The Great Sand Hills in Saskatchewan are an anomaly in the prairies. Much like other unique spots nearby (Dinosaur Park, Writing on Stone and Red Rock Coulee) when you are there you feel transported to another place. In this case, the Sahara Desert. Of course the effect is more complete if you visit in the middle of the summer when it's hot. We happened to be there when it was terribly cold but it was still beautiful. It might have been even more otherworldly in the cold, it's such a strange juxtaposition to have a landscape like a desert but freezing temperatures.
After parking, before we headed over to the dunes, we climbed up the closest hill to check out the boots. I don't know who started it, but someone began nailing old boots to a wooden frame. The tradition has continued and now the frame is completely full of boots. There are lots of ranchers and farmers in the area and I suppose it's a tribute to them.
For me, it's a thought provoking place. The sky is so big and it's so unlikely to have all this sand piled up in the middle of the prairies. I feel close to the earth in this spot and I marvel at how nature and wind and glaciers have worked together to make this. The sand hills are dynamic, they are constantly shifting and moving and it's hard not to think of them as having their own life. They are these big blobs of sand moving and dancing around on the prairies and occasionally covering up a tree.
The sand was left behind during the ice age, when glaciers covered Canada. From Wikipedia: "between 2 to 3 million years ago, the prairies were covered by a glacier, the Laurentide ice sheet." and "The melting glaciers left behind sand and, silt outwash plains. The Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan are evidence of winds and sand storms which have accumulated the sands left behind."
The kids loved it. They did not want to leave. They ran and jumped and played, completely fascinated by all this soft, fine sand that was miles and miles from any kind of beach. They loved putting their hands into it and making prints and marks. The sand on this day was cold, it was dense, and whatever moisture in it was a bit frozen. But they didn't mind. Cold or not, they were not leaving until they had their fill of this strange place.
If you want to visit, there is a museum in Sceptre, SK and you can get directions from there. There are no campgrounds, as it's a protected area but there is a campsite nearby in Leader, SK. If you are coming from southern Alberta, take the 21 north to Liebenthal and then east on the 321. The road will end at a ranch, take a left over the cattle gate and into the area. Keep driving on the sandy road until you get to the parking area. You can't miss the dunes!
I've had friends who have taken snowboards and sleds there. On the east side of the dunes there are some really steep drop offs that are fun to run or slide down. And I bet it would be incredible out there with a full moon. Beware of the animals though! We saw prints in the sand that might have been from a large cat like a cougar or a bobcat.
Below is a Google Map of what the area looks like from space. We visited just one sand dune, the most southern one, but there are quite a few and the area is quite large.
If you have never been there, and you are in Alberta or Saskatchewan, you should certainly go check it out. If you HAVE been there, leave me a comment and tell me about your visit. Did you ever get the sand out of your pockets? No? Neither have I.
Here are some excerpts from Dave Yanko's visit to the Dunes:
Over the course of a year, these active "morphing" dunes can creep as much as four metres (13 feet), and they even leave "dune tracks" that can be measured. The overall shape of active dunes appears arbitrary to the untrained eye, but each falls into a category based on its features. One geologist found examples of 19 "dune types" in The Great Sand Hills, including "compound blowout dunes", "composite windrift dunes" and "twin parabolic dunes".
Judging by all the rills, dales and blustery activity on the top of the dune, the active ones are dynamic in ways more complex than sand simply blowing from the windward to the leeward side. Time-lapse photography, perhaps over the course of years rather than hours, would illustrate a surprising degree of animation in these dunes, which occasionally recede as well as advance.
The Great Sand Hills have long been a favorite spot for artifact collectors. Once rich in buffalo as well as mule deer and antelope, the area attracted Indian hunters 11,000 years ago. Archaeological "habitation sites" are much more common in the hills than on the surrounding plains because the hills provided all the necessities for life, and one important convenience, as well. Game could be trapped in "killing grounds" instead of stalked and chased on the open plains.
The hills are a treasure-trove of wildlife. Sharp-tailed grouse are more abundant here than anywhere else in Canada, and the mule deer population is the densest in the province. Antelope, white pelican, merlin, peregrine falcon, coyote, white-tailed deer, golden eagle, badger, weasel, burrowing owl, mourning dove, porcupine, sand hill crane and fox are just a few of the walking and winged creatures who make the hills their home. The desert-adapted Ord's Kangaroo Rat is found nowhere else in the province.