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Saskatchewan travel writer and photographer Ashlyn George, above, has hiked the Valley of 1000 Devils trail in Grasslands National Park several times. She says the views are the most spectacular part of the 11-kilometre trail.Ashlyn George

In a national park dedicated to preserving rare prairie grasslands, it’s actually the rugged badlands that are the star of a little-known backcountry hike with an evocative name.

The Valley of 1000 Devils hike takes people on an 11-kilometre journey that culminates with an eroded landscape full of hoodoos, buttes and intriguing rock formations in Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan. For years, you needed navigation skills and even GPS to follow what was an unmarked route largely forged by visitors. Then, last August, Parks Canada quietly unveiled a realigned trail, this time carefully thought out by staff and given a proper trailhead sign plus nearly 200 off-white trail flags.

This renewed hike, across terrain that’s typically 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the park, is still considered a remote wilderness experience and rated as “difficult,” but now it’s newly accessible to more hikers and bikers who set off from the Rock Creek campground and visitor centre hub.

The undulating striped hills and red-clay hoodoos are remarkable not only for the 66-milion-year-old history found beneath the surface but also for their current-day views.

Ashlyn George, travel writer and photographer

“It also lays out the surprise better,” promises Colin Schmidt, product development officer for Grasslands and the lead for trails.

The “surprise” is that around the halfway point, when you cross the grasslands to a butte (an isolated hill with steep sides), there’s a secret opening. Walk through that opening and the badlands unfold on the other side.

The vantage point – which doesn’t have a formal name – is the undisputed trail highlight.

“The undulating striped hills and red-clay hoodoos are remarkable not only for the 66-milion-year-old history found beneath the surface but also for their current-day views, especially early morning or late afternoon when the shadows stretch through the valley,” enthuses Ashlyn George, a Saskatchewan-based travel writer and photographer, and author of Lost Girl’s Guide to Finding the World.

Not only has George hiked this trail before and after it was realigned, she also camped along it last fall when the badlands are cooler and more enjoyable than in the scorching heat of summer.

“This has always been a top trail in Saskatchewan for those hoping to experience a bit of the backcountry without being too far from services and amenities,” explains George. “Whether you’re a day hiker or looking for an overnight experience, the addition to the trail and signed markers have made it accessible for more people to go out and feel confident when exploring in the backcountry.”

Popular with motorists and cylcists, the 11-kilometre Badlands Parkway in Grassland National Park’s East Block, unveiled in 2019, features a single-lane paved road with no shoulders that was designed for two-way traffic. It has 20 pull-offs to let other vehicles pass.Tourism Saskatchewan

The Valley of 1000 Devils route, which dips into the basin of Hellfire Creek as it moves from grasslands to badlands, has long captured the imaginations of adventurers.

In their 2019 book 110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan: The Best Parks, Conservation Areas and Wild Places, Jenn Smith Nelson and Doug O’Neill called Valley of 1000 Devils an “outstanding” trek.

“Take in the landscape of striped red-clay hoodoos while roaming the 800-hectare valley of badlands where dinosaurs once dominated,” the authors wrote, warning people to keep an eye out for patches of quicksand in the East Block area.

The original trail, which was essentially a straight line, is now closed and being returned to a natural state. The renewed trail is more of a “lollipop” with a straight portion and then a loop. (When you get to the loop, turn right and take the counterclockwise route.)

Schmidt, who has worked on the trail since 2020, says Parks Canada kept the name used by locals since 1963.

Grasslands is Canada’s first and only national park established to represent the mixed-grass prairie – one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country. It’s divided into two separate parcels of land known as the West Block and East Block.

Last year, despite pandemic restrictions, Grasslands logged 20,240 visitors between May and October. The vast majority – 14,745 – went to the West Block as either campers or day visitors. But while only 5,495 ventured to the more remote East Block, Schmidt was pleased to hear that most of those visitors took in not just the Valley of 1000 Devils route but the Badlands Parkway as well.

The parkway, open May 1 to Thanksgiving, is an 11-kilometre, single-lane paved road designed for two-way traffic. It launched in August 2019 not far from the Rock Creek hub. It follows an escarpment and historic trail and boasts westward views across the prairie.

The parkway was carefully designed to direct motorists and cyclists to scenic highlights while avoiding prime habitat for two species at risk – the greater sage-grouse and the Sprague’s Pipit, a small ground-nesting songbird. Since it dead ends, you have to turn around and drive it back for a 22-kilometre round-trip experience.

Six viewpoints over the grasslands and badlands showcase educational panels about the dinosaurs who first roamed this land, the Indigenous peoples who have been its caretakers for centuries, the homesteaders that followed, and the flora and fauna.

Now that the Valley of 1000 Devils hike and the Badlands Parkway are up and running, Schmidt says he’s scouting possible locations for a new trail loop that could take people even deeper into those magical badlands.

“It’s a nice meander,” says Schmidt, who was the parkway’s project co-ordinator. “Normally, I’m a fan of looped experiences with trails, but in this case, riding back or driving back, depending on how you use it, is going to give you a different view in different light.”

If you like that, you’ll love this …

Hikers in Prince Edward Island can tackle the Island Walk, a trek around the island that takes about 32 days to complete (at a pace of 20 to 25 kilometres a day).Sander Meurs/Prince Edward Island Tourism

Gros Morne Mountain

Gros Morne (“big lone mountain”) is the second-highest peak in Newfoundland. The 17-kilometre Gros Morne Mountain hike in Gros Morne National Park takes about eight hours. The flat-topped mountain offers views of a glacial-carved landscape and fjords, and the chance to see rock ptarmigan, Arctic hare and woodland caribou on what’s called “a slice of Arctic tundra far south of its usual range.”

Island Walk

Prince Edward Island has created a 700-kilometre journey that loops around the island. Hikers can tackle its 32 sections or aspire to do the entire trek, walking 20 to 25 kilometres a day for about 32 days. The walk takes you along the ocean, beaches, Confederation Trail, red dirt roads and quiet secondary roads, and through two cities and many small communities.

Halfway to Heaven

Only an intrepid few travellers make it to Ivvavik National Park in the northwest corner of the Yukon each year. Catered stays at the isolated park’s base camp run five days and feature a variety of hikes, including the rigorous Halfway to Heaven hike, which is 11.4 kilometres with an elevation gain of 594 metres that takes you up three large “tors” (free-standing rock formations).

Hidden Lake

To learn while you hike, book one of Parks Canada’s guided conservation hikes. Hidden Lake, at Banff National Park in Alberta, is a 10-kilometre journey that starts with a shuttle ride on a private access road to the trailhead. The hike (offered July to September) delves into the park’s efforts to protect and recover westslope cutthroat trout, a species at risk. In Yoho National Park, just over the border in British Columbia, the Paget Lookout guided conservation hike lets people help with research to protect whitebark pine trees (another species at risk) while providing views of the Continental Divide and Kicking Horse River.

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