If you like to play in the sand, Saskatchewan should be at the top of your must-do list. The province has the largest and greatest variety of sand dunes in the country, including Canada’s biggest and second-biggest dune fields. Here are our top four choices, each offering something special. The best news is that all but one are easy to visit.
Good Spirit Lake Dunes
The dunes are part of Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park in east-central Saskatchewan. The park’s key feature is the fine sandy beach that stretches for a few kilometres along the lakeshore. It was once named by Maclean’s Magazine as among the Top 10 Beaches in Canada. When water levels are low, as they have been in the past few years, sandbars of all shapes and sizes emerge like a maze, adding to the attractive lakeshore landscape.
Visiting the sand dunes is a simple matter of walking along the beach. Dunes adjacent to the eastern shore can be up to five stories high, interspersed with low shrubs and other vegetation. To protect the fragile vegetation, the park installed a boardwalk and a short interpretive trail through the higher dunes. Signs help you discover how the dunes were formed and why this landscape is so special.
We try to time our visits either early or late in the day when a warm glow spreads across the landscape. This is also prime time to come across deer, moose, shorebirds, and other wildlife. On one evening walk, we watched a bull moose casually browsing near the dune edge, unaware that we were even there.
The park is also home to a section of the Trans Canada Trail, or Great Trail. It parallels the beach but runs mostly behind the dunes away from the lake. One option is to follow the lakeshore as far as you like then return to the park’s core area along the Trans Canada Trail.
How to Get to Good Spirit Lake Dunes
Good Spirit Lake is a short drive north of the Yellowhead Highway (#16). At the town of Springside, about 24 kilometres northwest of Yorkton along Highway 16, turn north onto Highway 47 and follow the well-signed route. The only practical way to visit this and other road-accessible sand dunes in Saskatchewan is to drive your own vehicle.
The park’s large campground also has a few Camp-Easy sites which are equipped with yurts or tents. Nearby resorts offer rooms and cabins for rent. Another option is to stay in Yorkton, about a half hour away, which has a wide array of accommodations.
Another set of dunes lies within Douglas Provincial Park, along the east shore of Lake Diefenbaker, southern Saskatchewan’s largest lake. They originated from a huge glacial lake that left deposits here thousands of years ago. Unlike Good Spirit Lake, these dunes do not line the water but are a bit inland.
It’s about a three-kilometre hike along the Cacti Trail to reach the dune field. The trail winds through a delightful mix of aspen trees and open meadows. As the name suggests, this is a great place to see cactus in bloom in summer, including the lemony-yellow flowers of the prickly pear cactus, and the reddish-pink pincushion cactus blossoms.
A spur trail off the Cacti Trail leads to the active dunes, a massive expanse of drifting sand, bowl-shaped blowouts, and trees with exposed roots trying their best to cling to life. Other bits of vegetation precariously seek out a living as well. In some places, tiny blades of grass have been whipped around in the wind with such force that they etched circles in the sand.
Most visitors tend to wander around the closest parts of the dunes, so this area is often covered with footprints. But if you venture a little farther, the only footprints you’ll find will be those left by the wildlife that frequents the area, including deer, moose, coyotes, rabbits, birds, and bugs. After just an hour or so of hiking, you will feel as if you have been transported to an exotic, other-worldly landscape.
Our favourite time to do the hike is late afternoon and early evening, both for the pleasing lower light that accentuates the colour and contours of the dune field and because a summer day can be extremely hot with little shade.
While we consider the dunes the highlight of the park, other trails merit a look as well. Short and sweet, the two-kilometre Sunset Trail provides a great introduction to the lakeside landscape. It’s so-named because of the impressive sunset views within easy reach of the campground. More ambitious hikers can explore a longer section of the Trans Canada Trail that runs the length of the park near the lake. Beach life, watersports, and fishing round out the park’s main attractions.
How to Get to Douglas Dunes
Douglas Provincial Park is along Highway 19 on the east shore of Lake Diefenbaker, roughly equidistant between Saskatoon and Regina. Since the park is not close to major towns or cities, it is mainly a camping destination. A couple of yurts are available for those without camping gear. The nearby village of Elbow also offers limited accommodation.
The Great Sand Hills Saskatchewan
Located in southwestern Saskatchewan, these are the second largest dunes in Canada. They are also the easiest to visit – just drive right up to them. Covering 1,900 square kilometres, the Great Sand Hills are among the largest expanses of native mixed-grass prairie in the province. Although active sand dunes make up less than 5% of the area, they are clearly the most impressive. Unlike other locations outlined here, which are part of provincial parks, these are located in a grazing area in the midst of ranching country.
The dunes tend to take you by surprise. Suddenly there they are, massive walls of sand rising next to the road. Take time to read the signs near the parking area that introduce you to the unique nature of this region. After that, you’re free to wander.
We like to venture to the more distant dunes, away from visitors’ footprints. Every dune seems to be slightly different, with variations in the contours and ripples. Tree trunks sometimes poke above the surface after being inundated by blowing sand. Vegetation has a tough time surviving here, though one species that feels perfectly at home is Sand Dock, its brilliant red flowers adding a splash of colour in early summer.
Wildlife such as deer and pronghorn commonly roam throughout the region, and in the evening you might see small, mouse-like animals scampering across the roads. These could be rare Ord’s kangaroo rats, tiny rodents that are most active at night. To see what they look like, check out the series of larger-than-life wildlife sculptures in the town of Leader, including this peculiar-looking critter with its unusual kangaroo-like back legs.
How to Get to the Great Sand Dunes
The most convenient place to start is Leader at the junctions of Highway 21 and 32, just south of the South Saskatchewan River, and close to the border with Alberta. Head east along Highway 32 for about 20 kilometres to the village of Sceptre, where your first stop should be the Great Sand Hills Museum and Interpretive Centre to get oriented to the area.
Drive to the east side of Sceptre and take the first gravel road heading south. It’s about 20 kilometres to the dunes along a well-marked route. If you want to stay the night, Leader has accommodation and other services. On a hot day, be sure to stop at Leader’s Big 10-4 Drive Inn for ice cream. If you happen to be on a road trip, don’t forget to head further south to the stunning Grasslands National Park.
Athabasca Sand Dunes
Stretching for 100 kilometres along the south shore of Lake Athabasca, these are the largest dunes in Canada and the largest this far north anywhere in the world. They are also among the world’s most unusual dunes. Unlike desert dunes, these are in the midst of boreal forest, next to one of Canada’s larger lakes, and are intersected by three rivers.
While it’s the stunning scenery that seems most obvious, a prime reason for protecting the area in Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park was the special plant life. Around 50 species are considered rare, and some are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. There are oddities like the delicate flowers of sand chickweed that grow out of pure sand or the red ball-like flowers of the Athabasca thrift.
Highlights include the remote giant dunes of the William River Dune Field, some over 30 metres high and a kilometre long. And along the lakeshore, we enjoyed exploring unusual pockets of exhumed forest – trees that were once overtaken by drifting sand were then uncovered years later as prevailing winds moved the dunes farther east.
The William River is like a narrow ribbon bordered by massive walls of sand in places. Wild whitewater typifies the upper stretches of the river. But as it approaches the delta in Lake Athabasca, it becomes so clogged with sand that it expands into a half-kilometre-wide braided stream with not a rock in sight. Everywhere we look, we find the magical mix of sand, water, and forest.
How to Visit the Athabasca Sand Dunes
While a provincial park, the area is purposely kept wild, with no roads, no buildings, no people, no scheduled transport, and no infrastructure of any kind. Visiting means being self-sufficient for wilderness camping. It’s not an easy place to go and getting there is pricey. During our visit, we canoed on the William River (only feasible if water levels are high enough) and along the south shore of Lake Athabasca. The exposed south shore is wide open to the elements with no deep bays or islands, so getting storm-stayed by huge waves is almost inevitable.
Some people visit the dunes by hiking, and this is a lot easier to arrange than bringing in a canoe. Options are to get dropped off by a float plane or arrange for boat transport from one of the Lake Athabasca communities such as Stony Rapids, Fond du Lac, or Uranium City, none of which are close.
The main service centre for the lake is Stony Rapids which has an airport with scheduled service from the south, and a float plane base where you can charter flights. Stony Rapids is accessible by road, but it’s over 1,000 kilometres from Saskatoon and very rough in places.
We are aware of only one operator, Churchill River Canoe Outfitters, who usually offers one trip each summer. They fly to the south shore and then hike from a base camp. When planning a visit, the best is to first contact Tourism Saskatchewan for current information on who is offering services. The Athabasca Sand Dunes certainly isn’t easy to visit, but the few people who do reach the area each year enjoy an unparalleled experience.
Looking for Things to Do in Saskatchewan?
As you can see, Saskatchewan is a great place for outdoor adventure. Whether you’re looking to visit sand dunes, explore one of the many lakes, witness the spectacular badlands, or hang out in a small hip city, Saskatchewan is perhaps Canada’s most underrated province. For more ideas on what to do, check out our travel guides below: