A storm is blowing up from Montana. The expected five centimetres of rain is a lot for Grasslands National Park, a large swath of prairie on the U.S. border in western Saskatchewan. The area averages around 30 cm of precipitation per year. I put on my rain jacket, pants and boots, and head for the coulee.
People don’t come here to get away from it all; they come for a break from other people. The park, one of North America’s largest and least-disturbed tracts of northern mixed-grass prairie, is the quietest grasslands ecosystem on the continent. There’s barely a human-made sound to be heard. This is also one of Canada’s largest official dark-sky preserves. And, with virtually no industrial noise or light in the area, the natural world is all one sees and hears.
In a deluge, I shuffle down a muddy deer trail into a deep coulee in the park’s east block, which is pocked with badlands and the site of rich dinosaur beds. Under an overhang, I close my eyes and listen to water tumble off a rocky ledge. Splashing around the valley, I don’t see or hear another soul. The natural soundscape is far from quiet, but an immersion invokes deep inner peace.
The next morning, after tenting at Rock Creek Campground beside the McGowan Visitor Centre, I am serenaded by birdsong, chirping prairie dogs and the call of a lone coyote. Under bright sun and blue sky, I walk across Rock Creek into rolling hills. The wind ripples the waist-high grasses. The park encourages hikers to explore the prairie without the constraints of a marked route. Looking back over my shoulder for landmarks, I head west, to a distant ridge. Up top, I peer in every direction and don’t spot anything made by people, nor any indication where the parking lot may be.
More people visit the park’s west block, where a reintroduced bison herd ranges on the flanks of the Frenchman River Valley. The block’s visitor centre, as well as food and accommodations are located in the village of Val Marie (population 126), a few kilometres northwest of the park and three and a half hours from Regina by car. Here in the east block (three hours from Regina), marooned in a roiling green sea, even tiny Val Marie seems like a megalopolis from another world.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Regina 12 times a day from Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto.
Three more national parks to pursue solitude:
Point Pelee National Park, Ont.
One of the country’s smallest national parks may not seem like a good place to be alone, but at the tip of the peninsula—the southernmost point in mainland Canada—your only company may be birds.
Fundy National Park, N.B.
Visitors flock to the shoreline to walk on the sea floor and witness the world’s highest tides, so head inland, through the forest, to the crystal clear swimming holes on the Upper Salmon River Trail.
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alta.
People come from around the world for the mountains of Banff and Jasper. Waterton Lakes, a jewel in the southwest corner of Alberta, is just as dramatic, minus the crowds.