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Always good for a surprise: Saskatchewan’s Big Muddy Badlands

Castle Butte Big Muddy Badlands Gangster Romantik
Castle Butte, Big Muddy Badlands - Credit: Tourism Saskatchewan / Paul Austring

Talking about the Big Muddy Badlands in the far south-east of Saskatchewan you would probably expect a muddy experience. Muddy and perhaps a little dull. But what’s the saying? Saskatchewan is always good for a surprise – so true! Nothing is “muddy” here – how could it be, with the most beautiful prairie sunshine? With its extraordinary landscapes and thrilling history of outlaws it’s also anything but dull!

Big Muddy Badlands - Credit Tourism Saskatchewan & Dave Reede Photography

The Big “not-so-muddy” Badlands

Guided tours through the Big Muddy Badlands start in the little cozy town of Coronach, about a two-hour drive south of Regina. There are different tour types on offer that can and should be booked ahead of time.

On the full-day tour visitors leave Coronach on board a small bus and with a tour of 180 kilometres ahead of them. The fascinating landscape of the Badlands is gluing everyone’s eyes to the windows: weathered peaks, conical hills, steep cliffs and formations of eroded clay and sandstone deposits. Some even look like petrified tree trunks!

The hilly scenery of the Big Muddy Valley was created at the end of the last ice age by huge amounts of meltwater. The sandstone erosion channel runs from Willow Bunch in Saskatchewan to Plentywood in Montana. The valley is 55 kilometres long, 3.2 kilometres wide and up to 160 metres deep. Over the centuries, further erosion has rounded the hills and formed the passages and caves that make the region so interesting. The Big Muddy Badlands live up to their name – but only when it rains. The soil in the region is very loose and contains lots of silty clay, which becomes extremely muddy and slippery when wet. So, the first guess isn’t that bad after all… How nice that Saskatchewan belongs to the sunniest provinces in Canada with over 2,500 hours of sunshine per year!

Castle Butte is impossible to miss. The 70-metre-high rock made of sandstone and pressed clay rises mightily from the flat prairie landscape and has quite a resemblance with Uluru / Ayers Rock in Australia. Phenomenal! Castle Butte has always served as a landmark – for the officers of the Royal North West Mounted Police, the early settlers and even the First Nations.

Castle Butte - Credit: Tourism Saskatchewan

Indigenous relics can be found throughout the region: ceremonial circles, historic bison jumps used for bison hunting and, last but not least, extraordinary stone effigies with names such as Minton Turtle or Big Beaver Buffalo, which contribute to the sacredness and magic of the landscape.


Old-fashioned gangster romance

It's not long before you come across the tracks of a wild bunch of outlaws who terrified the region in the late 19th and early 20th century. When stricter laws were introduced in the area just 20 kilometres – or one hill – across the border from what is now the U.S. state of Montana, the gangsters headed for Canada to “disappear” into the many caves and tunnels of the Big Muddy Badlands and hide from law enforcement and pursuers. Hardly anyone lived in the region at the time and the nearest major Royal North-West Mounted Police post was about 150 kilometres to the west in Wood Mountain – a two to three day ride on horseback at that time. In Big Muddy itself there was only a small and sparsely staffed police station. Patrols were sparse and irregular – ideal conditions for the outlaws! Threats of violence and intimidation ensured that the few inhabitants of the region tolerated the gangsters’ activities or even lent a helping hand.

Villains such as Dutch Henry and Butch Cassidy regularly appeared in the Big Muddy. The latter was initially a good cattle farmer before he became a bank and railroad robber, head of the gang “The Wild Bunch” and was up to mischief together with the “Sundance Kid” in the late 1890s. It was also Butch Cassidy who organized the so-called “Outlaw Trail” at this time – a trek for outlaws that meandered its way from Saskatchewan via Montana, Colorado and Arizona to Mexico. The Big Muddy Badlands formed the northern end of this trail. The cunning outlaw made sure that the refugees along the trail were provided with a fresh horse every 15-20 kilometres by a friendly (or frightened?!?) farmer. A ranch outside Big Beaver was the first stop. Chasers and law enforcement officers almost always only saw the criminals from behind and were left frustrated in a cloud of dust.

A taste of old-fashioned gangster romance is guaranteed when visiting Sam Kelly’s Outlaw Cave. The most dangerous of all villains could supposedly shoot a cow’s horn off from 100 yards away. Brutal bank and train robberies as well as cattle rustling were on his agenda. The outlaw lived in his cave in Big Muddy for several years before deciding to return to the straight and narrow and end his life as a good farmer in Saskatchewan. He died of natural causes at the age of almost 80.

Sam Kelly Outlaw Caves - Credit: Tourism Saskatchewan & Eric Lindberg


 Further information can be found at and at


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