Are you looking for a change of scene? We’ve picked out a few places to experience Western Canada’s sand dunes, canyons, rocks, and hoodoos.
Spirit Sands, a 4 sq. km. expanse of blowing sand dunes, towers above the surrounding prairies at Spruce Woods Provincial Park near Carberry. The sands were left behind 15,000 years ago where the Assiniboine River flowed into the ancient Lake Agassiz, which at its peak covered an area larger than all of the modern-day Great Lakes. A self-guided trail leads you in a series of loops through the dunes with a detour taking you to the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a depression in the dunes with a blue-green pool fed by underground streams at its base.
Spirit Sands is home to the Northern Prairie Skink, a slender 8-inch-long lizard with alternating light and dark stripes running the length of its body. Young skinks have bright blue tails, while the males have an orange head and throat during breeding season. You may also spot the bright pink daisy-like flowers of Spinystar Cactus.
Kettle Stones Provincial Park is found on the north side of the Kettle Hills, in the Swan-Pelican Provincial Forest. The park is home to a set of sandstone concretions known as kettle stones, ranging in height from 2.5-3.5 metres. The stones’ formation spans millions of years and they are another remnant of Lake Agassiz and its impact on the land.
Robin and Arlene Karpan have spent years exploring, photographing, and promoting some of Saskatchewan’s natural wonders, so we’re happy to follow their recommendations:
The Big Muddy Badlands are located close to the Canada-US border and were the first stop on Butch Cassidy’s Outlaw Trail. Castle Butte, a 60-metre high formation with ridges, caves, and coloured layers is a relic of the Ice Age.
While in this area, visit the St. Victor Petroglyphs, more than 300 carvings from 500-1700 AD. Unusually, they were carved on a horizontal surface and are best viewed from above on a clear day, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. There is plenty of wildlife in the coulees created by the melting glaciers. Watch out for eagles, turkey vultures, pronghorn, and white-tailed deer.
The Rock Creek Badlands are located in the East Block of Grasslands National Park and are accessible by car from the Badlands Parkway or by foot. The Parkway follows an escarpment overlooking a maze of gullies and buttes. Western Canada’s first dinosaur bones were found here in 1874 and it is one of the few remaining areas of Greater Short-horned Lizard habitat in Canada.
The Douglas Dunes are located on the eastern shore of Lake Diefenbaker across the road from the main entrance to Douglas Provincial Park. The sand dunes are the only vestige of a massive lake that once covered this area.
They’re so unexpected. In the midst of dry, deserted grasslands are large round, red boulders up to 2.5 metres across at Red Rock Coulee Natural Area, south of Medicine Hat. As the Karpans explain, “The round boulders are concretions, formed millions of years ago when sand, calcite and iron oxide formed and hardened around small nuclei such as leaves or bones. Over time, swirling water added more deposits, which stuck to the formations and made them larger, like layers on an onion. The resulting boulders became harder than the surrounding material, so when erosion carved the coulee, the softer material washed away, leaving the red rocks exposed.” Look out for Prickly Pear and Pincushion Cactus. The Pincushion Cactus’ short, dense spines shield it from the sun. You may also spot Meadow Lark, Horned Lark, or Prairie Falcon.
The Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve, north of Fort McMurray, features 12 m. tall sand dunes that shift south up to 1.5 m. per year. You’ll also find kames, irregularly shaped mounds of sand and rock that were deposited by retreating glaciers.
People have camped beside the Milk River in an area now known as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísinai’pi National Historic Site for thousands of years and have left behind large numbers of rock paintings and carvings indicating a special relationship with this area. The rock art depicts important events and may also be a record of spiritual dreams that occurred during vision quests. The cliffs overlooking the river are broken by coulees and lined with hoodoos, columns of eroded rock. Wooded areas along the river are prime songbird territory.
Worn down over thousands of years by glacial meltwater and erosion, the furrowed, spiky cliffs at the north end of Columbia Lake glow golden in the sunshine. The Nature Conservancy of Canada maintains the Dutch Creek Hoodoos Conservation Area where a 1 km. trail leads you to a lookout at the top of the hoodoos. Bird nests constructed directly on the hoodoos protect nestlings from predators. Violet-green Swallows and White-throated Swifts have built their nests on the rocky cliffs.
The limestone canyons in Marble Canyon Provincial Park near Lillooet were once part of a Pacific island chain. A maze of canyons leading off the main canyon are popular with climbers. A self-guided trail takes you back in time and pictographs have been found in two areas. Pavilion Lake contains large freshwater stromotalites, coral-like structures formed from the fossilized remains of micro-organisms.
Coastal sand dunes occupy the narrow stretch of land between ocean and forest. They’re a fragile ecosystem buffeted by coastal winds and drying out quickly so only the hardiest plants survive the salt spray and lack of water. The coastal dunes are located along the west coast and northern tip of Vancouver Island, the Island’s southeast coast and adjacent Gulf Islands, and Graham Island in the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The tidal flats and salt marshes of Sidney Spit, just across the water from Sidney, overflow with migrating birds during spring and fall migration. You can explore Cortes Island’s coastal dunes at Manson’s Landing, Smelt Bay, or Shark Spit. A community outreach report provides excellent suggestions for appreciating and protecting these fragile areas.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/42315625454