Visiting Jasper National Park so early in my trip seems akin to dating a supermodel at age 18: Everyone you date afterwards just isn’t quite as beautiful. On the surface, Grasslands National Park appears about as attractive as Mulan masquerading as a man in her efforts to be accepted into General Li Shang’s ragtag army. This Park, however, offers a great many hidden treasures in the form of astonishingly diverse wildlife. Though famous for its Prairie Dog Towns and buffalo, Grasslands is home to dozens of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and other plains creatures just waiting to be discovered. Fewer than 10,000 people visit this singular park each year; there are likely 10,000 people in Banff National Park at this very moment. The primary campground in the Park, Frenchman Valley Campground, was only about 1/3 full at the time of my arrival, making my reservation booked in May somewhat of a moot point…
Upon my arrival, I established my campsite and headed straight to Top Dogtown, where burrowing owls were said to reside. These avian oddities were my primary reason for desiring to visit Grasslands, as their unique nature, adorable countenance, and endangered status greatly piqued my interest. At first, only a few hundred rotund, well-fed prairie dogs and an unsuccessful hunting coyote were visible in the area. A couple from Ontario, shooting photos of the prairie dogs with a multi-thousand-dollar camera (mine cost around $200), chatted me up for about 30 minutes as we awaited the arrival of dusk when the owls become active. Though burrowing owls are diurnal, they are most active around their burrows at dawn and dusk. Interestingly, while the owls occupy abandoned prairie dog burrows, they live peacefully interspersed in the prairie dog towns, and are so small that you need to know to look for them.
As the light began to fade, I started to lose hope that I would be lucky enough to see these endangered creatures. Just then, an owl appeared, perched on the very plaque that provided information about his (or her) species.
Over the next few minutes, a half dozen additional burrowing owls arrived and, to my everlasting delight, hopped and flew between their homes near my parked car. I was lucky enough to photograph them at a relatively close distance and snapped the following glamour shots:
The next day, desiring to be as secluded in the Park as possible, I drove out to the eastern portion of Grasslands along a 35-mile loop road known simply as ‘Backcountry Loop’. While driving on this road, I passed prairie dog towns, hawks, deer, horses, buffalo, and even a badger (the latter of which being the first I had ever seen in the wild).
Intending to complete a 10 to 12-mile loop trail through the eponymous grasslands, I drove to a trailhead on the farthest side of the loop road and walked three miles up the path. At this point, I encountered this rattlesnake skin along the trail.
Wary of the ominous portent, I continued until, from a cluster of bushes, I heard the distinctive rattle of the creature to whom the aforementioned skin likely belonged… Giving the bushes a wide berth, I slowly walked for 10 more minutes when, upon hearing a new rattle from another bush, I made the executive decision to turn around and no longer risk receiving rattlesnake bite dozens of miles away from the next human.
That night, the skies cleared sufficiently for me to catch a magnificent view of the Milky Way from my campsite. Grasslands National Park is a designated Dark Sky Preserve, and other than the rather annoying lights emanating from nearby RVs in the campground, the entire area was pitch black. Unfortunately, my camera could not capture these stars (as previously noted, it’s only a $200 Nikon), but the experience has left an indelible image in my mind’s eye.
Grasslands may not win any beauty contests or wow you with its scenery, but slow down and look below the surface to find the real beauty of this Park: The wildlife.