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Coronach, a small town in south central Saskatchewan, just six miles (10 kilometers) north of the Canada/US border, is the best place to begin tours of the Big Muddy Badlands and Butch Cassidy's Outlaw Trail.

Castle Butte and prickly pear cactus
Castle Butte and prickly pear cactus
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You can choose from full-day badlands tours, by van, or half-day and full-day private guided tours in your own vehicle. Because some outlaw sites and First Nations stone effigies are on private land, accessible only by unmarked gravel roads, it is difficult to find them on your own, without a tour. Besides, you would miss your guide's informative commentary.

First Nations stone circle

Our badlands tour guide was Betty Schmidt, who lives on a ranch in the Big Muddy region of southern Saskatchewan. On tour began with a drive to a ceremonial stone circle, once used by First Nations for gatherings.

A ranch gate blocked our route with a sign reading: "Giles Ranch: Trespassers will be given a fair trial then hung." We ignored the warning, opened the gate, drove through, closed the gate and continued driving.

Today, a kidney-shaped circle of stones, 82 feet (25 meters) long and 59 feet (18 meters wide), is all that remains of the large boulders that once held down animal hides covering the First Nations ceremonial lodge.

Bison effigy

A short drive away, we found a 30-foot (nine-meter)-long effigy of a turtle. The stones most likely surrounded the grave of a very important Indian chief, because the turtle represented long life, wisdom and fertility to First Nations people.

First Nations ceremonial circle
First Nations ceremonial circle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Even more symbolic was the nearby stone outline of a buffalo, the only bison effigy known in Canada. The bison was the staff of life for Plains Indians, providing food, shelter, clothing and tools.

For the First Nations people, who once lived in southern Saskatchewan, these wild and broken badlands of deeply cut ravines, weathered buttes and eroded sandstone, were holy places to pray and fast. The Big Muddy was also a place of refuge for Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors, following the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana in 1876.

After only five years of hunting buffalo in Canada, food became so scarce, that friction developed between the Sioux and Canadian tribes. A year later, Sitting Bull was persuaded to return to his homeland.

Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid

Shortly afterward, the outlaw troubles began. The 1880s brought drought to much of the United States. Beef prices dropped, fortunes were lost overnight, and ranchers, unable to afford hired help, released most of their cowhands. Some of the jobless, homeless cow-punchers drifted north into Saskatchewan and formed gangs that rustled cattle, robbed trains and terrorized ranchers.

Cave used by outlaw Sam Kelly to hide horses
Cave used by outlaw Sam Kelly to hide horses
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

One gang, led by Butch Cassidy, laid out an escape route that stretched from Canada to Mexico, with way stations every 79 miles (24 kilometers) for providing fresh horses and supplies. The Big Muddy was Station No. 1.

Although members of Butch Cassidy's gang took refuge in Saskatchewan, when American authorities were hot on their heels, it's uncertain if Cassidy personally used the hideout. His sidekick, the Sundance Kid, however, was a frequent visitor.

Outlaw caves

Also in the Big Muddy Badlands was the Nelson-Jones Gang, with Nelson, alias Sam Kelly, as the ringleader. In 1903, Sam Kelly joined forces with Dutch Henry, a notorious horse thief, who was assisted by outlaws named Bloody Knife and Pigeon Toe Kid.

Together, the gangs were known as the Wild Bunch. Stealing as many as 200 horses on one drive, they would alter their brands, herd them into Canada, sell them, and then steal them again for resale back in Montana and the Dakotas.

The Big Muddy was an ideal haven for outlaws. The sparsely populated badlands were riddled with caves and coulees (gulches). Sam Kelly enlarged a weathered wolf den for his living quarters and used a nearby cave to hide his horses.

Today, with the exception of a sign reading: "Sam Kelly's Outlaw Caves," the caves remain much as he left them. We had to squat down to avoid bumping our heads as we entered Kelly's cave.

It was dark and cool inside. A battered trunk sat on the ground. According to our Coronach guide, there used to be a saddle inside Sam Kelly's cave, as well. But it disappeared — no doubt rustled by modern-day bandits.

Climbing Castle Butte
Climbing Castle Butte
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Castle Butte

Sam Kelly's cave was a good hideout because water was nearby and Peak Butte was an ideal vantage point, just a short distance from the Saskatchewan/American border. We had the opportunity to view the surroundings from another lookout, Castle Butte.

The 197-foot (60-meter-high) relic from the Ice Age was once used as a landmark by First Nations people, outlaws and settlers. From a distance, it looks like a pyramid with a flattened top, but up close, its eroded clay slopes are alive with flora and fauna.

As we skirted its circumference, we stopped to admire the yellow flowers of a prickly pear cactus. A squirrel scampered by, its mouth stuffed with dry grass for a nest. And just 160 feet (50 meters) away, a scruffy-looking coyote eyed us warily before slinking away through the sage brush.

North West Mounted Police

The lawlessness of the Saskatchewan badlands was curtailed when the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), forerunners of today's Royal Canadian Mounted Police, arrived on the scene, in 1902, and established a two-man post in the Big Muddy. In 1904, it was expanded to a five-man detachment headed by Corporal Bird, an energetic Mountie who gained a reputation as "the man who never sleeps."

The NWMP soon brought the outlaws under control. The Big Muddy North West Mounted Police Post continued to operate as a customs and quarantine station, until it closed in 1936. A deteriorating concrete foundation is all that remains of the NWMP post today.

In 1975, Montie Montana, the famous trick roper, came to the Big Muddy to help unveil a cairn at the site. (Montana grew up at a nearby homestead.)

Sam Kelly

When the outlaw era was over, Sam Kelly settled down as a rancher. (Murder was difficult to prove in those days, because many of the shootings were considered to be in self defence.) Kelly kept pretty much to himself, although neighbors told stories about his ability to dehorn a steer with his 30-30 at 320 feet (100 meters).

It was also rumored that, from time to time, members of the old gang would visit Kelly. The way that his rain barrel was tipped was a signal as to whether or not it was safe to be in the area. Sam Kelly died in North Battleford in 1954.

Aust's Store in Big Beaver, Saskatchewan
Aust's Store in Big Beaver, Saskatchewan
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Big Beaver

Many tours of the Big Muddy and Saskatchewan badlands stop at Big Beaver (named after the large beavers found by workers who put the CPR lines through the area).

Although Big Beaver is a tiny community, it supports an interesting nature center and museum. Amid the arrowheads, rocks for making pemmican, stuffed beavers, badgers and bobcats, you'll find a preserved bull snake in a bottle, a 14-inch (36-centimeter)-wide maple leaf and a stuffed timber wolf. It used to display stuffed birds, as well, until a raccoon snuck in one night and defeathered them.

Besides the nature center, the main reason to visit Big Beaver is Aust's Store, which dates back to 1958. The general store stocks an amazing inventory. Among the items we spotted during our visit were strawberries and watermelons, canned goods and frozen foods, soap and seeds, jeans and cowboy boots, saws, wrenches and other tools.

We now know why the owners of Big Beaver's only store tell customers: "If we don't have it, you don't need it!"

Our 112-mile (180-kilometer) Saskatchewan Badlands tour ended in Coronach, about 6.5 hours after it began.


Big Muddy Badlands Tours from Coronach: townofcoronach.ca/discover/big-muddy/

Tourism Saskatchewan: www.tourismsaskatchewan.com

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Saskatchewan Vacations - What To See and Do

Saskatchewan B&B Farm Vacations

Regina Saskatchewan Tours - What To See and Do

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Eastend Saskatchewan T. Rex Discovery Tour