The air is calm and quiet and perfumed with the scent of sagebrush as I make my way up to the crest of a dune in Saskatchewan's Great Sandhills, sinking in with every step.
At first the land seems almost empty, just powdery sand, scrubby plants, the occasional tree, and cows grazing in the distance, letting out the occasional moo. But then I kneel down and look closer, and signs of life are everywhere.
Butterflies flutter by. Crickets jump. And there are a million tracks on the ground, tiny dustings and paws and hooves of all sizes, and mysterious pencil-sized holes next to balls of sand laid out like little heaps of snowballs.
It's a good metaphor for Saskatchewan, which many Canadians think of as just a rectangle of flat land blanketed with massive farmers' fields – if they think of it at all. But as I learn on a road trip from Regina around the southwestern part of the province, there's much more going on here than that.
With sites and activities covering everything from stargazing and ziplining to ranching and cattle rustling and even astronomy and paleontology, the region is perfectly suited for self-guided exploration to suit any style of travel. And trust me: It's not even close to flat.
At Reesor Ranch, for instance, right at the Alberta border, I leave my bags in my room – the walls are adorned with horseshoe hooks, and curtains made from Mexican blankets – then wander to the stables for a taste of the cowgirl experience. In this case, that means snapping photos of the friendly barn cats in the golden glow of the setting sun before turning my attention to the task at hand, learning to saddle my horse, Queen Bee. It's already more work – but more learning – than your average trail ride.
We mount our horses, circle the ring a few times for practice, then walk out into the hills as the sun approaches the horizon. Our route winds up and down through forest and grass, along a valley lined on one side with a patch of trees gone brilliant yellow from the turn of the seasons. The waxing moon is still high but dipping toward the remnants of the sunset, a vivid stripe of neon coral under purplish streaks of cloud.
As we loop around, it starts getting dark and I let Queen Bee have her head, only adjusting when she wants to go way off track. On our return I take off the saddle, brush her and lead her into the paddock with the rest of the herd before I remove her halter and head back to my room. It's dark out and my hands are blocks of ice – but I had a grin on my face the whole time.
At Grasslands National Park, on the other hand, I'm trying to stay away from the animals – the 900-kilogram ones, at least. Reintroduced in 2005 as a herd of 71, there are now more than 300 Plains bison roaming the park's West Block, constantly dining on the diverse native grasses. I learn the thumbs-up technique to judge distance – if you can't hide a bison behind your thumb, it's too close for comfort – then start off on the park's self-guided driving tour.
Our first stop is one of the prairie dog colonies, where residents chirp wildly as we pass on foot, dodging piles of dried-out bison droppings. We play spot-the-difference among various grass species on a high point above a coulee, squinting to see the spot where snakes hibernate through the winter. Two bison are grazing in the distance, and we look through binoculars to see their tails swishing, a sign they're keeping their eyes on us.
At further points we stop to inspect a large boulder popular with the bison as a scratching post (complete with fresh footprints alongside), and walk narrow trails through the grass to the signature red Parks Canada chairs (each park has a pair) high up on a promontory, overlooking large swaths of the park. Below us, a river curves back and forth along the plain, flanked by dense reddish and green plants that contrast sharply with the surrounding fields of gold.
Further east, we get into the Big Muddy Badlands, where the terrain is, as our tour guide for the day describes it, "from slightly undulating to extremely undulating." The hills and gullies are carved out of the soft land by erosion.
Guide Harold Siggelkow is still spry at 88 and full of anecdotes and dry jokes as he leads us from site to site in these borderlands where cross-border cattle rustling was once not an uncommon occupation – and is still separated from local residents by only a couple of generations.
I climb the steep, crumbly slopes of Castle Butte (and descend again on my butt, not willing to risk tumbling), walk the perimeter of tepee rings, and pick out long-extinct country names on almost century-old maps lining the walls of a one-room schoolhouse.
Close to the U.S. border, we hear more tales of the famous outlaws, who often escaped law enforcement thanks to the steep hills – and rules that pursuers could only cross the border if the criminals remained in sight. And we peek into the caves the outlaws would hide in when necessary – not luxe accommodations, by any means. If you didn't look closely, you'd never know they were there.
If you go
Include some or all of these destinations on a road trip through southwestern Saskatchewan.
Every RCMP officer trains at the Depot academy in Regina, so a visit to the RCMP Heritage Centre there to learn about the force's history and training methods – and even watch cadets on parade – is de rigueur Canadiana.
En route to the dunes, stop in at the Great Sandhills Museum and Interpretive Centre to browse the 11 rooms chock-full of regional memorabilia: dentistry tools, old horse collars, even a 1921 income tax return.
Book lodging or a full package at historic Reesor Ranch, on the edge of the Alberta border. The Cypress Hills Cowboy Adventure ($225 a person per day), a Canadian Signature Experience, includes three meals and two hours on horseback a day; guests might help move cows and calves from field to field or accompany ranch staff on herd health checks. Bonus: Dinner often comes with a side of cowboy poetry.
Activities on the Saskatchewan side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park run the gamut from camping and fishing to mountain biking and ziplining. A dark sky preserve, the park plays host to weekly summertime astronomy programs and a summer star party in August.
The Union Jack still flies over Fort Walsh National Historic Site, where visitors can learn about life in Canada's remote borderlands in the 1870s via tours and reenactments by costumed staff – and even the occasional cannon fire.
An outpost of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the T.rex Discovery Centre holds exhibits on the province's natural and geological history with displays of fish-eating reptiles, dinosaur dung and the pièce de résistance – the 65-million-year-old Scotty, a T.rex skeleton discovered in the area in the 1990s.
Among the last remaining Prairie untouched by the plough, Grasslands National Park is home to numerous species at risk, including herds of massive plains bison and colonies of chattering black-tailed prairie dogs. Visit on a self-guided driving tour, sleep in a tepee or sign up for walking, horseback riding or astronomy activities. Many sites in the Big Muddy Badlands are accessible only by guided tour. Book a full or half day to visit the outlaw caves, Castle Butte, heritage school house and ceremonial circles, with a stop at Aust's General Store in the town of Big Beaver (no, really) for municipally branded merchandise.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Saskatchewan. It did not preview or approve the story before publication.