“You can watch your dog run away for days,” is what my friends from BC would always joke when they talked about Saskatchewan. Little did they know, half of the province in no way resembles the wide open prairie landscape that one stereotypically associates with the “Land of the Living Skies”. However, eager to experience the Saskatchewan that my friends and I had envisioned as a child, I knew I had to visit Grasslands National Park.
When I arrived in Saskatchewan, I set out to do just that. My partner and I loaded up the car and set off on an adventure. Equipped with a 90s sing-a-long playlist and snacks, we were ready for the eight-hour long stretch of highway that lay ahead of us. Little did we know, we were in for an unforgettable experience.
As we drove down the highway between Swift Current and the West Block of the park, the sky churned with dark, formidable clouds and the wind began to howl. Soon, fork lightning lit up the sky like a crowd of paparazzi and raindrops the size of grapes splashed against the windshield. Weighing our options to stop for the night or continue on, we decided to face the daunting sky ahead of us.
Finally crossing the park boundary, we knew it was not much further to the campground, yet the sky and the road continued to merge into an endless inkblot. Being inside the tallest and most metallic object around, we started to get nervous about our decision to carry on when, BOOM! A flash of white light encapsulated the car and our girlish screams were followed by silence as the radio faded out. Awestruck and fuelled with fear from what had just happened, our senses were heightened and our noses were filled with an unfamiliar odour (no, we did not crap our pants if that’s what you’re thinking).
As the car continued to roll, my eyes quickly informed my nose that the odour was the scent of bison. Then, right there in the middle of the road, only 10 metres from the car’s headlights, was a mighty bison triumphantly staring us down as if it was the true gatekeeper of the park. Thankfully, due to our slow speed and heightened awareness we were able to brake in time. The bison – a giant in comparison to our car – deemed us worthy and stepped aside to allow us entry to the dark path ahead. Just as we started to imagine what we could possibly come across next, we finally arrived at the Frenchman Valley Campground with both of us feeling like two worn-out warriors exhausted from an unexpected battle against the sky.
After sleeping in the back of the car to spare us from any other possible interactions with lightning or bison, we awoke to a cloudless blue sky and friendly prairie squirrels playing on the picnic table. We set off for the day with a full itinerary of exploring the most popular trails within the West Block. Views of limitless grassland surrounded us at every stop and the remoteness of each sight made it feel like it was us against the world. This was exactly the Saskatchewan I had envisioned. Although I was overjoyed to finally be in the vast quintessential prairieland, it was the exhilarating quest that brought us there that made it an unforgettable experience.
Recommendations for visiting Grasslands National Park and fun facts:
- Be sure to pack most of the things you’ll need before you go, or stop in a larger town like Swift Current before you continue on your journey. The surrounding communities like Val Marie, do not have too many services or shops.
- Wander off the beaten path! Backcountry camping in Grasslands National Park is free of charge, just remember to register before you head out.
- Don’t fall asleep too early as Grasslands National Park is Canada’s darkest Dark Sky Preserve. This means that if you’re lucky to be there on a clear night, you’ll see some amazing sights of the stars.
- As the park is on the border, we also drove down into Montana. There are some really cool scenic drives fairly close by that take you to the birthplace of Montana in Fort Benton or follow the footsteps of Lewis and Clark along the Upper Missouri River.
- Despite the celebration of Canada 150 and free entry into all of Canada’s national parks, Grasslands National Park has free entry every year.
- You can find fossils 65 million years old! Since this area was missed by the glaciers, there are rich fossil deposits.
- Plains bison were reintroduced to the park from Elk Island National Park in 2006. Be sure to watch out for them when driving in the park (hehe).