Having travelled across all of Canada, we’ve seen a lot of impressive national parks. From hiking mountains in Banff National Park to walking on the Earth’s mantle in Gros Morne National Park, there are so many incredible things to do in Canada from coast to coast to coast.
When I first looked into Grasslands National Park, I wasn’t sure what to think. For one, there are basically no trees and it’s small and relatively flat. It doesn’t have mountains or oceans or waterfalls. However, it’s the only national park dedicated to preserving prairie grasslands, is home to wildlife that can’t be found anywhere else in the country, and is the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada. It’s also somewhat “off the beaten track”, which makes it very quiet compared to world-famous parks like Banff and Jasper.
So, we decided to include it in our 150-day Canada road trip back in 2017 and I’m so happy we did. Grasslands National Park is incredibly beautiful and has quickly become one of our favourite places to visit in Canada. in fact, we loved it so much that we went back in 2019, taking much more time to explore both the West Block and the East Block, which we’ll get into below. If you’re looking for beautiful wild-west-looking scenery, camping, and the chance to be in nature without all the crowds, make sure you add Grasslands National Park to your Canadian bucket list.
Let’s get into it…
Grasslands National Park Overview
Grasslands National Park, which was established in 1981, is one of 44 national parks and park reserves in Canada’s national park system. It is one of two in Saskatchewan, with the other one being Prince Albert National Park. This national park runs all the way to the US border with Montana.
Grasslands National Park represented the Prairie Grasslands natural region, protecting one of Canada’s few remaining areas of undisturbed dry mixed-grass/shortgrass prairie grassland. The unique landscapes of harsh, semi-arid climate provide a home for a variety of plants and animals, many of which are now considered rare and endangered. One of these rare animals is the black-tailed prairie dog, which lives in colonies and isn’t t found anywhere else in the country. Other animals that call this area home include bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, greater sage-grouses, grizzly bears, coyotes, ferruginous hawks, swift foxes, elk, wolverines, prairie rattlesnakes, black-footed ferrets, and greater short-horned lizards.
There are two portions that makeup Grasslands National Park – The West Block and the East Block. The West Block is sort of the most developed, although that’s quickly changing, and in our opinion, they both seem roughly the same in terms of quality. The biggest difference is that the West Block is closer to services (It’s close to Val Marie, Saskatchewan) and has more hiking trails and wildlife. The East Block is further out of the way (unless you’re coming from the Southeast) and seems relatively new, with only two main hiking trails and no nearby services. However, the park is wild, which means you can technically walk anywhere. No trails needed. In terms of scenery, they share some similarities but are also quite different. Therefore, we’ll split them up for the sake of this article.
Highlights of the park’s geological landscape include the Frenchman River Valley, the Seventy Mile Butte, and the badlands of Rock Creek. In addition, Grasslands National Park is known as the darkest Dark Sky Preserve in Canada!
Grasslands National Park – West Block
The West Block visitor centre is located in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, which is only 120-km from Swift Current. The town is small but has most of what you might need, including a small grocery store, a restaurant, showers (at the local campground) and fuel. From here, you can take one of two directions to get to the park, as well as the two national park campgrounds.
Highlights of the West Block include the Frenchman River Valley, a herd of over 300 Plains bison, the many prairie dog colonies, 70-mile butte, and the Ecotour scenic drive.
The West Block is made up of prairie grasslands and coulees. Some of the wildlife you might see include bison, pronghorns, coyotes, deer, a variety of birds, and the cute little prairie dogs. There’s also rattlesnakes, so you’ll want to be conscious of that. We’ve never seen any, but they certainly are there. The main part of the park is situated around the Ecotour scenic drive, an 80-km dirt road that takes you to a number of scenic lookouts, historic areas, most of the trailheads, and to the Frenchman Valley Campground. However, some of the trails, such as 70-mile butte, are accessed on the opposite side of the park, closer to the TiPi campground of Two Trees Day Use Area, which is where you can rent tipis. The two main trails on the other side of the Val Marie Visitor centre include 70 Mile Butte, Eagle Butte, and Three Sisters Trail.
Hiking the West Block of Grasslands National Park
There are 10 front country hiking trails in the West Block and one backcountry hiking trail. They range in length from just 750 metres all the way to 17 kilometres. We have not hiked every single trail in the park, but have hiked 4 of them, all of which we recommend.
Eagle Butte and 70 Mile Butte Trail (2-km loop): These trails are connected to each other and take about 1.5-2 hours to complete. The main difference is that the 70 Mile Butte Trail takes you to one of the highest points in the park, which gives you incredible 360-degree views of the surrounding area. It’s a fairly easy hike, in our opinion, and starts right from the car park. However, Parks Canada ranks it as difficult due to the elevation incline.
Top Dogtown Trail (750m loop): This is the second stop on the Ecotour scenic drive. It’s a very easy, flat trail that takes you through one of the most impressive prairie dog colonies in the park. Listening to them bark and watching them scurry into their holes makes this a very easy hike that you should not miss.
Broken Hills Trail (11-km loop): This is the longest trail we hiked in the West Block, taking us about 4-hours to finish. However, we were also taking a lot of video and photos, which added to the time. It’s ranked as difficult but that’s just due to its length. This is a really great trail to enjoy a range of scenery and to gain an uninterrupted 360-degree view from one of the highest points in the park. You’ll even find one set of red chairs. The only part that felt long was the last hour, as the landscape becomes relatively flat and you’re already tired from the first 3-hours. Either way, we highly recommend if you’re physically able.
Ecotour Scenic Drive (80-km): Don’t worry. This is not a hike. It’s a driving route that takes you to 7 different stops, all of which explain the historical significance of where you are and have short trails for you to meander. In our experience, it was not 80-km to see the 7-stops and can be done in less than 2-hours. However, we do recommend actually taking the time to get out, walk the short trails, and learn about the area. The last stop is not far beyond the Frenchman River Valley campground.
Grasslands National Park – East Block
The East Block visitor centre is located right in the park’s only campground – Rock Creek Campground. This is actually more convenient than the West Block, because you can buy ice, drinks, and talk to Parks Canada staff within walking distance of the campground. The East Block is about an hour’s drive south of Assiniboia and is much farther away from services than the West Block. It takes approximately 2-hours to drive from the West Block to the East Block, passing through flat prairie landscapes and farmland along the way.
Highlights of the East Block include the badlands of Rock Creek, the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, and the Badlands Parkway.
The East Block is similar to the West Block in terms of landscapes with the addition of badlands. In fact, I found the scenery of the East Block to be slightly more spectacular. However, it’s much smaller, and thus, required less time to fully explore. Some of the wildlife you might see include deer, pronghorns, a variety of birds, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and the greater short-horned lizards, just to name a few. All the trails, as well as the scenic drive, start near the campground and visitor centre.
Hiking the East Block of Grasslands National Park
There are only two front-country hiking trails and two back-country hiking trails in the East Block. In addition, there is the brand-new (As of 2019) Badlands Parkway, which is a scenic drive. During our time in the East Block, we were able to do a couple of hikes, as well as the drive, all of which we highly recommend.
Badlands Parkway (11-km single lane drive): This brand new feature, just opened in July of 2019, is spectacular. It reminded us of driving around the Grand Canyon, albeit not nearly as deep. We drove the road close to sunset, stopping at many of the 20 pull-offs to peer out at various views of the badlands, look for wildlife, and to admire little pods of trees that have found life in the coulees. In fact, they were changing into their fall colours during our time there – a truly beautiful experience. On our way back, we saw dozens of deer, which added to our amusement.
Rock Creek Trail (2-km loop): This simply trail takes you to a scenic lookout where you can see Rock Creek and possibly spot some wildlife. It’s simple, easy, and beautiful.
Valley of 1000 Devils (12-km return): This hike is ranked as very difficult, mainly due to the length, navigation, and potential heat. In fact, it can be up to 10-degrees hotter on this trail than at the campground. We ended up hiking this on a day that was +32 Celcius. The heat made it fairly difficult, but we also got lost and ended up on a different trail. Luckily, we created our own trail and got ourselves back to the area where you can get a view of the Valley of 1000 Devils. It is beautiful and it’s incredible to see how red the landscapes are. We highly recommend the hike, but if it’s a hot day, go as early as you can.
Grasslands National Park Camping
Both the East Block and the West Block offer a quality camping experience, even if you don’t have your own tent or camper.
Prairie Camping in the West Block
The West Block essentially has three options for front-country camping (they also have backcountry camping). The main campground is called the Frenchman Valley Campground. Located in the heart of the West Block, the Frenchman Valley Campground offers a peaceful prairie setting, with nearby views of the Frenchman River, rolling hills, and incredible sunsets. For most people, this is the site we’d recommend.
- 100% reservable
- 20 electrical sites (3 pull through, and 1 wheelchair accessible area)
- 4 oTENTik units (#25 accessible, #28 pet-friendly)
- Fire pits
- Lantern hangers
- Picnic tables
- Easy access to vault toilets
- Easy access to potable water for small drinking jugs. RVs must fill up tanks in advance
- Close proximity to Coulee Centre – a respite from the heat, a location for cooking & eating, and a hub for park programs, Wi-Fi available
- Reservations recommended
Other options include the Two Trees Day Use Area, which is South of Val Marie, as well as the Val Marie Campground, a private campground within the town. If you’re looking to stay in a tipi, they are in the Two Trees Day Use Area managed by Parks Canada. It’s also very beautiful and a great place to see the night sky.
Badlands Camping in the East Block
The East Block has one option for front-country camping (there is also backcountry camping for those so inclined) and that’s the Rock Creek Campground, which is home to the Parks Canada Visitor Centre as well. This makes it very convenient as you can also buy ice and other snacks on-site. It also offers amazing skies day and night, the leopard frogs’ symphony at dusk, and the meadowlarks’ serenade at dawn.
- 100% reservable
- 24 Tent/RV electric sites (all 50 amp) with fire pits and picnic tables
- 8 oTENTik units (#31 accessible, #28 pet-friendly)
- 3 walk-in tipi accommodations
- Summer kitchen for shade and cooking
- Day use picnic area
- Vault toilet
- Potable water
- RV dump tank
- Community fire pit
There are no other options for camping except for backcountry camping.
Fun Facts about Grasslands
Grasslands National Park is one of the best national parks in Canada. It’s very unique, incredibly beautiful, and relatively quiet compared to other national parks.
- Grasslands National Park is not only one of Canada’s Dark Sky Preserves but is known as the darkest, making this a GREAT destination for admiring the night skies and practicing astrophotography.
- In 2016, Plains bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta were reintroduced into the West Block. Of the 71 that were introduced, they now number more than 300!
- In addition to being declared a dark-sky preserve in 2009, a small population of black-footed ferrets was reintroduced into the prairie dog towns after a 70-year absence.
- The park received just 12,000 visitors annually. To put that into perspective, Banff National Park receives more than 4 million visitors each year.
- The official name in French is Parc national des Prairies.
Discovery Pass Canada
Like all national parks, there’s a fee to enter. However, if you’re spending more than a week throughout the year at any national parks and historic sites in Canada, it’s worth buying a Discovery Pass, which is valid for an entire year. You can buy them for a single person or for an entire family. We buy the family pass every year, which is good for our entire vehicle.
You can buy a Discover Pass online, in participating MEC stores, or at any Parks Canada location.
More Canada Tourist Attractions
If you do make it to the East Block, try and take some time to go to Coronach SK to experience their Big Muddy Valley tour. It’s a full-day driving tour (you take the guide in your vehicle) where you’ll get to learn all sorts of history, including that of the First Nations, the farming and mining communities of the region, and the infamous wild-west days of the area. You’ll also see some beautiful areas, including Castle Butte. Afterward, you can continue to the capital city, where you’ll find all sorts of things to do in Regina.
Want more? Check out these articles below:
- Best Things To Do in Saskatchewan
- Best Things To Do in Regina
- Best Things To Do in Saskatoon
- Al Capone Tunnels of Moose Jaw
- Saskatchewan’s Great Sandhills
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