Grasslands National Park: Timbergulch Trail (2 days / 17 km)

A beautiful wildlife view in Grasslands Timber gulch

The Timbergulch Trail is a 17 km loop trail through prairie grasslands in the West Block of Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. The trail follows well-posted trail markers through small coulees (drainages, for the non-prairie hiker), across open prairie, valleys and into a prairie dog town.

The terrain is not technical or particularly challenging, with minimal elevation gain. However, what the trail lacks in hiking challenge, it makes up in uniqueness. Hiking the Timbergulch Trail offers a view of the native prairie as it would have been seen hundreds of years ago. Untouched, quiet and subtly beautiful grasses sway in the wind. Hikers can see the park’s free-ranging bison herd roaming about the hummocky terrain, and will spot prairie dogs popping their heads out of mounds. Rattlesnakes may also be found here, though are less common in this part of the park (the Park Office offers snake-bite proof gaiters to hikers free of charge).

I hiked the trail in mid-September and found the park to be nearly empty. There was nobody else hiking while I was on the trail. If you like reading Louis L’Amour, listening to Corb Lund, or just need a quiet escape from civilized life, a night on the Timbergulch Trail will scratch that itch like a bison on a rubbing stone. 

Trip Completed: September 2019

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Eco-Tour Pull-Off #3

Ending Point: Eco-Tour Pull-Off #3

Total Distance: 17 km

Elevation Gain: 280 m

Duration: 1 night / 2 days

Difficulty: Easy hiking, but intermediate-advanced level navigation and wilderness skills are required. 

Location

This route takes place in the West Block of Grasslands National Park.

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Niitsítpiis-stahkoii (Blackfoot / Niitsítapi), Michif Piyii (Métis) and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (source).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: There are no official guidebooks to my knowledge, however, there are online resources available, including the Parks Canada Grasslands National Park Trail Guide. The Park Office is a great source of information as well. 

Map: Canada 072G04, Canada 072G03

Campsite Reservations / Backcountry Permits: There are no specific campsite reservations, however a backcountry permit is required. You can pick up a permit at the Visitor’s Centre / Park Office.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Shuttle: No shuttle is needed as this route starts and ends at the same point.

Outfitters: There are no outfitters operating in this area, so you’ll need to have your own backpacking gear.

Trip Report

Day 1: Eco-Tour Pull-Off #3 to Campsite – Into the Prairie (10 km)

I left Regina mid-morning and drove the ~3 hours to the West-Block of Grasslands National Park. Before heading into the backcountry, I stopped by the visitor’s center in Val Marie to purchase a backcountry permit, discuss trail conditions and pick up a complimentary rental GPS and snake gaiters. I then drove about 20k m into the park, along a nice winding dirt road. The road was quiet, the sun was out and I was feeling great!

I got to the trailhead (a well-signed scenic pullout on the Park’s driving tour) and started to prep my bag. After shoving in as much water as I could fit (there is none available on the trail), I took off down a small hill and onto the Timbergulch Trail. 

At first, I was nervous about navigating, as my research had told me there was no defined trail, and the Park-provided GPS did not include any navigating waypoints. However, I was quickly relieved to find signposts laid out every couple hundred meters through the entire route. After descending through a short coulee, I began walking through native long grass prairie across the gently undulating terrain.

It was not long before I saw my first bison, a lone, blurry lump off in the distance. As I walked further into the backcountry, the bison sightings became more frequent and closer. Soon, I began veering my route to avoid getting too close to the free-roaming herds. After about an hour and a half of hiking, I came to “The Tree”, a single Manitoba Maple tree bravely holding its own against the prairie wind. This is the only large vegetation present for dozens of kilometres in any direction! After maybe another 45 minutes, the trail descended into a wide river valley and began to veer south. This indicated to me that the trail was beginning to loop back and that I had reached the midpoint. 

There are no official campsites along the trail. Backcountry users may camp anywhere they wish, so long as the camp is one kilometre from the trail, and they follow Leave-No-Trace practices. I hiked east across the valley and climbed a rise, looking for a scenic spot to pitch my tent. Before setting up camp I watched a distant herd of bison for a while, ensuring that they were moving away from my campsite. When I was satisfied that they were not on course to meet me, I pitched my tent and dug into my dinner: premade burritos.

Grasslands have limited water sources, and there are none on the Timbergulch, so I opted to eat a premade meal to lessen the need for cooking/cleaning water. I watched the sunset across the valley, then tucked into my tent. I chose to camp at a high point for the view-but as darkness settled in, I realized that my campsite also offered zero shelter from the wind. I huddled in my sleeping bag as the unobstructed prairie wind blasted the side of my tent. Eventually, I settled into a fitful sleep. 

Campsite: No official campsites. I chose a windy spot on the eastern edge of a valley, 1 km from the trail as per Park rules. 

Day 2: Campsite to Eco-Tour Pull-Off #3 – Lord of Dogtown (7 km)

I woke up with the sunrise and poked my head out into the crisp fall air. To my surprise, a bison was wallowing in a clay pit on the valley floor, only 200 m from me! I quickly packed up my camp and gave the bison space to enjoy his wallow. I found my way back to the trail and began walking west, back toward the trailhead.

The trail passes through a prairie dog colony along the way. I was not expecting to spend much time watching the little rodents, but as I approached the colony and saw sentry dogs popping out of their mounds, my attitude quickly changed. The prairie dogs were cute and fun to watch. I began crawling on my belly, seeing how close I could get to the erect sentries before they began to squeak and retreat to their mounds. I probably spent an hour in and around the colony watching the prairie dogs run around and pop out of holes. After a good amount of time, and dozens of photos, I decided to leave the prairie dogs be and walked the remaining trail back to my car.

Upon arriving, I cracked a can of coke and dove into a stashed bag of snacks. As I was doing so, an American couple drove up to the pullout. “Where do we see the bison?” they asked me. I gazed across the prairie but was met only with a sea of grass. “I’m sorry,” I said, “You’ll have to take a hike if you want to see them”. I packed up my car, then began the drive home, opting to take secondary gravel highways and listening to Johnny Cash the whole way home.

Reflections

I hiked the Timbergulch Trail in September, after a summer of reading westerns and listening to country. I found solitude and the prairie landscape that I had been dreaming about. This hike is a great opportunity to spend time alone in the quiet wilderness. It would also make a good first backpacking trip. I would definitely hike the Timbergulch again, but would opt to pitch my tent in a much more sheltered location!

Due to dry conditions and the susceptibility of the area to grass fires, campfires are not allowed and camp stoves are sometimes banned in the driest seasons. There is no opportunity to refill water on this trail. Wild bison and rattlesnakes may be seen along the trail. Interpreters at the visitor’s center can offer information on trail conditions and tips for encounters with wildlife in the park. 

Gallery


Author Bio

Hey! I’m Liam! I am passionate about paddling and hiking, and have guided paddling trips in Manitoba and in Algonquin Provincial Park. My favorite river is the Bloodvein in Manitoba, followed closely by the Manigotagan. When I’m not paddling I work as a geologist.

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