Hiking the Valley of 1000 Devils Route, Grasslands National Park East Block
Hiking the Valley of 1000 Devils Route, Grasslands National Park East Block
After our flight from Toronto to Regina, Bob and I drove directly to Grasslands National Park near the southern border of Saskatchewan. We were determined to complete a hike in the East Block of this Park and opted to do the Valley of 1000 Devils Route before traveling further west to Val Marie on the edge of the Park’s West Block.
Five hours after landing in Regina, Bob and I found ourselves at the boundary of Grasslands National Park.
Seen from the brink of one hill was a small assembly of tipis (tepees) set off to the side of a collection of buildings representing the McGowan Visitor Centre and Rock Creek Campground.
After a quick pit stop, Bob and I crossed Rock Creek Bridge to reach the trailhead for our chosen hike.
Valley of 1000 Devils Route was one of 4 options, but really we had no choice if we wanted to experience the unique and unusual formations that this Park is known for, a section of the Badlands.
It was sunny and hot when we set off on the popular 12-kilometre hike, and Park Staff warned us that we would experience temperatures 10-degrees hotter as we navigated the open desert-like terrain.
Bob and I paused a moment to look back at the hub of activity around the Park Office. It was 3:30 p.m.
Right off the bat, a Brown Thrasher appeared out of nowhere with an insect clutched in its beak.
The challenging trail required strong navigation and awareness skills. From the outset, trails were almost invisible, and they would become more difficult to discern the further we went.
The vast stretches of rolling grassland were alive with activity. Patches of Prairie Smoke, a native wildflower, were growing thick in many depressions creating a wonderful palette of colours. Puffs of pink wavered in the breeze.
Creating the cloudy haze were the feathery grey tails of Prairie Smoke plants. Upon closer inspection, they resemble feather dusters.
There was no shortage of colourful blossoms to brighten our progress along the hiking trail. One example was the orange-red flowers of this Scarlet Mallow that nudged our boots as we walked along.
Loads of wildflowers including Wild Roses and this Colorado Rubberweed attracted numerous butterflies and bees, nor were we immune to the scents perfuming the air.
Bob and I inhaled deeply to savour the heady fragrances scampering on the gentle breeze. The small yellow flowers on the vast stretches of Wolf Willow produced a scent so powerful that it pervaded the whole area.
Wolf Willow is a silvery-green shrub that literally shimmered in the blazing sun. Its floral scent, together with the light fresh fragrance of Wild Roses, created a luscious perfume that was intoxicating.
A couple of kilometres into our hike, Bob and I found where Rock Creek flows through a depressed area. Contrasting the windblown and dry hills surrounding the creek were verdant green bushes, shrubs and grasses.
Attracted to the fresh water, a Mule Deer descended on the Creek’s far bank.
We were very surprised to see an Eastern Kingbird, a common sight at home.
Bob and I kept trudging onward though the heat was intensifying. We really had no idea how much further we had to go before coming in sight of the Badlands. Two small moving objects on top of a distant promontory had us continuing in that direction.
Turned out to be another couple of hikers and their dog. They assured us that the unique terrain was only a kilometre or two further.
Slugging up a gradual slope, Bob and I thought we might have to give up our quest. We had been hiking for 2 hours on top of an already 11 hour-long travel day, and the afternoon was getting on.
Little did we know what lay on the other side of this modest archway.
It was like a gateway into worlds unknown for what lay before us were unusual landforms the likes of which we had never seen before.
The unique formations had Bob and I quite intrigued.
Glacial meltwater originally played an important part in the creation of these formations, but the Badlands continue to be shaped by extensive erosion from wind and water of the underlying sedimentary rock and clay soil.
In southern Saskatchewan, these characteristic features are called the Killdeer Badlands, or the Rock Creek Badlands.
Just across the border from Montana, U.S.A., the Killdeer Badlands are nestled quietly in the middle of the Wood Mountain Uplands.
When settlers looked to claim land in the Prairies, the rolling uplands were deemed too rugged to be plowed for crops because of the extensive number of steep slopes, eroded hillsides, coulees, free-standing buttes and deep valleys.
Although the Killdeer Badlands appear very hostile, rough and rugged, delicate ecosystems and grass have been able to eke out an existence in the light, fragile soil.
Rain seldom falls on the Killdeer Badlands, but when it does, it is torrential. That and heavy meltwater in the spring take their toll on the ecosystems. Add in severe weather events and damaging winds, and the habitat becomes easily damaged.
Pushing further into the Badlands, Bob and I climbed steep slopes and descended into gullies.
At the bottom of one particularly large bowl, a standalone butte jutted up towards the sky. The sandstone buttes and outcrops of this region are the major reason that paleontologists and geologists come from around the world to Valley of 1000 Devils.
The area now known as the East Block of Grasslands National Park was once at the edge of a prehistoric sea called the Western Interior Seaway. This shallow sea dried up at the start of the Paleogene Period almost 70 million years ago.
It is the now exposed layers of sediment that are revealing fossils and bones from the past 66 million years of geological history. As Bob and I approached one of the buttes, we could discern some of the exposed layers.
Because the Wood Mountain Uplands are one of 4 areas in North America untouched by glaciation, the buttes and hoodoos are like vaults that hold untold stories of prehistoric life in this region.
The Badlands are one of the most productive sources of dinosaur fossils in Canada. It is here in the Killdeer Badlands that the first dinosaur remains were discovered by Sir George Mercer Dawson in 1874.
Although neither Bob nor I identified any dinosaur bones sticking out of the exposed sediment, we did have a Jackrabbit cross our paths in the shadow of one large butte. The rabbit was as large as a small dog.
Defying gravity, the Jackrabbit flew across the Prairie while we stood there agape.
It was very difficult to know where we were in terms of completing the Valley of 1000 Devils Route. Absolutely no markers or sign posts were used to denote hikers’ progress, so we just kept going.
Through a gap between two hillocks, a view was provided of another coulee, a type of valley where drainage takes place.
Typified by steep walls that have been shaped by erosion, a coulee resembles a canyon, but the seasonal creek flowing through it lacks the power to continue shaping the landscape.
As Bob and I hiked further into the Badlands, the sun would suddenly disappear behind massive cloud formations. The ensuing shadows made for some dramatic images and gave us a reprieve from the heat.
The Park encourages hikers to explore without the constraints of a designated trail. Scanning the horizon from one elevated spot, Bob could see neither a man-made structure or anything that would indicate our location.
This daunting feature reminded me of Gros Morne Mountain in Newfoundland, Canada, a mountain that Bob and I climbed in 2011. This bare promontory, of course, is diminutive in comparison, but still exhibits some of the same features.
Immersed there in the deafening silence, all we could hear were the sounds of our own thoughts. A warm wind picked up and gently washed over the still landscape.
As we squinted into the westward sun, the horizon was a sweep of greys and greens, beiges and browns. Putting the sun to our backs, at 6 p.m., we turned around and hiked back towards the trailhead.
Bob and I were grateful for the long daylight hours. The summer solstice was imminent, just a couple of days hence, so we were hiking on close to the longest day of the year. Sunlight would light our way until about 9:30 p.m. so long as a storm didn’t blow in.
As we retraced our steps, it was heartening to see in the distance some of the formations we passed earlier in the afternoon.
We were making tracks on this return leg of the hike.
At our approach, I noticed this rock covered in red lichen that mimicked the oxidized iron in the soil on the eroded hillsides. This is one of my favorite shots from the hike that day.
Bob and I were getting quite weary by 7 p.m. I was sweating buckets and was looking forward to the end of the trail.
With me in the lead, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw movement in the grass off to the side of the trail.
Nearly as surprised as I was was the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel out for a late-afternoon snack.
Feeding mostly on grass and weed seeds, this alternately named Striped Gopher is especially active on warm days, so the conditions were right.
By the time we landed back at our car, it was 7:30 p.m., and we were all in but the shoelaces. As we would not be revisiting the East Block on this trip, we were glad that we had made the effort to explore at least the Valley of 1000 Devils Route. Another time, we will see more of the Park.
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