Alberta’s Badass Badlands

Leaving Calgary on Highway 9 on a clear and sunny day in June, we passed seemingly endless fields (some of which were home to the odd cow or horse or tractor) on our way to Alberta’s enigmatic ‘Badlands’. A wild west-esque landscape, the hot and dry Badlands are home to coulees, hoodoos and other rock formations.

The flatness of Calgary means we could see for miles in all directions as we were driving along the highway, so when we saw the sign for Horseshoe Canyon up ahead it seemed difficult to believe that there could be any major changes to the landscape so soon. And yet, as we pulled into the little parking lot, lo and behold, the ground ahead of us fell away to reveal the canyon.

A view of Horseshoe Canyon

A view of Horseshoe Canyon

The layers of rock that you see in the canyon are from the Cretaceous period around 70 million years ago. Once forest and swampland, dinosaurs and other animals once roamed the land here and in the surrounding areas.

Indeed, it is the finding of dinosaur fossils around this region that brings so much interest and tourism. Next on our itinerary was a trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology, based just outside the town of Drumheller. The museum houses an astonishing 130,000 fossils, many discovered in the Alberta Badlands, and is an important research facility.

You can easily pass a good couple of hours in the museum (or more, if your timetable allows), taking in the fossils, life-size replicas – and in many cases, originals – of dinosaur skeletons. The window into the Preparation Lab also allows visitors the opportunity to watch the technicians at work on the fossils. The museum is based in Midlands Provincial Park so it’s a fab setting, and you can walk up to a small viewing platform to take in the sights before heading off.

The Lonely Planet had mentioned a so-called ‘hoodoo trail’ which we were all keen to see, given how impressed we’d been with the hoodoos (thin and often mushroom-like rock formations that comprise of softer rock topped with harder and less erodible rock) that we saw in Utah a few years’ previously. The Lonely Planet’s description and directions were somewhat lacking, so if anyone is planning to see the hoodoos, the best thing is to head towards East Coulee (passing Rosedale station) on Highway 10 until you see the signs.

Hoodoos on the Hoodoo Drive, Alberta

Hoodoos on the Hoodoo Drive, Alberta

There are various viewing platforms from which to see the little hoodoos, and you can also walk in and amongst some of them, so although the hoodoos were not on the scale of those we saw in the US, we’d still say it’s worth the short trip.

On the return you can briefly stop by Wayne, a tiny ‘village’ with a population of around 30 where you can visit the Last Chance Saloon, a genuine bikers’ haven full of old school relics.

Before leaving the Royal Tyrell Museum and Drumheller, though, it’s worth checking out the 48km scenic drive which takes you in a loop from the town and affords excellent views of the Badlands, with plenty of viewing points along the way. Orkney Lookout viewpoint is particularly stunning, with a panoramic view of the Red Deer River. Horsethief Canyon (not to be confused with Horseshoe Canyon) was another great viewpoint along the trail and is definitely worth a stop.

Father Pollard enjoying the view from Orkney Lookout Viewpoint

Father Pollard enjoying the view from Orkney Lookout Viewpoint

Little prairie dog hiding in the grass near Horse Thief Canyon

Little prairie dog hiding in the grass near Horse Thief Canyon

You can also go along the amazingly slow cable ferry across the Red Deer River; I guess they could have made it easier by building a bridge to allow you to cross the short distance, but the novelty factor is high and it is a nice view as you slowly traverse the river.

The following day we headed to Dinosaur Provincial Park, around 48km northeast of Brooks, where we had stayed the night. The sun was blazing again for the whole day, and it was astonishing to imagine that the now almost barren landscape was once a subtropical land home to dinosaurs and other creatures. The discovery of almost 40 species of dinosaur in the park led to it earning a place on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Over 300 fossils found here are now exhibited in various museums around the world.

There are a bunch of walking trails to choose from in the park; we opted for the Coulee Viewpoint trail first as it involved the most scrambling and we thought it better to start with that in the morning before the heat of the day kicked in. Aside from being fun having to scramble up and down in more than a few spots, it provides you with stellar views of the Badlands and Little Sandhill Coulee. It’s wonderfully still and serene up there as you look down across the land, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone visiting the park.

Little Sandhill Coulee

Little Sandhill Coulee

We also walked the Cottonwood Flats trail, which is an easy stroll of around 1.4km through lush forest that shows you the different environments within the park. A word of warning for anyone considering this walk: bring insect repellent!

Cottonwood Flats Trail, Dinosaur Provincial Park

Cottonwood Flats Trail, Dinosaur Provincial Park

The Badlands Trail is another great walking route, allowing you to get up close to some of the weird rock formations and giving you fabulous views of the different colours of the rocks. Information on the landscape and the finding of dinosaur fossils also dot the trail.

If you’re planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies it can be difficult to fit in all the things you’d like to see and do in just one trip, and the temptation may be to head straight from Calgary to Jasper and Banff, understandably two of the best-known and loved areas in the Rocky Mountains.

If you’ve got a little time to spare, though, it is absolutely worth heading east from Calgary  first and visiting the Royal Tyrell Museum, Dinosaur Provincial Park and the scenic views along the way; they really do not disappoint.

That’s all from me for now.  Thanks for reading!

Laura P

Me on the Coulee Viewpoint Trail

Me on the Coulee Viewpoint Trail

 

3 thoughts on “Alberta’s Badass Badlands

  1. Glad you found Horsethief Canyon. I remember hiking down there when our kids were little. They loved climbing on and up the weird formations on the canyon’s sides. Next time, you need to come here and see where the dinosaur bones in that museum mostly come from… Dinosaur Provincial Park. It has some wonderful hikes and you can see the paleontologists in action, if you’re lucky.

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    • Thanks Sheri! It must be a great area to explore for children.

      I did manage to see Dinosaur Provincial Park and really loved some of the hikes there! Didn’t see any palaeontologists at work though, that would have been incredible.

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