatchewan, an exquisite landscape, camping grounds, wildlife viewing sites, prairie dog colonies, and trails.
But do you ever wonder why national parks are so special? Or what is so special about this national park in particular? Is it the magnificent view, the adventurous campgrounds, the numerous trails, or the flat prairie landscapes?
This post will be the perfect guide for learning every interesting thing about the Grasslands National Park of Canada. It is recognized as the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada, making it the most suitable for astrophotography. Or that in French, it’s called the Parc National des Prairies.
Also, unlike the country’s other national parks, the Grasslands National Park is the only national park in the country that was established to preserve the prairie grasslands of the region.
1. Grasslands National Park – Location
Alongside the Saskatchewan-Montana border, this national park of Canada, home to the fascinating dark sky preserves, is in southern Saskatchewan, more precisely, in its southwestern region. Val Marie is the city nearest to the national park.
- Co-ordinates: 49.1693°N 107.6269°W
- State/Province: Saskatchewan (Rural Municipality)
- Country: Canada
Saskatchewan is a province in western Canada bordered by the United States of America to the south by its Montana state. On its west, it is bordered by Alberta, and to the east lies Manitoba. It has its capital in Regina.
The province contains multiple National Parks, including Grasslands National Park and Prince Albert National Park.
The province’s northern region features a diverse landscape, including forests, lakes, and the Canadian Shield. This province of Canada is home to the Indigenous peoples known as the ‘First Nations.’
2. Area and Establishment
The Grasslands National Park was officially proclaimed on February 19, 2001, and it is a protected area known as Grasslands National Park of Canada, covering an area of 907 square kilometers.
Before the establishment of the Grasslands National Park, the Saskatchewan state of Canada only had one national park, the Prince Albert National Park, a destination known for its year-round scenic recreation.
Now, after Grasslands National Park covering the prairie temperate grassland area, the province encompasses two national parks, the presence of which represents the region’s diversity and great landscape features.
Established in 1981, IUCN Category II National Park – Grasslands National Park is governed by “Parks Canada.” Just as you guessed, other national parks of the country, like this one, are also looked over by the Parks Canada Association.
Parks Canada is an agency of the Government of Canada that maintains all its National Marine Conservation regions (three in number), 172 National Historic sites, a National Urban Park, and its National landmark, besides looking over the national parks.
3. History and Features of The Landscape
Even the smallest patch of ground has some history. Then how can we miss the history of the vast prairie Grasslands National Park of Canada?
The geological landscape of this Canadian national park has been formed over the years by the erosional process carried by the melted waters of the glaciers.
Geographically, Canada is located in the Northern Hemisphere in North America, much closer to the geographical north pole and in the close vicinity of the cold Arctic region. Because of the Canadian location of the Grasslands Park, it was more prone to erosion by the glacial waters.
The park’s characteristic features include its Frenchman River valley, badlands parkway, badland topography of Rock Creek, and its Seventy Mile Butte.
You would be amazed to know that the park is the land of Treaty 4 – a treaty between the Canadian Crown, represented by Alexander Morris and other treaty commissioners, and the Cree and Saulteaux First Nations. It was signed in 1874.
Moreover, the Grasslands National Park is situated in the North American plains on the ancient traditional land of Nitisitapi, Blackfoot, or Blackfeet people who established the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Today, many of these Blackfoot people live in Canada, while many are recognized as a Native American tribe in Montana in the United States of America.
4. East and West Blocks
The Grasslands National Park of Canada is bifurcated into the West Block Grasslands and the East Block Grasslands region.
4.1. West Block
The West block of the prairie grasslands is in the fourth Census Division of the eighteen census divisions of Saskatchewan province of Canada. Moving one hour south of the Swift Current, one can easily find the West Block Grasslands National Park region.
It is home to the famous Frenchman River Valley. The Frenchman Valley campground is an important tourist spot that offers tourist sites that are serviced, along with teepee camping and backcountry camping.
Besides its glorious campgrounds and hiking trails, the area accounts for a herd of more than 300 plains bison, one of the subspecies of American Bison, and colonies of prairie dogs. And you must not misunderstand the prairie dogs as dogs because they are squirrels!!
The park’s West block grasslands also encompass the IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) of Canada, which stretches on either side of the Whitemud River. It is to be noted that this stretch is a ten-mile long stretch in width.
4.2. East Block
The East block of the grassland is located in the third Census Division of southern Saskatchewan, Canada. It is south of the Wood Moutain Hills and is approximately one hour’s drive south of Assiniboia, a small town in the province of Saskatchewan.
The East Block McGowan’s Visitor Centre is accessible off Hwy 18, south of Wood Mountain.
Unlike the west block, the east block is wilder. Rock Creek badlands are traversed by eleven kilometers of one-lane parkways, prairie skies, and a Cretaceous–Paleogene (K-Pg) or Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary.
Did you know that the Grasslands National Park is home to the last remaining colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs?
One of the major features of any National Park is the variety or amount of flora and fauna available in its region. It is precisely this variety of fauna found in the Grasslands Park that makes it so special.
Diverse fauna can be seen in and around the vast lands, dry hills, eroded river valleys, and badlands of the Grasslands National Park, which includes prairie dogs, greater sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, prairie rattlesnakes, and more.
As mentioned, the Grasslands National Park encompasses an Important Bird Area in both the east and west blocks of the park. This ensures the birds’ protection and a proper environment to thrive.
Major birds of the park include the Burrowing Owl, found in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the Greater Sage Grouse, known for its incredible courtship.
Bats, swift foxes, bison, and black-tailed prairie dogs are important mammals in the Grasslands National Park. You will be surprised that of the 19 Canadian bat species, seven alone are in the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are daytime species and the favorite of the Grasslands Park’s visitors because of their cuteness and playful and social nature. Hanging near the prairie dog colony, the coyote is found.
Once, Canadian Prairies were home to foxes, but changes in environment and landscape led to their demise. Today’s ones are brought from Alberts and the United States of America.
5.3. Amphibians, Reptiles, and Aquatic Life
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer and Greater Short-horned Lizard are important in this regard. Introducing exotic plants, invasion, habitat change, and extreme weather conditions threaten these species.
Due to limited water sources in the parking area, the park’s aquatic life is not wide. However, catfish and carp are the two common fish species found in the Rock Creek and the Frenchman River, as well as a few tributaries.
Painted turtles and leopard frogs are also found in some regions of the parking area.
5.4. Endangered Species
The park’s geological landscape has a rich biodiversity, incorporating about twenty species at risk of extinction soon.
An example is the plains bison, which was re-introduced in the mixed grass prairie Saskatchewan area in 2005 when it was near extinction.
They were brought from the Elk Island National Park in Alberta and now reside in an 181 sq. km area of the west block of the grassland. By 2015, the herd had grown from 71 originally to 300.
Also, black-footed ferrets were re-introduced after an absence of more than half a century in the prairie dog towns when the park was declared a dark-sky preserve in 2009 in a ceremony at Belza House.
Moreover, practices to improve night lighting under the dark-sky agreement ensure that dark is maintained in the park at night to preserve a natural environment for the nocturnal wildlife.
6. Hiking Trails in Grasslands National Park
Besides the exquisite wildlife, unique location, and intriguing history, the Grasslands National Park is the abode to beautiful and scenic hiking trails and routes.
6.1. West Block Hiking Trails:
6.1.1. Eagle Butte Trail
With its trailhead at the parking area gate, the Eagle Butte Trail is a wonderful trail that covers a 2 km loop path and offers a magnificent view of wildflowers and the soaring prey birds.
6.1.2. 70 Mile Butte Trail
A comparatively more difficult trail than others, the 70-mile Butte Trail starts from the branches of the Eagle Butte trail and covers a 2-km long loop that requires at least one and a half hours to hike.
It has a beautiful view of the Frenchman River Valley, whose beauty is enough to take your breath away.
6.1.3. Two Trees Trail
Following a 4 km long loop, this trail is sufficiently good for people with short time commitments. Its trailhead lies at the Two Tree Trail Use Day Area, and it goes on to cover the scenic view of the prairie grasslands.
6.1.4. Riverwalk Trail
Like the Two Trees Trail, the Riverwalk Trail begins at the Two Trail Use Day Area. Following a loop of 3 km, hike this grassy trail for an introduction to the riparian plant life and observe the birds as they use riverbank cliffs.
6.1.5. Three Sisters Trail
As a 4 km one-way, this moderate hiking trail requires at least 2-3 hours and begins from Rosefield Grid.
This old vehicle trail leads to the Saskatchewan Natural History Monument. It marks the establishment of the first Black-tailed Prairie Dog Sanctuary in the country.
6.1.6. Top Dogtown Trail
Shortest of all the ten west block front country hiking trails, the Top Dogtown trail covers a 750-meter loop with its trailhead at the Ecotour pull-off 2.
A 20-minute hard-surface, level trail that showcases the black-tailed prairie dogs as you hike.
6.1.7. Timbergulch Trail
Longest of all the ten west block front country hiking trails, this trail requires 5 to 6 hours of a long time to cover the 17 km difficult loop.
Glacially created Timbergulch trail with its coulee bottoms has the perfect habitat for bison. Its trailhead lies at the Ecotour Pulloff 3.
6.1.8. Bearpaw Sea Trail
A 10 km one-way difficult trail that branches from the 70 Mile Butte Trail or the Ecotour Pulloff 3.
The Bearpaw Sea Trail is perfect for looking over various grassland habitats, including valley bottoms and tabletops.
6.1.9. Broken Hills Trail
11 km loop of this trail offers an unobstructed view of the scenic grassland. Its trailhead lies at the Belza Day Use Area.
6.1.10. Larson Trail
Have only a little time? This trail is for you, then. Larson Trail is a thirty-minute, easy, and mowed hiking trail offering evidence of early ranching and a magnificent view of the Frenchman River. It covers a 1.5 km loop and begins from the Ecotour pull-off.
Those were some great trails, didn’t they? It is amazing how the west block of the park alone offers so many adventurous and diverse hiking trails for every visitor to find an exhilarating experience.
But then, there is no way for us to miss the wonderful hiking trails of the east block.
6.2. East Block Hiking Trails:
6.2.1. Creek to Peak Trail
With its trailhead in the south of the kitchen shelter, this mowed path covers 750 m one way up the hill and leads to the Rock Creek valley and the badlands beyond it.
6.2.2. Rock Creek Trail
As the name suggests, the Rock Creek Trail has its trailhead around the Rock Creek bridge. It’s one one-hour easy way along a 2 km loop. And this, my friend, offers the most astounding view of Rock Creek.
6.2.3. Valley of 1000 Devils Trail
You must agree with me: this trail is a fascinating name! Jokes apart, the Valley of 1000 Devils Trail is a 111 km loop that begins from the northwest off of Rock Creek Trail.
The trail has a path meandering through coulees and mixed-grass prairie and goes along the Hellfire Creek basin, accessing the Rock Creek Badlands.
7. Grasslands National Park Camping
Whether front-country, backcountry, equestrian, or oTENTik, camping at the Grasslands National Park of Canada is an exhilarating experience.
With a peaceful setting in the prairies, a location in the heart of the West block, and a scenic view of the Frenchman Valley, sunsets, sometimes bison, and rolling hills, this campground is perfect for your front country camping experience.
Additionally, you get to watch the brilliance of the skies at night. That is a sight to remember!
7.2. Rock Creek Campground, East Block
The Rock Creek Campground is the abode of the Rock Creek Visitor Centre, where the reservations for camping at this campground are made.
At this campground, you will surely enjoy the elegance of the prairies, see the alluring skies during the day and night, and watch leopard frogs.
Note – While making reservations, it is important to note what campgrounds you choose in which block. You can make reservations for the Frenchman Valley Campground at the West Block Visitor Centre, Val Marie, also known as the Val Marie Visitor Centre.
Contact the Rock Creek Visitor Center to make a reservation at the Rock Creek Campground in the East block.
7.3. Backcountry Camping
Drop all your work, if possible, and pitch a tent where no one has camped for about a thousand years in the past now, and look forward to the sunsets and all there is to explore in the wilderness of the prairie grasslands of Canada. Because that is exactly what backcountry camping offers.
But do not forget to respect the environment!
You can make reservations at the visitor center or the campground office to pick a spot where you hope to camp in the backcountry. Look into the guidelines, follow designated trailheads using maps or GPS, pack out all you packed in, and gift yourself a fun experience for a lifetime.
7.4. Equestrian Camping
If you are a big fan of horse riding, this one is exactly for you. Equestrian camping involves camping with your horse!
In the west block, you can experience equestrian camping south of the Belza Day Use Area, while in the east block, you would have to go east of the Rock Creek Visitor Centre and the Rock Creek Campground for a similar experience.
If all that feels too much, do not miss trying the oTENTik.
Especially if you are somebody who does not want to go through the trouble of setting up a camp or tent and seek the comfort of the bed while still wanting to experience camping, this one is a blessing to you.
Parks Canada staff and team offer oTENTik in the Frenchman Valley Campground, West block, and the Rock Creek Campground, East block, for an easy and relaxed camping experience. Remember, the oTENTik is exclusive to Parks Canada and can also be an exclusive gift to yourself.
8. The Darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada
Beyond the shallow heights of the hills, tops, and mountains lies what is most beautiful and fascinating to almost everyone, at least me. It’s the sky! The night sky is just so much more intriguing.
It is sad how the sky has changed so much because of the varied climate, atmosphere, and environmental changes. But, it is extremely hopeful to know, if not equally, that the Grasslands National Park in Canada is the darkest dark sky preserve there is in the whole country.
It was designated in 2009 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as the International Year of Astronomy.
Preserving the dark sky ensures better living conditions while maintaining the age-old day and night cycle for the flora and fauna of the national park. Additionally, the park is perfect for astrophotography.
It is advisable to check the weather and choose a suitable spot to stargaze the breathtaking view of the dark skies of the national park.
The Grasslands National Park is located in southern Saskatchewan along the international borders of US -Canada (Montana-Saskatchewan) in Canada. It is one of the country’s best national parks and unique in that it has the darkest dark sky preserve.
The exquisite wildlife, beautiful landscape, adventurous hiking trails and camping grounds, and peaceful atmosphere leave no doubt in saying so. All these signs towards only one thing: it’s a must-see, and you must visit it too!!