Photography Spotlight: Grasslands National Park West Block

Grasslands National Park is a special place in Saskatchewan, Canada, where land and sky meet. With horizons that stretch on forever and wide open spaces to explore protected natural prairie grasslands, it is a great place to enjoy nature. The lack of trees and variety of topography provide an extreme contrast to the parklands and forest to the north, Grasslands National Park is a true prairie gem in Saskatchewan that I highly recommend expierencing. It is also a great spot for landscape, astro and wildlife photography in Saskatchewan.

The wide open, treeless prairies may not seem like a photography location, but in fact Grasslands National Park provides a diverse landscape to capture. Grasslands National Park is divided into two sections in the most southern areas of Saskatchewan. The west and east block are separated by over an hours drive. These are two very different and distinct areas of the park, for this article I am highlighting the west block of the park.

Although this area of the park draws many visitors each year for its wide open spaces, roaming bison, native grasslands, historical significance or famous prairie dog colony, it is also a photography destination you shouldn’t overlook. For more information about this Canadian National Park, visit their website.

For some people, photography and travel come hand in hand. Wanting to know what a location provides for photography purposes is usually a unique list of requests. As an astro photographer I’ve found it especially difficult to find the information I need to scout some locations online so its inspired me to start highlighting locations based on research and first hand experience. It has led me to focus some articles on photography specific travel information for locations you may want to visit or to help you explore further.

Grasslands National Park west block is located just south of Val Marie, Saskatchewan. A small town surrounded by the vast Canadian prairies. I would recommend at least a few days to explore the west block and surrounding areas. Grasslands National Park is a great place to travel to for photography. Here are a few of the highlights you will find along with some photography tips for your next adventure.

Grasslands Dark Sky Preserve

Find some of the darkest sky on earth! As the sun fades below the horizon, a blanket of stars fills the sky. Designated as a dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Grasslands is known as one of the darkest places in Canada. With the lack of light pollution, the night sky is an impressive feature of the park and my personal favourite to photograph. Most areas within the west block of Grasslands provide great views of the night sky, some suggestions to check out the mesmerizing night skies include:

  • Frenchman Valley Campground
  • Lookout stops along the Ecotour Scenic Drive
  • Two Trees Trail
  • 70 Mile Butte & Eagle Butte Trail

The northern lights can be seen from Grasslands National Park. The park is located south of the aurora oval, so when the northern lights are fairly active you may even be able to get a glimpse while out admiring the night sky.

Photography tip: The Milky Way is visible on any clear night. The photogenic core of the Milky Way is visible starting in early spring to late fall each year. Using apps such as photo pills can help to plan compositions with the Milky Way.

70 Mile Butte & Eagle Butte

The 70 Mile Butte hike is a must do when you are in the west block of Grasslands National Park. The hike is located just south of Val Marie and is on the western edge of the park. The hiking trail circles around the variety of terrain of the 70 Mile and Eagle Buttes. The well marked path takes you up in elevation circling around these two geological giants in the prairies. Keep in mind there are rattlesnakes in the area, and a sign reminds you during the start of the hike of the hazards.

In the prairies, the horizon seems to last forever, making this spot both great for sunrise and sunset. As the highest spot in the area, the views are breathtaking from the top of 70 Mile Butte, and is small effort required to hike up to the plateau that towers above the prairies. So far, this is one of my favourite spots in southern Saskatchewan and watching the storms roll in as we hiked down was something truly inspiring.

Eco Tour Drive

This beautiful prairie drive takes you through several interesting and well marked pull overs. Each stop provides an opportunity to capture sweeping prairie views, learn about the area and see native prairie plants and wildlife. The experience takes from 1-3 hours and is approximately 20km long. To get there, follow the signs 15km east of Val Marie on highway 18. Frenchmen Valley campground is located along this route.

The stops along this drive vary between seeing the famous Prairie Dog colony, to spotting the remains of tipi rings as you explore into the Frenchman River valley area of the park.

Where to Stay while visiting Grasslands National Park

Staying in or near the park is easy. Camping is my preferred option, but there are other options near Val Marie for those that enjoy more comforts. Camping in Grasslands can be part of the adventure. With options for front country and back country camping. Val Marie also has a small campground right in town that is easily accessible.

Back country camping is allowed in the park 1 km from any roads or trails. Front country camping is available at Frenchman Valley campground, where there are pull in sites, a tenting area and Otentiks available.

Photography Challenges

Services are limited. Be aware that cell service is not available in all areas of the park, even along roadways. Having a satellite communication device is highly recommended for those that are exploring remote areas. I use a Garmin Inreach mini and absolutely love it. Fuel service is also limited so it is important to check fuel levels and allow for enough to get safely to your next destination. There is no services in the park, fuel is available in Val Marie (also watch for the storage gas tank style services, I had never seen a stop like this but gas is available at any time of day)

The prairies are windy, and the weather can get pretty severe. Watch the sky and know the storm forecast in summer. As severe storms can roll through, there is little protection from the weather in this treeless environment. Be aware and plan accordingly.

Grasslands National Park, along with all Canadian National Parks are no fly zones for drones. So don’t plan for any aerial shots in this area.

With views as far away as you can possibly see, it is best to have a telephoto lens handy. This isn’t necessarily a challenge but something I would recommend.

Some basic recommendations for your next photo trip:

Hope this helps you plan for your next photography adventure to the west block of Grasslands National Park. I have yet to explore the east block, but it is high up on my must see lists and look forward to planning a photography adventure soon to the east block to check out more of the badlands of Saskatchewan.

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