Thursday, 26 July 2012

Grasslands National Park: Accessible to All

By Penny McKinlay

Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan is huge, offering wonderful opportunities to get away from civilization and immerse yourself in the rolling hills and grasslands. But arthritis is really limiting my mobility these days. Would I be able to enjoy the park and get a taste of what it has to offer without hiking long distances?

Yes! Despite limited mobility, you can experience the varied landscape, animals, birds, and plants in Grasslands National Park.

Frenchman River Valley Ecotour
The manager at The Convent, where I spent the night in Val Marie, recommended taking the Frenchman River Valley Ecotour.

You follow a gravel road through the park for approximately 20 kilometres, stopping at 8 interpretive stations along the way. You can either return the way you came or make an 80-kilometre loop, but I was warned that it was easy to get lost on the longer loop.

Each of the stations highlights a different aspect of the park, and I was amazed by how much the terrain could change within such a short distance. You can often get a sense of the location without getting out of your car, but I jumped at the opportunity to go for a short hike along the trails at each station.

The first station overlooks the Frenchman River Valley, and I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a pronghorn antelope and some bison. One bison was quite close, and he didn’t seem to be too impressed when I interrupted his grazing.

The second station was at a large black-tailed prairie dog colony. There were so many of them! It was a joy to listen to their high-pitched warning cries and to watch them standing up tall to get a better view.

Other stations took me to some of the early ranches in the area and to teepee rings left by the Aboriginal people who travelled through this area so many years ago. From the grassy heights overlooking the valley bottom, I moved on to a short trail beside a curving stream and watched a heron fly overhead until he landed much further up the valley.

There were so many songbirds and wild plants and grasses, and I thoroughly enjoyed my two and a half hour tour of the park.

Interpretive Trails
You can also follow two short interpretive trails not far from Val Marie – I’m saving these for my next visit to the Park.

The Two Trees Trail is 1.5 kilometres long and is the only marked interpretive trail in the park. There is also a short trail beside the creek, starting from the same access point.

The Visitor Centre in Val Marie has lots of brochures as well as staff on hand to answer all your questions.

Val Marie
I recommend The Convent if you are looking for accommodation. It was built in 1939 and still contains the original chapel and many signs of its previous life as a school run by the Sisters of Assumption.

I was happy to sit on the long, second-storey verandah in the evening and read my book while enjoying the view. The fresh-cooked breakfast was excellent.

Friends of Grasslands operates Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, a combination coffee shop, museum, art gallery and store.

There’s wifi access, hot and cold drinks, and an amazing collection of nature books for sale (including lots of children’s books). It’s definitely worth stopping by.