Grasslands National Park: Wildlife, Hiking & Camping Under Big Skies

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Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan is one of the least known national parks in the entire country, despite the expansive prairie vistas and unique geography that encompasses over 700 square kilometres. It is a terrific place to hike, camp and see a wide variety of wildlife in their natural surroundings. Of course, one of the best things about Grasslands National Park is the distinct lack of crowds.

Grasslands receives just a fraction of the summer crowds found in major mountain parks like Banff or Waterton, making it a wonderful place to enjoy the big outdoor spaces and uncrowded trails. And, as if Grasslands wasn’t already remote enough, it is also split into two distinct blocks.

Grasslands National Park – West Block

By far the most popular of the two sections, the West Block features the informative and wildlife filled Ecotour Scenic Drive and the exposed, but comfortable, Frenchman Valley campground. It is closest to the main visitor centre in the small town of Val Marie and features a wide range of trails both short and long, the largest herds of buffalo and most populous prairie dog towns. If you only have time for one section, the West Block probably provides more variety and history, although they are so different we would highly recommend trying to visit both.

Grasslands – East Block

The East Block is nearly a 2-hour drive from Frenchman Valley Campground and boasts some completely different badlands topography. The quieter section of an already very quiet national park, the East Block of Grasslands National Park is the ideal destination for those looking for adventure off the beaten path.

The Badlands Parkway drive is loaded with phenomenal viewpoints and easy trails, while the Valley of 1,000 Devils is unlike anything else you’ll find in Saskatchewan. Rock Creek Campground has similar facilities to Frenchman Valley Campground, as well as a second visitor centre.

What makes Grasslands National Park so special?

The Grasslands National Park is known for its unique landscape, dark night skies and harsh, semi-arid climate. It is the only place in Canada that you will find black-tailed prairie dog colonies. It also has successfully reintroduced plains bison and there are now 400-500 in the park.

Grasslands National Park Map

Things to do in the Grasslands National Park

There are precious few buildings in either block of Grasslands National Park but outdoor lovers are spoiled for choice. Whether you are looking for an epic backcountry adventure or to enjoy some history and local wildlife, Grasslands has you covered. Just don’t expect a lot of shade…

Wildlife Viewing

The remote location and lack of urban development around Grasslands National Park makes it a top destination for seeing prairie wildlife in their natural habitat. Herds of plains bison are normally seen right next to the road on the way to Frenchman Valley campground, followed immediately by several extensive black-tailed prairie dog colonies. Tons of wildlife can be spotted right alongside the Ecotour Scenic Drive if you go slow and keep a close watch.

Bison grazing at the Grasslands National Park Saskatchewan

While hiking, keep your eyes peeled for American badgers, short-horned lizards, beavers and several different species of snakes (including rattlesnakes – keep your distance if you hear that telltale rattle). Coyotes and foxes are a common sight (and sound, especially at night), as are pronghorn antelope and both mule and white-tailed deer.

Your best chances of spotting wildlife are close to dawn and dusk. These are great times to settle in near one of the prairie dog towns to watch these fascinating, industrious and somewhat jittery little creatures go about their daily activities (whatever these happen to be, it’s hard to tell).

Grasslands has far too many species of bird to list them all but some of the most interesting are the ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, long billed curlews, greater sage grouse and Sprague’s pipits.

Float Down the Frenchman River

Carefree Adventures runs kayaking tours on the Frenchman River that include all necessary equipment, transportation, guides and instruction. They usually take around 2 hours and because the river can be shallow in spots, expect occasional portages over sand bars and beaver dams. The tours need to be booked in advance and can be customized to fit the size of your group or a specific timeline.

The Frenchman River in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park

Or, if you have your own kayak and equipment, you can head out on your own using this guide to paddling on the Frenchman River.

Find the Red Chairs

The iconic red Adirondack chairs of Canada’s national parks can be found in 7 different locations throughout Grasslands National Park – 3 in the West Block and 4 more in the East Block. Here are the GPS coordinates if you want to track them all down, although finding them on your own is half the fun (the other half is sitting down for a rest).

Two red chairs at a viewpoint on the Grasslands National Park Parkway
Red Chairs with a view on the Badlands Parkway

Experience the Views on Horseback

You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere as suited to horseback riding as the open prairie fields, picturesque coulees, dramatic buttes and wild badlands of Grasslands National Park. If you have your own horses you can explore the park to your heart’s content all year-round, and even backcountry camp in specific locations in each block.

Or you can join in on the park’s official Sunset Horseback Adventure or Cattle Trails and Cowboy Tales interpretive horseback tour. These can be booked through the Val Marie visitor centre, who provide horses to match any skill level and take you through an exciting day of exploration in a wide variety of prairie terrain.

This area played a huge part in the 19th century history of the west and while riding through the badlands past herds of bison and old homesteads you’ll be treated to true stories of battles, cowboys, settlers, Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux.

5 people horseback riding at Grasslands National Park
Horsebackriding in the Grasslands National Park

You can also book a private Ride with Lamotte, offering peaceful 3-hour ride through the grasslands seeking out all the best locations to spot bison, prairie dogs, deer and foxes.

Take a Scenic Drive

Each block has its own highlight drive, providing excellent viewpoints, informative boards and plenty of wildlife.

In the West Block, the Ecotour Scenic Drive is a 20-kilometre (one-way) self-guided route through the Frenchman River Valley featuring amazing landscapes, fascinating history and loads of wildlife. It usually takes around 2 hours if you drive slowly and stop off at all the information panels along the way. There are also several short walking trails and a few pleasant picnic areas. You’ll definitely see prairie dog colonies, some historic ranches, homesteads and archaeological sites and mostly like herds of bison.

In the East Block, the Badlands Parkway is all about spectacular scenery. Running along the incredibly photogenic Rock Creek and its exceptional collection of coulees and buttes, it is lined with phenomenal viewpoints. Of course, chances are you’ll see your share of wildlife here as well. The Badlands Parkway is 11 kilometres long, narrow and paved, although there are many pullouts along the way to allow vehicles to pass each other.

Enjoy the Night Sky

With nothing remotely qualifying as a city within 100 kilometres of any point in the park, Grasslands National Park is the ultimate big sky destination. And, as impressive as the “Land of Living Skies” is during the day, the park really comes into its own at night. Officially declared a Dark Sky Preserve in 2009 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, just about any place in Grasslands is a great place to do a little star gazing.

Be sure to check the weather ahead of time (clouds will mess with the view no matter how remote you are), pack your binoculars (or, even better, a telescope) and consider downloading a star gazing app to help recognize exactly what you’re seeing.

Backcountry camping is the best way to see the skies at their finest, although both main campgrounds and the Two Trees Trail are also good spots and easily accessible. If you are walking out in the dark, stay alert and keep a particular eye out for mud holes, bison and rattlesnakes.

Go for a Hike

The hiking opportunities in Grasslands National Park are practically endless, with the tremendous prairie terrain stretching off into the distance in ever direction. Just remember to keep track of the trail and remember where you came from (the grasslands can all look very similar if you’re not paying attention).

Also, make sure you stay at least 100 metres from any bison (you won’t like them when they’re angry, although they don’t get that way if you keep your distance), always be careful of rattlesnakes (yes, it is worth mentioning this many times) and load up on the insect repellent to protect yourself from mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, all of which can be awful at times during the summer.

Best Grasslands National Park Hikes – West Block

There are more hiking options in the West Block of Grasslands but many of the short hikes are fairly similar. The following provide the most variety of scenery and wildlife.

Two Trees Trail

4 km / 1 hr / 100m elevation gain

AllTrails: Two Trees Trail

This short, surprisingly steep trail is known for its wildflowers in early summer and having not one, but two, trees. Real ones. I’m only kidding, there are at least 5 trees, not sure where it got that name. Nonetheless, it boasts some awesome viewpoints and is one of the best places for stargazing.

Eagle and 70-Mile Butte Loop

4.5 km / 1.5 hrs / 150m elev gain

AllTrails: Eagle Butte and 70 Mile Butte Loop

These two short loops are easy to combine to get the best of both worlds, the outstanding long-distance views of 70 Mile Butte and the impressive rock formations and colourful flowers of Eagle Butte. The incline is very gradual and the path easy to follow, although you can easily wander if you want to explore a little more.

View from 70 Mile Butte

Larson Interpretive Trail

1.5 km / 30 min / 30m elev gain

AllTrails: Larson Interpretive Trail

Starting at historic Wait Larson Homestead and following a tiny, winding creek near Frenchman Valley Campground, this is an easy short, walk that is particularly colourful late in the day. However, the mosquitoes can be ferocious in the long grass, and always keep an eye on your feet as we spotted a rattlesnake on this trail (important advice anywhere in the park, though).

Broken Hills Loop

7 km / 2 hrs/ 130m elev gain

AllTrails: Broken Hills Loop

This is a popular choice for the awesome panoramic prairie view. The terrain is rougher than many trails in the area but the scenery is great and it occasionally runs close to one of the few rivers in Grasslands.

Backcountry Pick – Otter Basin Loop

14 km / 5 hrs / 700-800m elev gain

AllTrails: Otter Basin Route

This is an extraordinary, remote route with great scenery. Although we saw a couple just returning from a day hike when we started out, we were the only people staying out on the trail the night we went and, at times, it felt like we were the only people in the world. It starts about half an hour’s drive from Frenchman Valley Campground on the far eastern side of the West Block.

The start of the Otter Basin Loop hike

For a trail that looks pretty flat starting out, there is actually a surprising number of different valleys, coulees and hills which made for great views. This also meant that the total elevation gain was much greater than the amount shown on the AllTrails route. And because of salinity and livestock in the area none of the water is safe to drink, even filtered and treated, so you need to make sure you carry plenty with you.

The trail seems to change a lot based on rain and cattle tracks so the AllTrails route is really just a guideline. Also, keep in mind it might be impassable following rain as there are a lot of low, muddy spots. It is hard to follow the exact route all the time so I would recommend marking some periodic GPS points and simply walking towards them, following the path of least resistance rather than trying to stick exactly to the red line on the app.

A small tent in the backcountry of the Grasslands National Park with hills behind and blue sky
Our campsite in the Grasslands National Park backcountry

We hiked counter-clockwise and made it all the way around past the prairie dog town at the end and camped at Otter Ridge (which you’ll recognize as the first hills visible southeast from the prairie dog town). It was about 9 km and 3.5 hours to that point (including stops).

It was a surprisingly hot night for early June but we enjoyed an incredible sunset from the ridge and didn’t even need to put the fly on our tent that night, leaving it open to enjoy the stars. The creepy coyote noises occasionally coming too close and the entire pack howling later conspired against a completely restful night but the spectacular sunrise made up for it.

Fun fact: we had absolutely no cell coverage at our tent below Otter Ridge but I suddenly noticed I had three bars while sitting up top enjoying the sunset.

Man looking at sunset at the Grasslands National Park Saskatchewan

Best Grassland National Park Hikes – East Block

While the hiking options are more limited in Grasslands East Block, they arguably provide more impressive scenery. In addition to those listed below, it is possible to hike as often and as far as you want down into the valley at basically any point along the Badlands Parkway.

Butte Creek Trail (also called Red Buttes Route)

16 km / 4 hrs / 300m elev gain

AllTrails: Butte Creek Trail

A fascinating, undulating walk through red hills leading to some amazing grassland viewpoints. You often see antelope and deer on this route, and keep an eye out for cattle.

Sunka Watogla Loop

10 km / 2.5 hrs / 270m elev gain

AllTrails: Sunka Watogla Loop

Not technically within Grasslands National Park boundaries, this is remote, desolate prairie hiking at its finest.

Backcountry Pick – Valley of 1,000 Devils Hike

11 km / 4 hrs / 260m elev gain

AllTrails: Valley of 1000 Devils

This out and back trail is short enough to complete on a day hike but is much more rewarding if you take the time to spend the night. For one thing, although the first half is a straightforward walk through nice, rolling prairie hills, soon after it suddenly drops down into badlands terrain you’d normally only expect to find near Drumheller or in South Dakota.

And once you reach the badlands section you are going to want to explore all the fascinating ridges, peaks and gulches which means that by the time you’re done you will have added several kilometres and a lot of elevation gain. Once again, there is no potable water along the trail, although there is a water cache located just off the western edge of the main section of badlands. If you can find it (which wasn’t as easy as I expected) you can refill from the large tanks stored there.

View of a valley with interesting formations on the Valley of 1000 devils hike in Grasslands National Park Saskatchewan

The trail is easy follow until you reach the badlands, at which point you can really just wander whichever way the mood strikes. The hard part was deciding where to camp with so many great spots to choose from. I set my sights on someplace flat and sheltered but with an amazing view and ended up changing my mind far too many times.

Backcountry campsite at the Valley of 1000 Devils in the Grasslands National Park
My tent blending into the background

In the end, though, I managed to stay out of the wind, sleep comfortably and witness a breathtaking sunrise with two deer gazing down at my tent curiously from the ridge looming above. A truly special place to camp.

Grasslands National Park Camping

Many people think of camping as something that takes place in heavily shaded forest campgrounds, surrounded by tall trees and chirping squirrels. Well, Grasslands camping isn’t that. These are wide open spaces, virtually treeless, exposed to the sun and the wind. The benefits, though, are views of distant horizons in all directions and the chance to watch the sun go down and come up from the comfort of your tent.

Grassland National Park Camping: West Block

Frenchman Valley Campground is located right along the Ecotour Scenic Drive and enjoys a serene prairie setting close to the Frenchman River and the cascading hills of the surrounding plains. The night sky is epic and the sunsets eternally memorable. You might even see bison strolling past your campsite.

There are 20 electrified tent/RV sites (including 1 wheelchair accessible and 3 pull-through RV sites) and 4 oTENTik units (#25 is accessible and #28 is pet-friendly). The oTENTik units are half tent, half A-frame cabin and come equipped with comfortable furniture and real beds on a raised floor.

All units can be booked online in advance (and probably need to be in summer) or you can call 1-877-737-3783 (in North America) or 1-519-826-5391 (outside North America).

Each site has a picnic table, fire pit and lantern hanger and there are conveniently located vault toilets and potable water taps. The water is turned on from May long weekend (May 21, 2021) until after the September long weekend (September 6, 2021) but is limited so RVs need to fill up their tanks before they arrive.

Campsite with no trees at the Grasslands National park campground
The Frenchman Valley campground in the Grassland Park

There is actually wifi at the Coulee Centre, a covered cooking shelter right next to the camping area that is also used for park programs.

Grassland National Park Camping: East Block

Rock Creek Campground and Visitor Centre are the only facilities within the East Block of Grasslands National Park. It has a similarly open plan as Frenchman Valley that somehow feels even more remote and wild.

It has 24 similar electrified tent/RV sites, all with fire pits and picnic tables that can be booked online through the same system, or you can call 1-877-737-3783 (in North America) or 1-519-826-5391 (outside North America). There are also 8 oTENTik units here (#31 is accessible and #28 is pet-friendly).

The day use picnic shelter has a kitchen and just like at Frenchman Valley there are vault toilets and potable water available in summer (but not enough to fill up RV tanks). There is also an RV dump tank and a communal fire pit.

Grasslands National Park Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping in Grasslands is real treat. Compared with most Canadian parks that very strictly regulate where you can camp, in Grasslands you are allowed to simply pitch your tent wherever looks good. Absolute freedom of choice that makes it feel like you’ve stepped back in time before paved roads, cities and global information systems.

Of course, this only works if everyone treats the Grasslands wilderness with respect, practices “leave no trace” camping and follows a few simple rules. All campers need to register at one of the visitor centres or campgrounds, choose a backcountry zone and park at a designated trailhead. Other rules to follow:

  • Camp out of site of any road or main trail (at least 1 kilometre away).
  • Conditions vary, but normally you are not allowed to have open fires so should plan to bring a camp stove.
  • Carry all the water you need as there are very few water sources in the Grasslands backcountry and those are not potable due to livestock and excessive salinity. Don’t drink water from streams or ponds even when filtered and/or treated.
  • Pack out everything you brought in (including toilet paper).
  • Carry a map, compass and download GPS maps for offline use (cell coverage is sporadic at best).

Check out our lists of the best Camping Quotes and Camping Captions.

When did Grasslands become a national park?

We didn’t realize that the Grasslands National Park is relatively new in the scheme of Canadian parks. It was officially proclaimed a national park on February 19, 2001.

How to Get to Grassland National Park

The Grassland National Park’s West Block is accessed near the village of Val Marie on Hwy #4 and Hwy #18 about a 1.5-hour drive south of Swift Current. Val Marie is small but does have a cardlock gas station that the public can use. We also filled our water at the park office in Val Marie for our backcountry camping.

The Park’s East Block is accessed near the town of Wood Mountain on Hwy #18. It is important to note that both access to and all roads within the two blocks are gravel and have cattle gates but are generally in good condition.  

How to Contact the Grasslands Park

If you have any questions you can contact the visitor centres and talk to the helpful staff.

Phone number: (West Block visitor centre): 1-877-345-2257

Phone number: (East Block visitor centre): 1-306-476-2018

Toll-Free: +1 (888) 773-8888 (Toll-free)

Other Places to Visit Near Grasslands National Park Saskatchewan

Despite our rather unimposing population (just over a million people), Saskatchewan is actually a very large place (can you believe 5 times the size of England, which has 56 million people?). So, to foreigners it can sometimes feel like nothing is close to anything else. But our highways tend to be flat, straight and fairly empty so even large distances can be covered without much trouble. Therefore, if you happen to find yourself in far southern Saskatchewan to see Grasslands National Park, you should try to set aside enough time to hit some of the other great highlights in the area, as well.

Castle Butte is an impressive rocky outcropping about 1.5 hours east of the East Block where an easy hike takes you up to some fantastic viewpoints.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park involves two completely separate sections, much like Grasslands, except that the Central Block is in Saskatchewan and the West Block is across the border in Alberta. The Saskatchewan section features a pretty little lake, several nice short hikes and a surprisingly Scottish theme. At 1,400 metres above sea level, it is the highest point in the province and its forests and excellent campgrounds make you feel like you are in the woods up north.

Dock with canoes lined up at Cypress Hills Saskatchewan lake

Heading north from Cypress Hills, the Great Sandhills Ecological Reserve makes for an enjoyably bizarre stop. The second-largest sand dunes in Canada would seem more at home in Morocco or Mongolia, rather than just a short walk off a tiny dirt road in southern Saskatchewan.

Conclusion

As one of only two Saskatchewan national parks (along with Prince Albert National Park in the northern forests), Grasslands National Park should be a rite of passage for any Saskatchewan nature lover. Offering loads of wildlife, endless skies, gorgeous prairie views and some of the most stunning sunsets in Canada, Grasslands is worthwhile detour for those passing through on the Trans-Canada highway or a specific destination for those looking for a unique slice of prairie terrain.

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Other useful articles you may want to check out:

Day Hike Packing List

Grey Owl’s Cabin: A Hike with Burritos

Lazy Floating on the Kingsmere River

Nistowiak Falls: A Northern Saskatchewan Tour

Drumheller: The Ultimate Guide to Alberta’s Dinosaur Capital

The Best and Worst of Drumheller Camping

Hiking Quotes to Inspire Your Next Hike

Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth

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