By Dave & Deb Bouskill, on August 27, 2013

Badlands and dinosaurs in Alberta

Jurassic Park, eat your heart out! Alberta, Canada has the real deal. Traveling through the Canadian Badlands from Dinosaur National Park to Drumheller will put you right in the midst of a prehistoric land with so many dinosaur relics and fossils, that scientists have left many of them behind for travelers to experience firsthand. They’re scattered on the ground for tourists to touch and feel for themselves.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, located in the heart of the Canadian Badlands, is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Alberta. We didn’t know what we were about to see, but when I woke up from a nap during the three-hour drive from Pincher Creek, I couldn’t believe my eyes. We had reached a jaw-dropping lookout point that reminded me of the Grand Canyon. 

The Badlands got their name from early settlers who referred to it as terrible lands to travel through since water was scarce and there were few animals to trap. But what was bad then, is beautiful now. Over 31 square miles of canyons containing hoodoos and coulees attract visitors from around the world to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The hoodoos of the Canadian Badlands

I know what you’re thinking. What on earth are hoodoos and coulees? Well, a coulee is a deep ravine and hoodoos are tall thin rock formations that are also called fairy chimneys. These tall thin rock spires are made of soft rock but have a hard rock balancing on top. The soft sandstone would have been washed away centuries ago, but because of its hard rock hat, it’s protected from the elements, therefore creating a very unique formation.

The jaw-dropping lookout at Dinosaur National Park

Throughout the Canadian Badlands you will see some of the most amazing formations, while Dinosaur National Park is all about exploring history. The Centrosaurus Quarry Hike is one of the most popular hikes because it takes you right to the excavation site of fossils where scientists still work and study in these fields. In this one (one of many sites) site alone, it’s estimated that there are remains of 250 dinosaurs, some of which are left for tourists to see. Once you spot your first dinosaur bone, you’ll know exactly what to look for and will notice them all the way back during your hike out of the canyon. 

Viewfinder Tip: Make sure to bring lots of water and sunscreen. The hike is over two hours long into the hot badlands.

From Dinosaur Provincial Park it’s a great day trip to Drumheller. Why does it take an entire day when it’s only 109 miles away? Because there is so much to see and do! 

Our first stop was the Atlas Coal Mine, home to the last remaining wooden steeple in Canada. You can put on a miners lamp and walk deep in to the depths to get a taste of what life was like for miners back in 1911.

Our next stop was the protected hoodoos of Drumheller. A barrier protects them and because of this, they are in beautiful condition, showcasing the gorgeous work over centuries of erosion. We meant to stay only a few minutes, but between the hike to the top of the mountain and looking at it from all the different vantage points, we stayed an hour!

All that driving and sightseeing worked up an appetite and we took a detour to see the Last Chance Saloon. It takes crossing 11 one-way bridges to get to this hole-in-the-wall in the middle of nowhere, where the food isn’t great, but the quirkiness attracts a crowd. There are still bullet holes in the wall and if you order a steak, they make you cook it yourself!

Real dinosaur bones in the Royal Tyrell Musuem

By the time we got to the town of Drumheller, we were excited to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum to witness more dinosaur bones. Did you know that many museums around the world don’t display real bones? The reason is that dinosaur bones are extremely heavy and would be impossible to stand on their own. But also, a real fossil would never look so perfect. Dinosaur skeletons are shattered and cut out of hard stone. They’d never be able to piece them back to perfection the way they are at many galleries.

However, at the Tyrell Museum, you’ll see proper bones and skulls on display behind glass in their natural form. They aren’t perfect, as you’ll notice cracks and missing pieces, but they are glorious. It’s impossible to imagine that these giant beasts ruled the earth and then simply vanished.

The museum even has a lab where visitors can watch paleontologists carve out skeletal remains while a person sitting at a desk meticulously scrapes rock out from an ancient bone. This is a working museum and one of the most fascinating places we’ve ever visited.

Drumheller is only one and a half hours from Calgary, but well worth it to take at least two days to visit the captivating and beautiful badlands of Alberta. There are plenty of Drumheller accommodation options, from bed and breakfast inns to hotels.

As someone said to us, soon the badlands will be more popular than Banff and Jasper. You better get there before everyone knows about it!  

What is your favorite heritage site or museum that you’ve visited?