2017 means a new year filled with new adventures and possibilities as well as marks the year of Canada 150th Birthday! This year we will be focusing on our travels within Canada as our beautiful country celebrates its 150th birthday and all of the parks, national historic sites and national marine sites are free to the public.
To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday admission to all Parks Canada places will be free for the entirety of 2017. In order to gain free admission to the parks you must order your free parks pass by ordering their 2017 Discovery Pass (free of charge) here: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/voyage-travel/admission.aspx
With 47 national parks, 171 national historic sites and 4 national marine conservation areas there is so much to discover from coast to coast. We plan on attempting to explore as many of these national parks and historic sites before the end of 2017. Below is our bucket list items to celebrate Canada 150th birthday broken down by province.
*Note: Each of the site links will not be clickable until we have visited the site and written a blog post on it! If there is a road symbol next to it its still on our bucket list. You can tell we have visited the site when there is a check next to it!
During 2017 for Canada 150th Birthday we have visited 8/47 National Parks, 20/171 National Historic Sites & 1/4 National Marine sites so far.
Parks Canada Grasslands National Park is a stunning and special place in Canada, as it is the only National Park in Canada that represents the prairie grasslands natural region. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of mixed-grass prairie, of which over 70% has disappeared from North America. The prairies are an endangered ecosystem because of how they attract developers and settlements that threaten the existence of native prairie specimens. Parks Canada Grasslands National Park is vital in preserving some of the last remaining mixed-grass prairie in its natural state, while also being home to a large variety of plants and animals – some of which are not found anywhere else in Canada.
Grasslands National Park is one of Canada’s most prestigious National Parks, but only receives about 8000 visitors each year. Taking up two large plots of land near the Saskatchewan-Montana border, this landscape provides an opportunity to look into the past of the true wild, wild west of Canada’s native prairie ecosystem, with over 70 species of grasses, rolling hills, badlands, vast open and stunning dark night skies. The beauty of the natural aspects of Grasslands ensures that this park is home to some of the best wildlife you will ever see.
— ECOTOUR DRIVING ADVENTURE —
The Ecotour drive is an 80-km round trip that takes you through the National Park and allows you to experience the immense beauty of the Grasslands. During this drive you will pass multiple prairie dog colonies, various hiking trails, as well as a look into the history of the Parks Canada Grasslands National Park. Make sure you have enough fuel to complete the 80 km trip, especially if you plan on exploring beyond the Ecotour Drive. The drive is incredibly well mapped out with has trail markers all along the road that allows you to pull off and learn of the history and importance of each of the areas you pass through.
— FIND THE RED CHAIRS IN PARKS CANADA
GRASSLAND NATIONAL PARK —
The iconic Parks Canada Adirondack chairs are found throughout all of the National Parks. Grasslands National Park has six of these chairs located throughout the park, with three each the West and East Blocks of the park. The chairs are strategically placed in locations that have a special meaning, or breathtaking views. Parks Canada consider the chairs to be an opportunity to remind visitors to slow down, relax, and discover the best that each of the parks have to offer. Below are the locations of the red chairs located in the park:
— WATCH FOR WILDLIFE IN PARKS CANADA
GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK—
Grasslands National Park is one of the notable places in the Canada where wildlife outnumbers humans. You could drive through the entire park without catching sight of another passing vehicle. But, you will have the opportunity to see a variety of animals that are on the endangered and threatened species list, including the Burrowing Owl, Grater Sage-Grouse, Ferruginous Hawk, Swift Fox, Common Nighthawk, Black-tailed Prairie Dog, and Plains Bison. If you are lucky, you will also come across a Black-footed Ferret. This species is considered extirpated, as these ferrets actually no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but are currently in the progress of being re-introduced into the National Park.
Other animals you will find in the park include Pronghorn Antelope, Coyote, Prairie Rattlesnake, Greater Short-horned Lizard, Porcupine, Skunk, Raccoon, Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer Snake, Mule Deer, and White-Tailed Deer.
— CAMP IN THE WILD WEST AT PARKS CANADA GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK —
Looking for a remote and unique camping experience? Then Grasslands National Park is the place for you. In the West block the Frenchman Valley Campground has 20 tent/RV campsites (including 4 electrical, 3 pull through, and 1 wheelchair accessible area). There are an additional three tipis that can be booked from May-October. The Frenchman Valley Campground has many amenities, from fire pits, and places to hang your lanterns, to picnic tables for each of the sites, easy access to portable water, and vault toilets. The new Coulee Centre building serves as a rest building to warm up in, an area to cook and eat, as well as attend the park programs that are run through this facility.
In the East Block there is the Rock Creek Campground which includes 10 RV sites, additional areas for tenting, picnic tables, a cook shelter, and a vault toilet.
Are you looking for something a little more rugged? Would you like to pitch a tent outside of the confines of a standard campground? Then back-country camping is right up your alley. To back-country camp in the National Park, all you need to do is pay your overnight fee at the Visitor’s Centre, park your car, and begin your journey. The only rule for back-country camping in the park is that you must camp at least 1 km away from any of the roads.
— LISTEN TO THE CHATTER IN DOGTOWN —
As you drive through the Western Block, you will notice small mounds of dirt everywhere along the side of the roads. These dirt mounds are home to thousands of endangered Prairie Dogs. As a matter of fact, Grasslands National Park is the only place that Prairie Dogs exist in the wild in Canada. Throughout Grasslands National Park you will find more than ten large Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies. In the early morning, you can see thousands of these animals emerge from their homes, foraging and eating, barking and playing with each other. It is definitely something you have to stop and watch for a few minutes before continuing on with your journey. Don’t be worried about missing them if you take the Ecotour drive – you will drive past at least 3-4 massive colonies.
— TAKE A HIKE IN PARKS CANADA GRASSLAND NATIONAL PARK—
Hiking is a must try while in Parks Canada Grasslands National Park, and there are a variety of trails for all abilities. There are 10 front-country hikes in the West Block ranging from 0.74km to 16.8km. If you are looking for easy access, there are also a few popular hikes accessible from Highway 4 (south of Val Marie). These hikes include the 70 Mile Butte Trail (which is actually 5km), The Two Trees Trail, and the Three Sisters. If you only have time for one hike during the day, The 70 Mile Butte Trail takes you to the highest points in the park and gives you an amazing view of the surrounding prairies. If you are looking for a bit more of a challenge, take to the East Block where you will find the opportunity for a much more back-country-style adventure. The East Block has 6 front-country trails that range from 1.3 km to 16km, but also offers lengthier hikes that will take you on single to multiple overnights. During these extended hikes, you will most likely find yourself alone in the park to enjoy the solitude and wilderness that is the Grasslands. Backpacking through these trails is just like being in a wilderness movie! If you plan on doing these back-country hikes you can pick up rough guidelines for hikes at the Val Marie Visitor Centre.
— WATCH THE SUNRISE / SUNSET —
A sunrise or sunset on the prairies is unlike anywhere else. With a largely flat landscape stretching before you in all directions, this truly is the land of the living skies. A sun rise or set will treat you to the beautiful golden and pink hues that come before and after the sun, and then a dramatic beginning or ending to the day as the sun moves above or beyond the horizon. Drive to the top of a hill or position yourself facing east in the morning or west in the evening, and you will not be disappointed.
— DRIVE THROUGH THE IN-TRANSITION LAND —
Once you leave the West Block you enter land that is currently in transition. This land was acquired by the park to help continue to protect the land and the wildlife that lives within the area. Currently, however, the land has been temporarily leased to ranchers for grazing their cattle. There are two routes you can take once you are in the transitional land heading north or south. Taking the southern route will allow you to drive up a hill to view the breathtaking Molestead Coulee. From there you can head north along the ridge towards Mankota. This drive feels more rugged than the route through the park, as the roads turn into real dirt roads with cows often blocking the path, making it an authentic western experience that is not to be missed.
— STARGAZING AT PARKS CANADA GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK—
Parks Canada Grasslands National Park has been designated as a Dark Sky Preserve as of 2009 and it is one of darkest areas in Canada. It is one of the best places to star gaze, watch a meteor shower, and enjoy the true experience of pitch-black sky at night. The park runs programs at night during the spring and summer months that guide you through the constellations, let you look at stars and more.
— ENJOY THE PEACE AND QUIET —
Grasslands National Park has been deemed the quietest, purest soundscape in North America by audio specialists. It is the least noise-polluted grasslands in North America. Anywhere in the park that you are able to sit down or just stand and listen, you will most likely just hear the wind moving through the rolling hills, maybe the chatter of a prairie dog, or the movement of an animal, or if you are lucky, you will hear the bone chilling call of the coyotes. Parks Canada Grasslands National Park is the true place to go to sit back, relax and enjoy the breathtaking vastness of the prairies.
Grasslands National Park is divided into two blocks, the East Block and West Block, both with very different landscapes. Access to the park is only possible through driving as there is no public transportation available this far South. The road conditions can be rough in some places and once in the park they are mostly dirt and gravel roads. Make sure to check the weather conditions before setting out as recent rainfall can cause the roads to be very slippery or completely impassible at points.
Make sure to bring a car that can handle the dirt and gravel roads well – Most 2WD cars will be fine, but if there has been a recent rainfall I would suggest that you bring something with 4WD. We took a 4WD Jeep Grand Cherokee through on our drive which was comfortable and definitely was useful for getting through a few muddy areas.
— GETTING TO THE WEST BLOCK IN GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK—
To get here from Saskatoon, you are looking at a four hour drive to get to the West Block. You take highway 7 SW all the way down to Rosetown (a great spot to get some food or gas) and then head directly south down Highway 4 towards Swift Current. Swift Current is the last major town with gas and food that you pass through before you arrive in Val Marie, so it is a good idea to stop if you need anything. From Swift Current you have another 120 km before you will arrive in Val Maire where you will find the visitor centre (open May-October only). Some of the roads are not in the best condition, so be prepared to go slower than the posted speed limit at times. Once you are in the town of Val Marie you will see signs for the entrance of the park, which is a 25km drive.
— GETTING TO THE EAST BLOCK IN GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK —
The East Block is accessible from Highway 18, 47km south of Wood Mountain. From Val Marie you can take Highway 18 (signs for Fir Mountain) and then will take a right onto Highway 608 and you will begin to see signage for the park entrance. There is sufficient signage to make the drive as easy as possible for first time visitors. The McGowan Visitor Centre is located at the following coordinates (49° 4’15.85″N, 106°31’46.92″W).
Another way to get to the East Block is by going through the West Block. When the Ecotour route comes to an intersection and normally continues right, you can choose instead to continue straight which will lead you towards the East Block. Some of the land is still transitioning into parkland, so occasionally you will come across private land that has been leased to farmers for grazing cattle. After crossing the river, you will reach an intersection that will take you either North or South – the southern route follows the Frenchman River Valley towards the US border, and heads East back up the steep hills onto the rim of the valley. This is an incredible view of the beginning of the badlands and the massive valley. Driving along the top of the rim will bring you to the outskirts of the park and you will find yourself at a T-intersection. Turning West, the road will take you back into the park (West Block) allowing you to do a full loop if you would like. Or turning East will take you to Mankota on dirt roads which is a short-cut route to the East Block. From Mankota you remain on Highway #18 and then head South down Highway 608 and follow the signs into the East Block.
Driving through downtown Saskatoon, you cant help but notice one of their most picturesque landmarks – The Delta Bessborough Hotel. This beautiful castle-like ten-story hotel is located on the South Saskatchewan River and can be seen from multiple parts of the city. The hotel was built by the Canadian National Railway and is designed in the same Chateau style as many of Canada’s other railway hotels like the Fairmont Banff Springs.
Nestled on five acres of gardens sitting along the Saskatchewan River waterfront, this four-star diamond hotel recently underwent a 6.5 million dollar renovation to overhaul the bedrooms. The rooms after renovation are chic with an historic touch.
We were on the Marriott Club floors with a river facing view. The bed was incredibly comfortable and I loved the fresh flowers in our vase! The room was a typical early 1900’s size, which means that it is a bit smaller than a regular hotel room, but it still fit two people comfortably. The room layout was well thought out with plenty of storage, and a fridge tucked away under the desk.
The bathroom again had a historic feel with new fixtures, various spots for your bathroom amenities and plenty of towels.
Overall, we really enjoyed our room and was a perfect spot for us to stay during our time in Saskatchewan. If you are in one of the Club level rooms during your time in the hotel you get access to the Club Lounge, located on the M level just above the lobby. With access to the Club Lounge you get 24 hour non-alcohol refreshments, breakfast and afternoon hors d’oeuvres.
With 225 guest rooms, multiple meeting facilities, two restaurants, the lounge, pool and gym and 5 acres of private waterfront gardens this hotel is a great place to stay. The historic characteristics of the hotel, exceptional service, impeccably clean facilities and overall beautiful workmanship makes it a place you have to check out on your next trip to Saskatchewan. We really enjoyed our time and if we return to Saskatoon, there is not doubt that it will be our first choice to stay.
Saskatoon’s beautiful rolling hills and flat prairie lands divided by the South Saskatchewan River was once home to the First Nations up until the 1880’s when European settlement of Saskatoon began. This charming city retains its reputation as “Paris of the Prairies” with its multiple bridges that pass over the winding South Saskatchewan River. Home to 257,000 people, Saskatchewan’s largest city offers incredible walking trails, a multitude of water sports to be done on the river, cozy and historic accommodations, great food and drink, and more.
— MEEWASIN TRAIL —
Running along both sides of the South Saskatchewan River, the beautiful Meewasin Trail takes you under the bridges and through conservation areas and parks. You will be treated to a beautiful view of the river throughout most of the trail. This trail was voted #1 place Saskatonians like to go for a walk and it is easy to see why. The trail has multiple access points along the 20km stretch with washroom facilities throughout, so it is a great option for all lengths of walks. Popular activities along the trail include cycling, jogging and walking in the warmer months, and cross-country skiing and skating in Kiwanis Memorial Park in the winter.
— THE WEIR —
The Weir was built in 1940 and is located on the South Saskatchewan River – You can access this area either by car or by bike or by foot using the Meewasin Valley Trail. The Weir is one of the most visited destinations in Saskatoon for its incredible view of the river, the CPR Bridge and white pelicans near the water during the warmer months.
— CPR BRIDGE —
The CPR Bridge is one of the best views in Saskatoon with views of the University of Saskatchewan, South Saskachewan River, Sandbar Island and some of the prairies off into the distance. The bridge is accessible from the Weir parking lot. There is a large set of metal stairs leading up to the top of the bridge where there is a platform and pedestrian crossing. This bridge was constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1908 with the pedestrian walkway being added in 1909. The bridge is 341 metres (1120 feet long) with a rail line that serves as a connector between Winnipeg and Edmonton. If you happen to be in luck and on the bridge while a train passes you are in for quite the experience!
— UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN —
This beautiful university campus has so much history and character, so it is worth a visit during your time in Saskatoon. Some of the buildings date back to 1905 and have the charming Elizabethean shape in Collegiate Gothic style build to them. The Peter MacKinnon Building is a national historic site and the centerpiece to the campus. With an old world feel on the outside and a modern twist on the inside, visitors to the campus will be pleasantly surprised.
— TRY SOME SASKATOON BERRIES —
These incredible tasty and nutritious berries – also known as Saskatoon Berries – are a must have while visiting Saskatoon. Saskatoon Berries have been a staple in peoples diets for hundreds of years. The berries have a multitude of uses including being made into pies, tarts, scones, muffins, bread, sauces, wine, cider, tea and more. You can find Saskatoon berries all throughout the town including farmers markets and grocery stores.
Going to any Canadian National Park you might think that how to plan and what to bring would be the same anywhere, but going to Grasslands National Park is a completely different adventure. Before considering your adventure into southern Saskatchewan, take note that there is no public transportation to the National Park so you will need to have a car to get there. The drive is about 4 hours from either Saskatoon or Regina, and 2.5 hours from Moose Jaw. Once you get closer to the park, the roads begin to deteriorate and eventually turn to dirt or gravel. Most two-wheel drive cars can do the trip, but if you have the option, a have a four-wheel drive car is recommended. On directions to the park, check out our post on how to get to Grasslands National Park.
The park is open year round, but the Visitor’s Centre, camping and all other amenities are only open from May to October. There are no entry fees into the park, but if you are planning on camping (front-country or back-country) there are overnight fees for that.
Things to Know:
There is no food or drink amenities once you enter the park, so make sure to bring plenty of food and water.
Do not plan on purifying the water in the Frenchman Valley River or any other water sources in the National Park as all the freshwater in the region is far too salty to drink
Make sure to enter the park on a full tank of gas, as gas stations are very limited in the area. Your closest gas station near the West Block area is 15km from Val Marie.
If you are planning on being there past dark, make sure to have a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries, as it is darker in the park than most are used to due to the lack of light pollution from surrounding towns (which makes for amazing star-gazing).
There is almost no cell service throughout the park so make sure to pick up a map at the Visitor’s Centre before heading out, and pack a compass and GPS that can run without cell signal.
Otherwise, your packing list it is largely common sense regarding what to bring depending on the length of your stay in the park. Getting a chance to explore this land so full of history – where you can learn about the early settlers and ranchers that once called this land home, see some of the 12,000 tipi rings that were left behind by the First Nations people, and have a chance to come across fossils or bones that date back to the 60-80 million years ago – will leave you speechless.