Imagine standing on top of a massive hill, as far as your eyes can see, there is not a speck of civilization. No roads, no fences, not even a cell tower to obstruct your view. There is no need to squint to imagine what this land would have looked like hundreds, even thousands of years ago, because it still looks exactly the same today. Welcome to the Grasslands National Park.
This view is especially breath-taking atop the highest point of the park's west block, 70 mile Butte. There is a hike, lasting approximately two to three hours, that goes up, down and around the butte and is an excellent chance to soak up the sights.
You can also learn a thing or two about the park if you choose to walk along with the 'Prairie Stories Tour.' The tour, which I took on Sunday morning, is a guided hike with one (or sometimes two!) of the park's interpreters. I was lucky enough to hit the trail with Kira and Kelsey, and these girls really knew their stuff! They taught me about the geographical and human history of the grasslands. Some interesting points I picked up:
The entire west block of the Grasslands National Park was at one time under water. They have found fossilized shells and aquatic dinosaurs to prove it!
The Frenchman River Valley, which flows through the park, was created in the last glacier melt.
After the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Sitting Bull and the Sioux hid in the hills of the park to avoid the U.S Army.
I also picked up some interesting facts about the vegetation and wildlife. Did you know there are 70 different kinds of grasses in the park? There are also 15 animal species-at-risk that call the Grasslands National Park their home—one of these being the Black Footed Ferret. The park recently celebrated the birth of the first litter of ferrets to be born in the wild to a wild-born mother. This means that neither the mother nor the new babies have ever had human contact! Awesome!
And I can't I forget the Plains Bison! Re-introduced to the Grasslands National Park in December 2005, the bison have been not only surviving, but flourishing! Starting out with only 71 bison, the herd has expanded to a staggering 330 adult bison and 40 calves! I've got to tell you, watching these guys was hilarious! I actually laughed out loud a few times. One go-getter attempted to roll over, which was a very difficult thing to do. He just couldn't seem to get the momentum he needed. The bison also seem to enjoy a good scratch now and again.
While we are on the topic of animal behaviours, I should mention my attempt at spying on a Sharp Tailed Grouse lek early one morning. (A lek is what they call the mating dance that is performed by the males of some bird species.) I'd been tipped off that these male dancers take to the stage on one particular patch of gravel along the roadway. Instead of driving out to that location at the crack of dawn, I decided to park my Ford Edge on the side of the gravel and spend the night in my car. That way, I could photograph the birds from my front-row seat and avoid scaring them away when I drove up. Everything went according to plan, I set my alarm for 4:45am, only to be woken up at 4:44am by the sounds of rustling feathers outside my door. I got into position. With my camera in hand I rolled down my window only to find one lonely grouse.
A soloist, it seemed. Normally they dance in groups of 8-20, but I guess I was getting a private show. As we sat there, the tension mounted. Finally, the spirit moved him and he began thumbing his little feet on the ground like there was no tomorrow.
After two or three of these little outbursts, he flew off. Not waiting for an applause. Perhaps, far off in the distance, a female grouse was watching. I hope she was as impressed as I was. He had excellent form.
I also tried my hand at geocaching. The Grasslands National Park has five different geocaches hidden throughout the west block. (If you're finding yourself thinking “geo-whhaaatt”, you can learn more about it here!) Unlike normal geocaches which contain treasures left behind by previous geocachers, these ones contained information on the park and a small book to record the date and your name.
When I cracked open the first box after hiking a couple of kilometres, I was surprised to find that it had some fire damage. I later discovered that there had been a huge grassfire on April 28th this spring, and the cache had survived! Only slightly singed on the inside, I could still read all of the entries. Having found my first ever geocache I must admit, I was pretty proud of myself!
I'm not exaggerating when I say that you need to visit the Grasslands National Park! Being the only park dedicated to protecting the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, there is nothing like it. Believe me when I tell you that trees, in this case, are overrated! The grasslands are buzzing with wildlife and diversity matching any forest and you will never tire of the view.
The only way you will know if I am right is to go and check it out for yourself!
More photos can be seen HERE