Hidden Gems of Canada’s Parks: Grasslands National Park

Photo by Des visiteurs s'éblouissent devant de magnifiques panoramas de la Voie lactée dans le confort d'un abri oTENTik de Parcs Canada, dans la réserve de ciel étoilé, au parc national des Prairies. / Visitors taking in the breathtaking Milky Way views at night from the comforts of their Parks Canada oTENTik in the Dark Sky Preserve, in Grasslands National Park.

Imagine being able to pitch a tent anywhere — no campground required — in a sweeping expanse of rolling hills and rocky bluffs, above you an endless expanse of starry sky. Imagine riding a horse through a landscape that looks like it’s out of the old west, seeing wild buffalo graze. Imagine seeing rippling grasses stretched out for miles ahead of you, disappearing into the horizon.

All of this is possible in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park, where backcountry camping can happen anywhere, and the cosmos are on incredible display every night.

When most people think of Saskatchewan, they think of wheat fields and flat plains, but Grasslands National Park is home to a lot more than farmers’ fields. In fact, this part of the world has contained incredible sights for literally millions of years. Dinosaur fossils, the first ever found in Western Canada, were discovered here in 1874, and more have been being unearthed ever since, proving that Saskatchewan has a fascinating history that predates human existence. It’s difficult to imagine, but the same stretches of earth where bison now graze were once walked by the mighty tyrannosaurus rex.

The badlands themselves are uniquely beautiful. In the ominously named Valley of 1,000 Devils, rocks rise up out of a dusty landscape, striped with colours that reveal a long history of growth and erosion. Clay hoodoos stand up from the arid ground, and short-horned lizards scurry between rocks. This desert-like terrain is rugged and not necessarily for beginner hikers — there’s actual quicksand — but for those willing to do a little extra planning, it’s worth the trouble.

[Credit: Parks Canada]

Long stretches of land in this park amaze many visitors, but you can see equally amazing sights in the sky. Grasslands is an astronomer’s dream. Far from cities and highways, light pollution is virtually nonexistent. In fact, a 527-square-kilometre chunk of the park is actually a dark sky preserve, so the use of artificial light is actually restricted. As a result, stargazers can take in a constellations in a way citydwellers can only dream of. The park is also far enough north that aurora borealis is often seen shimmering its way in front of the milky way, a big-sky reminder from the prairies: look up.

[Credit: Parks Canada]

Another emblem of the prairies, the buffalo, can also be found in Grasslands Park, if you know where to look. There are currently about 310 buffalo in the park, which is 310 more than were there 12 years ago. The herd that now lives there is part of a delicate attempt to reintroduce these animals to the area after they were hunted out of existence around 100 years ago (most bison in North America were wiped out after being hunted for their tongues and horns). In 2005, 71 bison were brought from Alberta’s Elk Island Park into the West Block of Grasslands. That their numbers have more than quadrupled in a bit more than a decade is a good sign. So to see a herd of these awe-inspiring, powerful animals grazing wild in the park today is truly impressive. (And if you can’t make it out to see them in person, you can always check out the Grasslands bison livecam.)

Several adult bison with a baby
[Credit: Parks Canada]

There’s much more to do in the park (those interested in the human history of the area should check out the tipi rings, stone rings left behind by indigenous people’s encampments from hundreds of years ago or more). Kayaking, mountain biking, and birdwatching are all great activities for this huge parkland. But even if you don’t make specific plans, you can still partake in Grassland’s one major activity: staring over the epic landscapes, wondering at what nature has created.