The Great Sandhills: Saskatchewan’s Hidden Gem

We have lived in Saskatchewan our whole lives yet until recently had no idea that the Great Sandhills Ecological Reserve even existed. This fascinating 1,900 square kilometre area featuring dramatic, cresting dunes would look more at home in Morocco or Mongolia and certainly doesn’t seem like something you’d find just a short drive from Sceptre, Saskatchewan.

Expansive wheat fields that stretch off to the distant horizon? Yeah, sure. Abandoned farmhouses teetering on the brink of collapse next to million-dollar combines? Definitely. A large line of trucks parked at Tim Horton’s with Saskatchewan Roughrider license plates? Obviously. But a series of tall sand dunes in the middle of almost literally nowhere? Nope, not really.

I’m sure this natural phenomenon is much more familiar to those from southern Saskatchewan than us central/north folk, but it was still a little surprising to find out these 15-20-metre-high piles of photogenic sand were located just a short detour off our main route down to Cypress Hills Provincial Park. Created by the strong winds common in that part of the world (i.e. the very flat part), they are constantly shifting and changing with the weather and seasons.

The Great Sandhills are surrounded by a wide range of grass, small trees and bushes (aspen, sagebrush, willow), which only serve to accentuate the smooth, barren dunes themselves. The sandy soil doesn’t retain much in the way of moisture or nutrients, leaving most of the flora stunted and desperate looking. Sand dunes, on the other hand, require no nutrients and only the occasional photo-happy tourist to nourish their confident egos.

The actual dunes themselves only make up 5% of the 1,900 square kilometres of the protected Great Sandhills Ecological Reserve but are certainly the most impressive highlights. The dunes are easily spotted as you approach from either direction and there is one large, rounded behemoth located just steps outside the parking area. The most extensive and impressive set of sand hills, though, are found about a 10-minute walk southwest into the park (don’t worry about specific directions, you’ll definitely see them).

Oh, and by the way, it seems that “sandhill” and “sand hill” are used basically interchangeably in this case, so feel free to use whichever one you prefer (as much as that ambiguity offends my fastidious spelling sensibilities).

Why are there sand dunes in the middle of Saskatchewan?

The very basic, barely scientific answer is that they were left over when the glaciers fled the scene around 12,000 years ago, sort of like the ring of grime in the tub left behind that time you let your kid’s friend sleep over. More specifically, though, 12 millennia ago the huge Laurentide Ice Sheet was 2 kilometres thick and covered most of what we now know as Canada (aka the only place where curling dominates the TV schedule). When it began to recede/melt it left behind large lakes and huge piles of sandy debris to remind future generations of all the rocks it was able to crush in its prime.

Person running down sand dune at the great sandhills Saskatchewan

Great Sandhills Museum & Interpretive Centre

Featuring 11 themed rooms filled with historical items, as well as early 20th century house, barn and churches, the Great Sandhills Museum makes a great stop. Staff are happy to give you background on the area before you head off to the hills and there is a bevy of antique machinery and some nice gardens to enjoy as well.

The museum is located right on the main street through Sceptre and is open Monday to Friday from 8 am to noon and 1 pm to 4 pm. And, since you’re there anyway, why not check out Sceptre’s other claim to fame (never accuse worldly Sceptre of being a one-trick pony), “The World’s Tallest Metal Wheat Sculpture”. They also have some interesting mural art and a collection of fire hydrants painted as cartoon characters. Obviously.

Great Sand Hills Saskatchewan Hiking

While it is possible to walk for hours in practically any direction in and around the active sand dunes, there are no official trails, probably since they are constantly shifting and changing. And there are definitely no marked trails. You’ll basically just want to pick a direction and follow the path of least resistance.

Person walking on trail toward sand dune at the great sandhills Saskatchewan
Following the trails on a Great Sandhills hike

Facing west from the parking lot, there is a large sand dune to your right which is perfect if you are tight on time or don’t feel like a hike to the 10-15 minutes to the farther ones. To your left is a small, grassy hill topped by a fascinating/weird wooden arch covered in old cowboy boots. This was built by the former John Both featuring his and his family’s boots as “a cowboy’s way to show his appreciation and love for life.”

cowboy boot art at the great sand hills Saskatchewan

From either of these hills you should be able to spot a series of faint trails leading off to the southwest on and around small, shrub-covered dunes toward a larger group of sand hills. Once you reach the main group you are sure to be amazed at the powdery, soft sand, amazed in the knowledge that it was created by natural phenomena thousands of years ago. Worth taking your shoes off to walk on barefoot, surely.

Great Sandhills Wildlife

Despite its desolate appearance, the Great Sandhills Ecological Reserve is actually filled with animals (20 different mammals) and birds (over 150 species). If you have a sharp eye and the time to linger you just might spot a few. I recommend remaining completely motionless for several nights in a fully blacked out night camp. We didn’t do that but it sure sounds like something that might work.

On a short stay, you are most likely to spot mule deer or pronghorn antelope, both very common in southern Saskatchewan and very easy to pick out, unlike the burrowing owls or Ord’s kangaroo rat, a little rodent that only comes out a night and thrives in arid conditions by sucking water out of seeds. If you happen to see any bones or tiny skulls, chances are they are from kangaroo rats killed when shifting sands collapse their burrows. Despite this clear and present danger, they have shown no inclination to adapt to more permanent, less deadly housing structures. Probably because of the cost of lumber these days.

There are also lots of beetles, several species of snake (if you hear an ominous rattling noise, maybe switch paths) and now and then, if you’re lucky, the odd herd of cattle.

Sandhill Sliding

They may not be the Rockies but the dunes are definitely high enough to get the adrenalin pumping by hurtling down on a makeshift toboggan screaming with joy, before immediately regretting while trying to clear all the sand out of your teeth.

Sometimes there are toboggans already there or you can bring your own. Many people just bring light, portable Crazy Carpets. Either way, plan your route carefully to avoid ending up in a painful heap in the middle of a prickly shrub. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, you’ll probably end up pretty much covered in sand. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Person emptying out sand from shoes at the great sand hills Saskatchewan

Are there more sand dunes in Saskatchewan?

Well, the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan are the second-largest sand dunes in Canada so, really, that should be enough. But if you’re still not satisfied, it turns out the largest sand dunes in Canada are also in Saskatchewan. The Athabasca Sand Dunes are insanely huge but are located in the far north of the province, well beyond the reach of roads, meaning you will need to charter a flight and spend a whole lot of money to check that one off your list. We’ll be sure to share all the details if/when we eventually make it up there.

How do you get to the Great Sandhills of Saskatchewan?

The Great Sandhills are around 20 km south of Sceptre. Of course, Sceptre is very tiny and not well known, making it less than useful as a landmark for most people. Maybe it is more helpful to say it is roughly 140 km south of Kindersley and 160 km northwest of Swift Current. It is also about 40 km southeast of Leader, if that means anything to you.

Coming from the north, you head east at Leader on Highway 32 for around 20 km (passing through Prelate along the way). Turn south just before reaching Sceptre at the Great Sandhills sign and follow a smooth, dirt road for around 20 more kilometres. The dunes will appear on your right and there is a sign pointing you to the parking area.

Coming up Highway 21 from the south, take a right (east) at Liebenthal (marked as the Great Sand Hills Route on Google Maps). After around 20 km on gravel the road will turn north (staying straight leads into a private ranch) and there are signs to help your confidence. From there it is just a few kilometres to the dunes, appearing on your left from this direction.

Whichever direction you approach from, the sandy “road” near the dunes is narrow and soft and not suitable for large RVs (which can sink into the sand) or low clearance cars (which can bottom out). And if it has rained recently be very careful as it can quickly become impassable. In the old days this stretch was known as the “straw road” because farmers would spread straw to help get their wagons through.

Great Sand Hills Camping

There is no overnight camping allowed in the preserve but there is the basic A & C Campground in Prelate. It works best if you have an RV, as there are full hookups but very little privacy and no shade.

Along the same lines is Lions Campground in Leader, which is really just a gravel parking lot. Although it is right next to the local pool. Pros and cons.

A little farther away is Sandy Point Park, with a nice location on the South Saskatchewan River just across the border in Alberta. This is a nicer spot but is close to an hour’s drive from the dunes.

Tips for Your Visiting the Great Sandhills Saskatchewan

There are no services at the dunes so you need to bring your own water and food as needed. Lots of sand, and a bunch of dirty old boots, but no water.

It is often very hot so bring more water than you think and the dunes reflect the sun so wear extra sunscreen and don’t forget your sunglasses.

When it’s windy (which is usually) you might want to protect your phone or camera from blowing sand by keeping it in a plastic bag (or way down inside your underwear, whichever feels more natural).

This is a very dry area so no smoking or fires of any kind.

The light is best for photos either early or late in the day. If you plan to be there for sunrise or sunset take extra care driving on the dirt roads in the dark.

Conclusion

We were pleasantly surprised to find this amazing natural phenomenon in such an accessible location right here in Saskatchewan. If you happen to find yourself in the vicinity when visiting Cypress Hills or Grasslands National Park (which you absolutely should), be sure to set aside some time to visit the Great Sandhills Ecological Preserve, a terrific off-the-beaten path southwestern Saskatchewan outdoor adventure.

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