Directly west of the Big Muddy Valley, and around 250km southwest of Moose Jaw, Grasslands National Park is predominantly mixed-grass prairie, a flat, bare badlands broken up by splendid coulees, buttes and river valleys – notably the wide ravine edging the Frenchman River. Far from the moderating influence of the oceans, the area has a savage climate, with an average low in January of -22°C and temperatures that soar to 40°C in summer. Even so, this terrain is inhabited by many species adapted to cope with the shortage of water: prairie grasses, rabbit brush and different types of cacti, as well as the graceful pronghorn antelope and rattlesnakes. Prairie dogs, ferrets and bison also all thrive here as they did before white settlers arrived in the region.
The park consists of east and west “blocks” separated by private ranches and farms, which the federal government eventually intends to buy, creating a single park stretching from Hwy-4 in the west to highways 2 and 18 in the east. The western section is more scenic and accessible, its limited system of gravel tracks and roads cutting in from highways 8 and 4, south and east of the tiny community of VAL MARIE. Unlike most national parks you’re free to roam almost everywhere and there are few marked trails, though a couple of signposted suggestions are made in each block.
One of the best hikes leads to 70 Mile Butte in the west block. This massive flat-topped promontory is the highest point of land in the region, rising 100m above the valley floor with wonderful views of the waving prairie grasslands. To get there, drive south of Val Marie on Hwy-4, turn east at Butte Road and continue to the end of the road. Though barely marked, the way becomes obvious as you begin walking over the hills from the end of the road. Even just a couple of hours’ walk will take you through exceptional country.
Wherever you go remember a good supply of water, a stout pair of walking shoes and a stick to sweep in front of you in tall grass or brush as a warning to rattlesnakes. Animal activity is at its height at dawn and dusk and during spring and autumn; a pair of binoculars is always useful.