Unfortunately, when our vacation began, the first thing that happened was COVID. Jared and I got it; it was unpleasant, but not terrible. I’m sure it was exacerbated by pre-vacation stress. Thankfully, the kids didn’t get it. Anyway, our first plans on our journey were to spend some time with friends in Brandon, Manitoba. But with COVID, we did not stop. Instead, we added a new destination. We went out of our way, almost down to the US border, to Grasslands National Park.
Southern Manitoba is incredibly flat, because it used to be a glacial lake bed. Southern Saskatchewan slowly gets slightly less flat as you go west, but it’s still pretty darn flat. When we detoured south, we started hitting some rolling hills.
On the final approach to Grasslands National Park (East Block), the land gets flat again. You have to drive down a series of very straight dirt roads, all at right angles to each other, past field after field. Then you go down into a little depression to enter the park. (Grasslands is in two big blocks; the West Block is where the bison are.)
It was late at night when we arrived, and this is the scenery that greeted us when we got up. The East Block has a small visitors’ center with very helpful and friendly staff, a boardwalk across the stream, and a teepee. Several nomadic First Nations called this land home before settlers got here, including Assiniboine, Cree, Blackfoot, and Sioux. This beautiful teepee was huge, constructed with modern fabrics, like the Inuit tupiq is now.
Other activities surrounded the visitors’ center for the kids to try. A little bit of lassoing for Stringbean:
And a lot of digging in the sandpit for wee plastic dinosaur skeletons. So cute. We learned that this park is part of the badlands area of western Canada, and that dinosaur remains are found all through the region. More on that later.
This is where we discovered the “Xplorers” program in Parks Canada. They have different booklets for every park or national historic site participating in the program, which is loads. The kids loved these booklets. They all had maps with points of interest, a few unique activities (and some repetitive ones), and best of all, you get a dog tag to go with. I’ll show you their collection sometime.
There are plenty of trails through the park. This protected area is one of the last remaining wild grasslands, the vast majority having been turned into farms. We meandered down one trail – lost Stringbean for a while at one point – and climbed to the top of a hill.
We actually saw a tumbleweed at one point.
And we saw one of the reasons why Saskatchewan’s tagline is “Land of the Living Skies.”
Despite the early season, there was plenty of interesting flora, including lots of fragrant sagebrush. By far our favorite was this Prairie Crocus. It popped up big and furry floppy all throughout the budding grass. Sisko kept eating the heads off of them.
In the evening, we took a drive down the Badlands Parkway. This bit of excellently paved road is an anomaly after the hour of dirt-road driving that took us to the park. It takes you along the upper edge of the best bits of the badlands, with lots of spots to stop and gaze. We drove all the way to the end, through on-and-off showers, and took a walk to the Red Chairs.
The Red Chairs are Parks Canada’s way of saying, “look, a view!” They’re cute, thoughtfully iconic, and the bright red offers a pleasant point of contrast to the landscape.
The sort of canyon you see is not caused by glaciation, but by rain and snowmelt. The ground has deep layers of what’s called “Bentonite Clay” which washes away easily, revealing striations of granite and sandstone. There’s where you find the fossils. The staff at the visitors center were very up on their geology!
The partly cloudy weather was not great for photographing the badlands, but it did make for a gorgeous sunset.
There might not have been bison in these parts, but we did cross paths – literally – with some of the more domesticated residents. They clearly use cows for some amount of grazing in the park.
Dooner was excited about cows. We were a little overtired that night.
We only got one full day in this beautiful corner of prairie, but we made the most of it. It was the perfect first stop on our adventure.