We drove toward Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park on Township Road 344. One minute the Albertan plains stretched before us. The next minute, the road jerked to the left, and the ground ahead fell away. The Red Deer River had carved a monstrous gash in the land, and we were looking down into it. We knew we were approaching the Alberta Badlands, but we weren’t prepared for the lack of transition from flatlands to badlands. We felt as if we were about to emulate Thelma and Louise’s flight into oblivion.
One and a half hours from Calgary, oblivion does beckon souls into a time portal. The Cretaceous Period, prehistory, and the Industrial Revolution all await visitors at the Alberta Badlands. The time portal centers around Drumheller, one of our best day trips from Calgary.
Here are five reasons you need to visit Canada’s incredible badlands.
1. You Can Explore Dry Island, Where The Albertosaurus Roared And The Buffalo Jumped
At Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, the cliffs plummet 147 feet. In contrast, a mesa rises above the badlands. Wind and water carved away the sedimentary rock around the mesa until it rose alone, a dry island. Its inaccessibility preserved the prairie grasses, untouched by any plow. The folded, hoodoo-filled landscape is spectacular in the fall when yellow leaves set the park ablaze with color.
The Plains Cree tribe stampeded bison over the cliffs, then processed them for food, tools, and other goods.
Beneath the bison bones lurked fossils of immense proportions. Dry Island has the premier Albertosaurus bonebed, but other remains like clams, turtles, fish, and mammals are also remnants of life 63–68 million years ago.
Animals have not deserted the park. Birders have found 150 bird species. Pack a picnic and bring your trekking and fishing poles. You’ll want to hike and fish. Enjoy the quiet in a canoe on the Red Deer River.
Pro Tip: In wet weather, beware of the road’s steep grade to the river.
2. And Look Out Of The World’s Largest Dinosaur In Drumheller
If you had been alive when Tyra the Towering Tyrannosaur existed, you would have cowered below her terrifying teeth and claws. But have no fear. While the 86-foot-tall Tyra is 4.5 times larger than her tyrannical predecessor, the World’s Largest Dinosaur won’t bite. Instead, climb up the stairs inside the 151-foot-long monster to look over Drumheller and the badlands beyond. Ironically, her ferocious teeth form the fence that protects you from falling. Buy a souvenir of your encounter at the gift shop below.
Pro Tip: Look for more dinosaur statues and murals in the Town of Drumheller. Eat a Flathead Burger — made with bison meat — at the Last Chance Saloon. Stay at the Heartwood Inn & Spa.
3. Or Marvel At Alberta’s Fossil Monsters At The Royal Tyrrell Museum
The fossils unearthed at Dry Island take shape at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller. It’s one of our 6 Best Places To Experience Dinosaurs In Canada. The Cretaceous Alberta exhibit displays a group of Albertosaurus clothed in skin. One of them has a horrendous overbite. I thought of the Big Bad Wolf: “Oh, Grandmother, what big teeth you have!”
See descendants of Cretaceous plants in the Cretaceous Garden exhibit. In the Dinosaur Hall, Triceratops and Camarasaurus must beware of the Tyrannosaurus rex. Gigantic mammals take center stage in the Cenozoic Gallery. Imagine the pain of a mammoth’s toothache.
4. You Can Descend 70 Million Years Back In Time At Horseshoe Canyon
Imagine the Albertan plains covered in giant plants, where massive dinosaurs strolled. That era lies at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon, 10.5 miles west of Drumheller. The current landscape is opposite of what it was during the tropical Cretaceous Period. Now the land is scarred. Between the canyon’s three-mile-long arms, striped, wrinkled mesas rise above gashed watercourses.
Near the parking lot, the park provides a picnic area and two overlooks. The official trail to the bottom is half a mile long, but numerous side trails branch off the main one. And speaking of Canadian trails, be sure to check out our article on the Trans Canada Trail — Canada’s Great Trail.
5. And Walk With The Dinosaurs In Dinosaur Provincial Park
Forty-four species of Cretaceous dinosaurs came from the ground at Dinosaur Provincial Park, 2 hours southeast of Drumheller. These discoveries earned UNESCO World Heritage Site status. At the park, you can find fossils. Just don’t take one home. That’s illegal.
As soon as you exit the car, head for the entrance sign area and the park’s best view. Start exploring on the Trail of the Fossil Hunters, an easy half-mile walk. Two fossil houses contain real fossils. It leads to a bonebed, found at the beginning of Alberta fossil hunting. Signs introduce paleontologists.
Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat would love the Badlands Interpretive Trail — under a mile in length. Its mushroom-shaped hoodoos would provide plenty of places for him to advise Alice. The trail is slightly more challenging than the Fossil Hunters Trail. The badlands trail is the only self-guided way to visit the park’s nature preserve. Otherwise, reserve a spot on a guided tour.
Check out more strange badlands topography on the half-mile, medium-difficulty Coulee Viewpoint Trail. The trail heads upwards to a ridge that overlooks Little Sandhill Coulee. If you’re camping at the park’s campground, use that trailhead.
To visit the park, follow these directions. Visitor center parking is limited to accessible parking. Instead, park at the Cretaceous Café a short distance away.
When hiking in the badlands, bring plenty of water, especially in the summer. The heat and wind can be brutal. The parks are the most beautiful in the spring and fall. Avoid hiking during wet weather because the soil will be slippery. The trails are not accessible, and neither is cell phone service. Beware of prairie rattlesnakes.
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