Alberta Badlands
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  Posted May 22nd, 2017 by Zdenko  in Edmonton, Travel | No comments yet.

Travel Alberta

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Take a walk on the wild side
I’ve already spent a lot of time traveling around Alberta, because I love to explore new territories. I always wanted to experience Alberta like the locals do so one sunny day when we were both off work Vera and I decided to tour the Alberta. We left Edmonton early in the morning and choose the secondary Hwy #21 going south to an often overlooked destination: the Badlands.

mainWelcome to Alberta Badlands

For more than a hundred years, Alberta has been known as a mountain playground. Peering at the pages of travel magazines you will see endless images of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. More recently though, the tide is beginning to turn as more and more people begin to explore some of our numerous, non-mountainous attractions in Alberta. One of the most exciting landscapes within the province can be found hidden within the middle of our vast prairies–the badlands.

Journey back in time as we tour the Drumheller Valley
The Canadian Badlands, a unique geographical region in Alberta province, tells a story of glaciers and erosion that formed this fascinating landscape in Alberta. The Badlands are a mixture of wide-open skies and glacier-torn dinosaur-fossil-rich landscapes dotted with canyons and valleys. When you get there it seems like journey back in time. Dinosaurs, Blackfoot, hoodoos, theatre… and of course, there’s the good old fashion prairie hospitality.

From Edmonton to Drumheller is a fairly straightforward drive south. The scenery in that area is really nice, and it’s only about three and a half hours’ drive, or just over 300 kilometers, which makes it a perfect one day trip. Driving across endless golden prairies, the fertile land suddenly drops away into a strange and stark moonscape of weird striped hills and otherworldly rock formations. We were driving on a secondary highway #21 going south until we reached another secondary road #575, where we made a left turn (east). From there it was about 38 km before we descended into the scenic Drumheller valley.


The Badlands
Even the name is mysterious and maybe that’s why you’re compelled to explore. Knowing the very ground you walk on is rife with the ancient bones of the dinosaurs who once ruled this land somehow keeps you looking over your shoulder. Though we went to many places in the badlands that day, the hoodoos were by far the most spectacular things we saw! The badlands cut a swath through southeastern Alberta. The region has been a fossil hotbed since the 19th century and shows no sign of running out of old bones. Some of the most important dinosaur discoveries in the world were unearthed right here. 

Alberta’s badlands can best be described as a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. Similar in appearance, they seem to have been carved out of the prairie itself. This is in fact the case. With the retreat of the last glaciers around 18,000 years ago, immense amounts of water were released to carve large and intricate drainage channels through the soft rock. Over time, these channels have been sculpted and molded by wind and water into the intricate, and almost eerie, landscapes we see today.

Canola in bloomAs we drove through this part of Alberta we saw lush green fields and bright yellow fields. The yellow fields are Canola in bloom.

When we first set our eyes on the badlands, it was much unexpected. Traveling across the flattest of prairies, the ground abruptly opens up into a wide, beautiful canyon. Exploring the badlands provides endless excitement as they bring a little of the southern desert to Alberta. In spring, the desert comes to life as the prickly pear and pincushion cactus’ explode into fiery yellow and red flowers. Since most of the badlands areas are located along river valleys, they are like an oasis for bird and animal life. Pronghorn antelope and mule deer peer at you from a safe distance and an endless variety of birds roost in the trees lining the river.

P1040434Welcome sign for the town of Wayne in Badlands

Wander away from the river shoreline and the climate quickly changes. The ground immediately dries and cracks. The plants choke out a tough existence in this wild and dry land. The landscape is stark–almost moonlike. In fact one area of Dinosaur Provincial Park is known as the Valley of the Moon. You have stepped into a wondrous new world–a world that begs to be explored. Be cautious though! This is an area to be explored in good weather only. Many badlands, including the Drumheller and Dinosaur park areas, are underlain by a bentonite clay soil. This clay swells and forms a completely frictionless surface when wet. In addition, the clay causes flash floods through this normally dry valley. Luckily though, rainfall is rare in this dry desert area.

P1040436The ‘Last Chance’ saloon and Rosedeer hotel in badlands

Unfortunately for the badlands, the name tends to drive away tourism. Who, in their right mind, would want to visit an area described as “bad”. In reality though, the badlands are an area of incredible beauty and stark character. The name ‘badlands’ was actually a miss-translation of a French term used to describe similar landscapes in the American Dakotas. Apparently early French voyageurs called similar areas “mauvaises terres a traverser” or simply “bad lands to cross”. This is a very apt description as the badlands are indeed difficult to cross by walking in a straight line. However, if you don’t mind a meander, they provide endless opportunities for exploring. Everything about the Badlands just kinda looks like dinosaur territory: massive canyons cut into desert-like landscapes, red sandy hills, and low-lying vegetation. It’s easy to imagine dinosaurs roamed here, and you’ll see some amazing examples of their existence in the museum. One exception highlight is the near perfect skeleton of a massive T-Rex in Drumheller. Yes, they also lived in Canada.

P1040418Vera and Zdenko in Drumheller

Town of Drumheller
Located 130 km northeast of Calgary and about 300 km southeast of Edmonton in Alberta’s Badlands, the Drumheller Valley is best known for its diverse and unique topography. Made up of mostly barren terrain that includes grasslands, hoodoos, canyons and coulees, the area provides a vast landscape that is worthy of discovery, perhaps from the gaping jaw of the world’s largest dinosaur statue in downtown Drumheller, which visitors are encouraged to climb into.

Drumheller, or simply the ‘Drum’ as the locals call it out there is a pretty town in the Red Deer River valley and home to the world famous Royal Tyrell Museum of paleontology. It is in the scenic Red Deer River valley which is the river that carved out the badlands. However, the area that is famous for the badlands is the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Dinosaur Provincial Park which is about 175 km by road down river (south east) of Drum, near a farming town called Brooks, and not far north of the TransCanada Highway – about one hour west of Medicine Hat Alberta.

P1040421World’s Largest Dinosaur is in Drumheller

World’s Largest Dinosaur
For a sweeping view of the badlands and the Red Deer River valley, climb up inside the world’s biggest dinosaur and gaze out from its fearsome jaws in Drumheller, the “Dinosaur Capital of the World.” Yup. This thing is big. Way bigger than the actual dinosaur was. The 106 stairs will lead you straight into the beast’s mouth. If your grandkids like dinosaurs, stop by and show it to them, but the ones at the Royal Tyrell Museum, five minutes down the road, are more interesting and more accurate. Cool place, well worth the stop for a photo. Great photo from the park or across the street. We were pressed for time and didn’t go inside. Get ready to donate blood to the local mosquitos.

P1040426View of Drumheller from the Dinosaur mouth

In Drumheller, look for the Hoodoo Trail, and drive a 25 km east along Hwy 10, which takes you back in time to when coal was king! Enroute you can stop and explore the Rosedale Suspension Bridge and the hoodoos.

P1040442Rosedale Suspension Bridge

Rosedale Suspension Bridge
Stop and read the historical plaques! Otherwise the bridge, while fun to walk across, is very much a ‘bridge to nowhere’. The site does a good job of representing the history of coal mining in the Red Deer River valley, presenting a quite different face from the dinosaur themes prevalent in the Drumheller area. This is a lovely bridge with an interesting history for the miners who once crossed it. For the more adventurous there is a climb on the other side to the top of the ridge.

P1040447Looking down on the Rosedale Suspension Bridge.

Drumheller Hoodoos
We drove down (south) from Drumheller just to see them and were expecting something commensurate with the dramatic scenery in the river valley. When we arrived, though, we found the hoodoos remaining were much smaller than expected and, while interesting, were really not very impressive. They look amazing in the pictures. Old photos at the site show it before the modern-age onslaught of tourists, and a comparison with the existing structures shows how badly human traffic has destroyed the fragile terrain. Walkways have been installed but the effort was apparently ‘too little, too late’. What was once a spectacular scene is now just a ruin.

P1040450The hoodoos were much smaller than expected

These otherwise fascinating columns of sandstone take millions of years to form, and they stand five-to seven-meters tall. Each formation is a sandstone pillar sitting on a base of shale, capped by a stone. Although hoodoos are extremely fragile and vulnerable to wind erosion, some of the best preserved hoodoos can be found in this valley.

P1040451Hoodoos – The fascinating columns of sandstone

IF you have a 4×4 keep driving past these and a little further into the badlands, you’ll see amazing rock formations and experience a fun little drive. We didn’t have time to do this, but we watched mountain bikers hit the trails, dropping from crazy heights and zooming down the valley with no fear. My hat is off to you if you’re the kind of person who does this!

After spending the day to see all these attractions around Drumheller, we headed west on the Dinosaur Trail, a 48 km route through the Drumheller Valley. A ‘must see’ along North Dinosaur Trail is the Royal Tyrell Museum, one of Western Canada’s most popular museums.

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The Royal Tyrrell Museum
I’m not the kind of person to spend a Saturday afternoon strolling through a museum, but I have a soft spot for dinosaurs, and Canada’s only museum that is dedicated solely to paleontology. The Royal Tyrrell Museum is home to over 40 dinosaur skeletons and 110,000 fossil specimens.

2012-royal-tyrrell-museum-e6Panoramic view of the Royal Tyrrell Museum

Situated in the spectacular badlands of the Red Deer River Valley, just outside of Drumheller, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is a major research and exhibition Centre and one of the largest paleontological museums in the world. Every year, almost 400,000 people come to the Museum to explore Alberta’s prehistory. Featuring more than 35 dinosaur skeletons and life-like models, you can come face to face with some of the most fascinating creatures Earth has ever known.

Visitors to the museum can explore hundreds of preserved fossils and take part in interactive displays and exhibits. Golfers can enjoy a challenging day on the links with the rugged terrain and wind conditions acting as natural hazards. Other outdoor activities include hiking, skiing and taking a ride on the historic Bleriot Ferry, which crosses the powerful Red Deer River.

P1040468Inside the museum

West Dinosaur Trail
On our way back to Edmonton we drove west on Dinosaur Trail to the Little Church, described as being able to seat thousands, but only six at a time. This church was first erected by local contractor Trygve Seland, in cooperation with the Ministerial Association in 1968 and was reconstructed by inmates of the Drumheller Institution in 1991. It was designed as a place of worship and mediation and not just a tourist attraction.

Little Church Drumheller2 AlbertaLittle church in the prairie

After a short stop at the church, we continued north to Horsethief Canyon Lookout for a spectacular view of the Badlands. This is spectacular sprawling gorge surrounded by yellow canola fields. The lookout point is just past the Royal Tyrell Museum, and is a great spot to take it all in. You can also embark on a little hike.

Horsethief Canyon LookoutA view of Horsethief Canyon from the lookout

The Shortest Ferry Ever
We also stopped for few minutes at the Bleriot Ferry, one of the last remaining cable-operated ferries in Alberta.

The Bleriot FerryThe Bleriot Ferry. The operator must go back and forth across the river hundreds of times a day taking one or two cars at a time.

The oldest cable ferry in North America still operates in the Badlands on the Red Deer River. It’s one of those quirky things you have to do if you’re visiting – there’s literally a sign that says, “ring bell for service”. The ride takes a whopping five minutes. You pretty much feel like you can reach out and touch the opposite shore of the river from the bank. If you cross the river here, you can go back to Drumheller on the other side of the river. We didn’t do that. Instead we continued north and returned to Edmonton before dusk. This was a day well spent exploring Alberta Badlands.

Have a good and healthy season.

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