Parks Canada
Credit: Parks Canada

In Saskatchewan, what’s very, very old is new again.

Enter the Valley of 1,000 Devils — a recently accessible backcountry area in the East Block of Grasslands National Park that’s been 66 million years in the making.

Though the 65-hectare valley is characterized by its huge expanses of red-clay hoodoos — harbouring 12-metre-long Hadrosaur fossils, 10-point mule deer, nesting golden eagles and famous paleontological explorations like the Sternberg Dig of 1921 — Brenda Peterson, Interpretation Officer at the park’s McGowen Visitor Centre, also finds fascination in the little things.

“What’s really neat is if you get to see a short-horned lizard — they live on yellow umbrella plants. If you get to see one, go out and buy a lottery ticket because it’s your lucky day… it’s like a little dinosaur,” she says. 

Of course, these hoodoos have been exposed since the Western Interior Seaway dried up at the start of the Paleogene Period, but the visitor centre in the East Block of this already under-visited park is only three years old. Because of that, prairie-bound backpackers are rediscovering 1,000 Devils. And while valley visitors may uncover Aboriginal tepee rings and burial sites or spot prancing deer and scurrying jackrabbits, Peterson maintains geology and palaeontology are the two biggest draws to 1,000 Devils. 

“There are dinosaur bones sticking out everywhere,” she says, adding that one can also see first-hand the passage of geological time. “You’ll see a black strip in the hoodoos, that’s coal, followed by a white line — that’s the K-T Line. Everything above that is the rebuilding of the Earth, everything below that is more than 65.5 million years old.”

The dinosaurs, and three-quarters of life on Earth, went extinct at the same time the K-T Line was formed, probably following an asteroid impact. Since the East Block of Grasslands National Park was at the edge of a prehistoric sea, fossils of fishes and turtles as well as Hadrosaurs and Triceratops have been found below the area’s K-T line. (Peterson says scientists have come from around the globe to study in this area, stating, “The jury is still out on what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.”) Having also escaped the ravages of the last Ice Age, the valley is rife with unique geomorphologic opportunities.

“When looking at the hoodoos, you’ll see stripes, which represent ‘time slices,’” Peterson expounds. “You’re looking at so many millions of years — it’s an incredible feeling.”

There are a few different options for exploring the Valley of 1,000 Devils. Most people tent at the East Block Visitor Centre Campground and make day trips within. Some intrepid hikers stay out in the hoodoos overnight, and, according to Peterson, at least one regular visitor plants water caches around the valley and makes multi-day trips. But the lack of H2O within the valley limits most interior trips to an overnight. 

 “Hiking terrain is rolling prairie,” Peterson explains, adding it can hit 40 degrees Celsius in midsummer, making June one of the best times to visit. “Otherwise, you’d better pick a cool day.” But don’t go too early or late in the season — when wet, the clay hoodoos are as slippery as grease. When dry, though, it’s like walking on popcorn. 

“When we were kids, we used to slide down them on the seat of our pants,” Peterson laughs. “But the coolest thing is the quiet. You don’t hear human noises. It’s just the wind. I don’t know how you can get closer to nature.”

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.