Distance: 18 km
Elevation gain: ~280 mView mapDownload GPS track
Grasslands National Park, located near Val Marie (about 120 km south of Swift Current, Saskatchewan), is a rarely visited national park sporting a fair variety of rare wildlife. It is the only place in Canada with black-footed ferrets, a species so rare they were once believed extinct, and also has many other rare or rarely-seen species, including burrowing owls, sage grouse, short-horned lizards, and black-tailed prairie dogs. Bison, deer, coyotes, and pronghorns are frequently seen. It's also a dark sky preserve, very isolated, and random camping is permitted. With the Rockies largely inaccessible due to flooding, we figured this would be a great place for a getaway.
The drive from Calgary is a bit long and the road to Val Marie from Swift Current is a bit sketchy in spots, but the country drive is much nicer than the crowded mess the mountain highways become in the summer. The visitor center is located just past the turnoff to the park and is staffed by wonderfully helpful and knowledgeable people; we actually spent nearly an hour talking to them. Definitely stop by here to get information on the park before heading out.
Backpacking in the park is very, very different than backpacking in the mountains, or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. This is genuine prairie and there are a total of 5 trees in the park (they're marked on the map). There are no trails other than a few short ones near the road, but rather a few suggested routes through the park. Maps available at the info center are critical if you plan to follow a route, but if you're a competent navigator and explorer there really isn't any reason to follow a route. That really is the joy here - you're free to hike and camp wherever you want. We chose to roughly follow the "Timbergulch coulee" route, but made some pretty big deviations to stay up high and to avoid a rather full stream the route normally crosses.
If you do go backpacking here, keep a few things in mind if you're more familiar with mountain hiking. The streams, when full, could be messy to cross as the bottoms are sinky, slippery mud. The water is also not potable (it is apparently saline, and it certainly didn't "look" drinkable) so you must also carry enough water for your entire trip; bring lots as it's hot and breezy. Stoves are often not permitted due to the risk of grass fire, so don't count on being able to cook. Navigation can be tricky as the landmarks are not as obvious as those in the forest or alpine passes, so always have an escape route plan if you get totally turned around. Also keep in mind that there is NO shade whatsoever, so be prepared for the heat and sun. And lastly, there are rattlesnakes throughout the park. While getting bitten is apparently exceedingly rare, it is somewhat unnerving wading through tall grass. We wore gaiters just in case.
The mosquitoes also must be mentioned. While this is apparently a bad year and we went at prime mosquito time, we have never experienced mosquitoes this bad at any location in the Rockies. At any given instant there would be 20+ mosquitoes on each limb and a buzzing cloud that downed out most subtle noises swarming around your head. Worse yet, it's usually quite warm at night and so the onslaught is constant. While we will go back, we will not go back at the height of mosquito season ever again.