It is odd, though so very true, that we are often ignorant of that which is nearest us. I grew up in a small tourist town in which the downtown is filled with small shops selling knickknacks and wares to busloads of tourists. A great many people from all over Ontario and even Canada have heard of the place and several of those have visited. The odd thing is that I have never actually been in most of these stores. I have rarely even been inside the famous mill with its many shops. I’ve rarely even patronized the world-famous farmer’s market nearby, all despite living in the very town millions of strangers purposely visit each year. It seems Saskatchewanians have a similarly odd behaviour when it comes to Grasslands National Park. Nearly every Saskatchewan friend I mentioned the park to responded with a quizzical, “Where’s that?”
Grasslands National Park is in the southwesternmost corner of the province with part of its southern boundary tracing the US border. To say this park is a little off the beaten path is an understatement, though there certainly are northern parks far more isolated. Heading south from the TransCanada Highway and the bustling small cities of modern Saskatchewan the tentacles of human civilization remain omnipresent but ever sparser and dilapidated with each passing mile until finally it feels as though humanity has all but abandoned this part of the planet. It’s an awesome, surreal sensation.
Grasslands is unlike any park camping we’ve done previously and a stark contrast to the summer playground we had just left in Cypress Hills. One does not go to here to recreate or play in the traditional sense. This is not a resort town or park. You won’t be boating or waterskiing or fishing on the water nor will you be swimming or building sandcastles or tossing a Frisbee at the beach. All you’ll be doing here is experiencing the humbling awe of wide open space and the land as it was before Europeans arrived. And if the infinite vistas and stepped hills of the Frenchman River Valley aren’t entirely your thing, then wait for nightfall, pray for clear skies, and drink up the magnificent Milky Way and the heavens thick with glorious stars in a charred, black sky free from light pollution.
The Frenchman Valley Campground in Grasslands National Park is small and sparse, as you would expect on these near-virgin prairies. You won’t find shade trees here or much shelter of any kind. The sun can be unbearable on a cloudless, summer day. There are 24 sites in total and they are spread out nicely in a single loop to the east of a stepped hill. There is nothing but scrubby, prairie grass here so privacy is, well, non-existent. Twenty of the sites have power but none have water or sewers so plan accordingly. There is fresh water from a tap by the pit washrooms but that water is trucked in from outside the park so rangers ask that you don’t abuse this source. For those with RVs, filling up in Val Marie prior to entering the park is recommended and appreciated by the park staff. They will allow you to do so for free from the main park office in town.
In a very rare occurrence, our 23’ travel trailer was the largest unit in the campground! Rather than usual entourage of giant, fifth-wheel toy haulers and mobile cottages, we were part of an eclectic group of small trailers, a couple motorhomes, a camper van, and a handful of tents. This is definitely a different crowd than we typically encounter during our camping adventures. It was a nice change, frankly.
With limited spots available, nature lovers and star gazers quickly fill up the campground so reservations are strongly recommended. There is an overflow area neighbouring the campground but it is nothing more than a grassy field with stakes indicating “rows” for setting up your trailer or tent.
There are two pit toilet huts, one at each end of the campground each with two gender neutral toilets. They are very clean and, thankfully, void of the usual smell. Be it the constant wind, the lesser traffic, or a combination of the two, an odour-free pit toilet experience was a welcome perk. You are roughing it out here, though, so don’t expect to find a place to shower inside the park. To do that you’ll have to return to Val Marie and use the showers in the fully serviced town campground.
The park office is also located in the town of Val Marie, about 20 km from the park entrance. I recommend stopping there first if your timing permits (it closes at 5:00 pm). You can check in and the friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable park staff will inform you of all the little things you’ll need to know for your stay in the park. If your arrival time doesn’t fit the working hours of the office you needn’t worry as there are self-registration booths at the campground and the park staff visit the campground daily to check on guests. You will also see them out working in the park during the day and they are happy to answer questions you might have. I flagged one down to do just that and was given a polite, friendly answer.
The Frenchman River Valley Campground is an additional 22km from the park entrance on a gravel road. Now, this gravel road isn’t the greatest road to travel and if you must pass another visitor it makes for a tight fit, but it’s a damn sight better than the paved roads in this part of the province. Holy moly, the drive to Grasslands was nerve-racking. Once we hit the town of Climax (tee hee) the road quality deteriorated dramatically becoming bouncy, uneven, and downright scary. These roads have been shoddily patched over for decades, have no shoulders, heave in spots, and the ditch vegetation encroaches on the actual road. It’s a miracle our eggs were not all scrambled in their shells by the time we reached the relatively pleasant gravel roads of the park itself.
You would think that being so far from modern civilization that cell service would be utterly void here but it is surprisingly good, even inside the park. It is spotty depending on where you are and more importantly, how high you are, but it is there. We had no service in our trailer but a quick stroll up the hill beside the park and voila, cell service. While driving around the park, service came and went but in many spots was quite strong. Regardless, an old fashioned phone is located in the cook shelter at the campground. This phone is linked to the park office so you can get help if and when needed.
Another unique safety feature of this campground is the robust wooden fencing surrounding the entire campground. This fence keeps the free-roaming bison herd OUT of the campground. We never encountered any bison trying to enter the campground but we had a wonderful view from our trailer windows of the herd grazing in the distance. Even at such a distance bison are impressive and we were sure to take some high resolution photos so we could zoom in for a better view. Binoculars are a handy tool to bring a long on this trip.
There are plenty of other animals to watch at Grasslands which might seem a little odd considering how desolate the place appears at first glance. That bison fence may work on the big beasts but it won’t stop rattlesnakes from getting into the campground. No, we didn’t see one, but we were warned that one has decided to call the day use area home. Prairie dogs are the easiest local critters to spot and there are swallows zipping around the campground. We saw plenty of other birds as well, such as hawks and killdeer. Nothing too exotic, perhaps, but more seasoned watchers will undoubtedly spot rarer species during longer stays. It would have been nice to see a burrowing owl which are said to inhabit abandoned prairie dog tunnels, but none were visible during out quick viewing of the prairie dog villages.
The vistas here at the campground are truly stunning. A short hike up the hill next to the campground provides amazing panoramic views of the Frenchman River (a small creek at best), the river valley, and the buttes and hills to the west. You can literally see for miles and miles; The Who would be pleased. This perch also makes for incredible sunsets if Mother Nature is cooperating. It all makes for a truly personal, inspiring experience.
Then night falls. We spent only two nights in the park and were privy to two incredible but very different light shows. The first night the gods smiled upon us with clear skies enabling us to use the telescope I’d brought. As dusk fell we spent some time investigating the quarter moon above the southern horizon. As the stars started to appear we turned our celestial gazing to Saturn and Mars. This was the first time my kids had seen such incredible sights for real and not on a website and their expressions of astonishment were as genuine and deep as any they’ve had in their short lives. That alone would have been worth the visit but our second night had another surprise waiting.
Clouds began moving in during the afternoon but they honestly didn’t seem terribly threatening. Sure, another night of stargazing was ruined but we had at least gotten one and I wasn’t going to get greedy. As night fell we put ourselves to bed and prepared to have a good sleep before the next leg of our trip. Soon after lights out, the night sky began to speak once more only this time it came in brilliant flashes accompanied by thunderous eruptions. My wife and I spent the next couple hours watching the most astonishing thunderstorm I’ve ever witnessed. Jagged bolts of lightning pierced the sky, sometimes two or three at a time. First the flashes would be to the east of us, then to the west, then to the south. It was as if the sky was having a conversation with itself. I tried desperately to film this glorious light show but only succeeded in capturing one brief but spectacular lightning burst.
There is no guarantee that such events will occur during another visit but there are few places offering better odds of it happening. This is especially true of the stargazing but if you get the lightning as well you have truly been blessed. Just so incredible!
Our days were wonderful too but be forewarned, this is a windy place and a buggy place. The mosquitoes are evil and you had best be bringing the high test bug repellent (something we didn’t do and we paid a small price in discomfort). The wind, while seemingly relentless during the daytime, does help keep the bugs at bay. It wasn’t until the sun started to set that the wind slowed allowing the bugs to truly attack. That first night we spent a good half hour killing mosquitoes and other flying insects in our trailer after closing the door for good. The wind also gives some cooling relief from the beating sun.
We spent a few hours completing the seven stop, self-guided driving tour which was interesting. The prairie dog villages were particularly fascinating as the critters barked and popped up and scurried around constantly on guard. Kids love these buggers and I must admit they are cute. All sites on the tour have incredible views while also highlighting a particular curiosity of grasslands ecology and/or history. Of particular interest and remark is the Walt Larson homestead. The place is no bigger than perhaps double our trailer and sits out here in the middle of nowhere. The remains of his horse barn which was dug into the side of the river bank is of particular note. The fact that someone lived here and even raised a family here is mind-blowing. The kids will even find a fun activity here as there is a calf-roping display set up for them to test their roping skills. In a park with no playground, this was nirvana for the kids.
There are many long hiking trails throughout the park demarcated by yellow posts. We didn’t embark on any of them due to us having kids and my being an out of shape slug but I can’t imagine them being anything but incredible. Fitter, more eager campers undoubtedly come for this hiking experience alone.
Perhaps the weirdest part of the park is the existing of active farming occurring onsite. We saw plenty of hay being baled which I suppose is indicative of the area’s history, one that isn’t quite dead yet. Apparently the hay is used to supplement the bison’s diet, presumably during the winter when I guess they’d normally have moved to more southern climes in the USA, something they can no longer do. Understandable, but to my finicky eye it sort of lessens the virgin prairie, all natural feel of the park. That is what you are here for, after all. This park is like a time machine. A trip back in history to when European settlers had yet to set foot in the New World. Even the campground itself looks like a nomadic encampment of modern teepees out on the prairie. It’s kind of fascinating to see a campground dwarfed by its surrounding so completely.
Speaking of teepees, you can camp in one if you desire. Near the day use are three teepees set up for you to book. At the main campground there are larger, fully supplied canvass topped cabins for those seeking an even more glamourous camping adventure. And, of course, the horse lovers will be thrilled to learn that equestrian camping is also available here. Those wide open prairies are just begging for a backcountry ride.
When your day time adventures are finished you can return to your campsite for a fire assuming there is no fire ban like there was when we visited. When fires are allowed, wood is available for self-service purchase at the campground. When a fire ban is in effect, the fire pits are chained up so that you cannot move the cooking grill above the pit in order to build an actual fire, so no cheating.
Along with the fire pit, each campsite has a gravel pad upon which to set up the trailer or tent, a picnic table, and a metal pole to hang a lantern from. There is nothing else. Not even two trees to tie up a clothesline but then there is no lake so you won’t have beach towels to dry anyway.
At one end of the campground you’ll find a lovely, fully enclosed shelter. There are heavy duty picnic tables both inside and outside the shelter for group eating. An old fashioned cast iron stove inside allows for cooking like a pioneer and several BBQs with propane can be found outside for those wishing to cook more modernly. There is a small sandbox behind the shelter which is really the only place for kids to play here. Oh, and there is a pop machine inside with $4.50 Cokes and waters. I guess if you really need a pop that bad you can help subsidize the park.
There is a large group fire pit surrounded by benches beside the shelter. Though we didn’t get to use it, it looks like a very nice spot to relax in the evening. I can envision the entire group of campers, all strangers, gathering round for storytelling and adventure sharing and friendship making as the fire crackles and the stars paint the sky. This place really does have a different vibe to it.
When it comes time to leave, there is a very rudimentary dump station on the road leaving the campground. It’s just a couple holes in the ground and you might even miss it if not looking specifically for it. It’s free and it works and with only 24 sites and many tenters I doubt you’ll ever be waiting long to use it.
I admit I was very nervous about going to Grasslands National Park. I was eager to see this fascinating place but I was worried the kids would be bored out of their minds, the sun would melt me, and I would be the bane of my famly’s existence for even suggesting we go to such an austere place. Instead, we all had a life-affirming experience. Even the kids loved it and Grasslands easily became a highlight of the trip. I won’t fool myself into thinking they would have enjoyed a much longer stay, but the fact they loved the two nights we were there is a testament to the wonder of this place. It really is a place you need to experience in person no matter how high-maintenance you view yourself. Just go. Go and absorb life in a greater sense.
As you can probably tell, I loved our stay at Grasslands. I unquestioningly give it 5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Oh this is not your usual summer vacation place. You won’t return with memories of fun at the beach and drinking around the campfire (well I suppose the latter is possible). From a purely camping perspective, this is as barebones as front country camping can get. I’d even say it would be nice if the campground had a small playground for the kids to enjoy while I cook supper. But what it lacks in amenities it more than makes up for in pure, natural experience. This place will affect you. As a species that evolved on the savannas of Africa, there is something very primal and personal about Grasslands. You feel it in your soul as you gaze at all the incredible nothingness around you.