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If you only know Saskatchewan as the ‘wheat province,’ you have a lot to learn – and experience. Here are four spots that take you beyond the fields and silos

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The eroded buttes and exposed Badland formations found in the east block of Grasslands National Park are ruggedly beautiful.George Stone/Handout

Grasslands National Park

There may be no better place in Saskatchewan to enjoy the province’s iconic wide-open prairie space than Grasslands National Park. It’s arguably the province’s best spot to witness the “Land of Living Skies” by night, as it is one of Canada’s darkest Dark-Sky Preserves. It’s also the only national park to represent the prairie grasslands natural region.

Created by erosion from glacial meltwater, the park area features a mix of open grasslands, stunning buttes, rolling hills, coulees and scenic vistas of the Frenchman River Valley. Its plains are also littered with unique land formations and jam-packed with rare flora as well as a mix of water, land and sky critters.

The plains bison, the swift fox and the black-footed ferret are among the endangered native species that have been reintroduced into the area. Grasslands National Park is also home to 20 at-risk species. Resident mammals, such as badgers, coyotes, and pronghorn antelopes, as well as reptiles, including prairie rattlesnakes, can be spotted throughout the park.

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The hike to 70 Mile Butte is one of the best spots in the park to take in at sunset.Jenn Smith Nelson/Handout

The park is a birdwatching hot spot year-round. Look for spotted towhees in riparian shrubs, rock wrens in the Badlands and golden eagles in the buttes. Year-round residents such as the endangered greater sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse are best viewed in spring, while summer provides the perfect chance to see the vulnerable long-billed curlews, longspurs and Sprague’s pipits.

Between the park’s two blocks – east and west – you’ll find diverse activities that make each area an excellent choice to explore in its own right. As the current park holdings more than 700 square kilometres, plan ahead and take your time touring these incredible grasslands over several days or trips.

Meadow Lake Provincial Park

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Otters are among the many interesting wildlife species that can be spotted in the park.Steve Cordory/Handout

One of Canada’s largest provincial parks, Meadow Lake is a favourite destination for many vacationers and nature lovers alike.

With more than 20 lakes, rivers and streams, along with 1,600 square kilometres to explore, the park has more than enough space to accommodate visitors. Those who come to camp love that they can choose from more than 800 sites. Featuring both front and backcountry camping, sites are spread out more than 12 campgrounds.

Meadow Lake Provincial Park also has incredible beaches – some of the province’s best – making water-based opportunities, such as sailing, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and power boating, common pastimes.

But let’s get to the trails. Meadow Lake Provincial Park is an outstanding hiking destination. Carved by ancient glaciers, the area features a wealth of lakes, lush forests and magnificent views and offers a large diversity of wildlife that can all be taken in along the trails. Be on the lookout for common loons, lesser scaups, otters, black bears, moose and more.

Birding enthusiasts can make their way through marshy meadows and trembling aspen forests along the 4.8-kilometre Hay Meadow Hiking Trail or the 3.2-kilometre Humphrey Lake Hiking Trail. The latter follows Humphrey Lake’s shoreline and eventually leads up to a viewing tower to take in a panorama.

Churchill River

The Churchill River is the ultimate hot spot in the province for those who travel to paddle. The river stretches more than 1,600 kilometres across the Canadian Shield, flowing eastwardly from Alberta across the northcentral part of Saskatchewan, all the way to the Hudson Bay at Churchill, Man. A 487-kilometre-long section of the Churchill River between Île-à-la-Crosse on Lac Île-à-la-Crosse and Frog Portage on Trade Lake has been nominated as a Canadian Heritage River.

The Cree name for the river is Missinipi, meaning “big river.” It couldn’t ring truer. The river is a labyrinth of pristine paddling pathways connected by rapids and falls, surrounded by Precambrian granite outcroppings and beautiful boreal wilderness.

It’s also steeped in history. The river was named for John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough and the governor of Hudson’s Bay Co. from 1685 to 1691. Paddlers can weave their way through history, retracing the routes of this water highway once heavily used by Indigenous peoples and, later, European voyageurs.

The Churchill has a variety of waterways to explore, with everything from stretches of smooth water to whitewater rapids and falls. There are numerous routes and options for all levels of paddlers. If you find yourself near Rattler Bay, be sure to look up at the rocks that line the shore, as ancient pictographs can be spotted.

You can easily access the river via the town of Missinipe, which is 78 kilometres north of La Ronge. Several outfitters there provide guided paddling tours in the area, which is great for beginners looking to dip their paddles into this phenomenal waterway.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

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The view from Bald Butte, the highest point in Centre Block, doesn’t disappoint.Michael Murchison/Handout

Straddling Saskatchewan and Alberta, Cypress Hills was designated Canada’s first interprovincial park in 1989. But that’s not all it’s known for. Anyone who thinks Saskatchewan is flat will be quickly proven wrong when they learn that the tallest peak in the Saskatchewan portion of the park, standing at 1,392 metres above sea level, makes it one of the highest points in Canada east of the Canadian Rockies.

Almost untouched by glaciers during the last ice age, Cypress Hills is brimming with rugged beauty, seen in the park’s deep valleys and vast forests. It also features flora, fauna and vistas akin to the Rockies.

Don’t, however, let the name fool you. The park isn’t home to any cypress trees. Instead, its forests are densely packed with incredibly straight – not to mention tall (up to 18 metres) – lodgepole pines that pop up from the surrounding prairie panorama. A mistake made by early French fur traders, who misidentified the trees, resulted in the park’s name.

Long known as a gathering place, for centuries people have camped out on Cypress Hills’ knolls, relying on its resources, especially its trees. Trunks of the tall pines made excellent travois and First Nations, such as Cree, Dakota and Blackfoot Confederacy nations, used the lodgepole pines for tipi poles and lodges.

In addition to the pines, the park’s flora is quite remarkable, with more than 730 plant species and 20 per cent of those species considered rare and unique. This number includes uncommon orchids such as the bog, the lady’s tresses and the Venus’s slipper.

More than 40 species of mammals call the park home, and sightings of moose and white-tailed deer are common both roadside and within the campsites. Other residents include coyotes, bobcats, pronghorn antelopes and the highest density of cougars found in North America. These predators were extirpated from the area for over 100 years, only to return on their own in the 1990s. Cypress Hills is also a birder’s paradise, with 220 species recorded in the park. The park is divided into two blocks – Centre Block and West Block – and each is full of diverse appeal.

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Excerpted with Permission from Firefly Books Ltd. from 110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan by Jenn Smith Nelson and Doug O’Neill

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