At Horsethief Canyon, near Drumheller, Alberta. Photo by John M. Smith

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I was driving through Alberta’s “Wheatland Country”, with its rather wide open, rolling and lush farmland, but as I approached Drumheller (110km./65 mi.) northeast of Calgary), the landscape took a very sudden and dramatic change.

I descended into the Red Deer River Valley, and here I found myself now surrounded by strange, eerie rock formations that included tall, mushroom-shaped pillars of sandstone that jutted high up into the air – and nearby were mammoth, almost ‘other-worldly’ looking canyons, with stratified layers of rock and towering, multi-coloured canyon walls.

\I’d arrived in “Dinosaur Valley” and was now in the heart of Canada’s badlands.

The Home of Dinosaurs and Hoodoos

Hoodoos in the badlands near Drumheller, Alberta. Photo by John M. Smith
Hoodoos in the badlands near Drumheller, Alberta. Photo by John M. Smith

The appearance of the landscape in the Drumheller area was, indeed, startling, almost spooky. In fact, I discovered that some of the natives who used to inhabit this area thought that the hoodoos were petrified giants who came to life at night, and they were therefore fearful of these structures – and then there were all those strange objects that were found in the area’s canyons – in an area that some believed might even be haunted.

Millions of years ago, dinosaurs called these badlands ‘home’, and the fossilized remains found here have certainly added to the area’s fame and importance (including evidence of several types of dinosaurs residing here).

It’s not surprising, then, that Drumheller is now the location of one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur skeletons – in its Royal Tyrell Museum – and it’s devoted exclusively to the study of paleontology.

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While visiting this fascinating site, you may watch as museum staff prepare fossils in the Preparation Lab, wander through over 300 species of prehistoric plants in the Cretaceous Garden, and experience the underwater world of prehistoric creatures in the Burgess Shale.

You may even hike and prospect for fossils in the nearby rugged badlands – and even participate in a dig, uncovering and discovering – using professional tools and techniques.

Drumheller’s Tyrell Museum is located, fittingly enough, on what’s known as the Dinosaur Trail (the area’s two most famous tourist routes are the Dinosaur Trail and the Hoodoo Trail).

Dinosaur Valley

Walking along the dinosaur fossil fields, located near Drumheller's Tyrell Museum. Photo by John M. Smith
Walking along the dinosaur fossil fields, located near Drumheller’s Tyrell Museum. Photo by John M. Smith

Since this world-class museum is located in the heart of Canada’s badlands, in Dinosaur Valley, it probably won’t come as a big surprise when I tell you that the town of Drumheller emphasizes this unique feature in its marketing.

For example, you’ll find a Badlands Motel, a Jurassic Inn, and a Dinosaur RV Park in Drumheller, along with several dinosaur replicas and murals (including a large dinosaur on the “Welcome to Drumheller” sign).

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You’ll also see the Badlands Historical Center – and several nearby fossil shops (the Fossil Shop, the Fossil World Discovery Centre, Horseshoe Canyon Fossils, etc.). You’ll also find the “World’s Largest Dinosaur” in the downtown area, next to the Visitor Information Centre (standing at 86 feet/26.2 metres) – and for a small fee, you can even climb up into the mouth of this model Tyrannosaurus Rex – for a great view of Drumheller and the surrounding badlands. Drumheller also offers an annual “DinoFest”, with a variety of family-friendly activities.

A Natural Amphitheatre

Drumheller is also the site of a natural amphitheatre of rock and sandstone (with great acoustics) where a local theater troupe performs the Canadian Badlands Passion Play each July This amphitheater also hosts special concerts and events from time to time.

Horseshoe Canyon

 Alberta's Horseshoe Canyon (near Drumheller). Photo by John M. Smith
Alberta’s Horseshoe Canyon (near Drumheller). Photo by John M. Smith

Just 17 km./10 mi. west of Drumheller (on Highway 9) is the busier, more often visited of the area’s magnificent canyons, Horseshoe Canyon (so named because of its horseshoe shape), and if you’re arriving from the west, this will be your first real glimpse of the Canadian badlands. It’s an impressive sight.

You’ll also find that, like the Grand Canyon itself, this ‘grand canyon’ has helicopter tours available – provided by nearby Mountainview Helicopters – and you’ll also find several intriguing hiking trails. These well-worn footpaths are actually relatively easy, and it’s about a 60-metre descent down to the floor of the canyon.

However, wind, rain, loose stones, and rattlesnakes could pose problems, so take care – and carry lots of drinking water with you (as you won’t find any convenience store down in the canyon). If you’re fortunate enough to find some fossils along the way, just leave them alone, for it’s illegal to remove them.

Horsethief Canyon

The area’s other grand canyon, Horsethief Canyon, is located 16 km./10 mi. northwest of Drumheller (on route #838), and it’s rumoured that horse thieves used to hide stolen horses here (and thus the name).

The rim provides several awesome views, and its hiking trails tend to be steeper and more treacherous, so be careful. Far fewer visitors hike here, so you’ll find some of the routes are overgrown and rugged – and there’s a lot of single track, with steep ascents and descents. It’s a real workout!

Coal Mines & Bridges

The Star Mine Suspension Bridge. Photo by John M. Smith
The Star Mine Suspension Bridge. Photo by John M. Smith

The Drumheller area used to be the largest coal-producing area in all of Western Canada, but that’s a bygone era now. However, after exploring Drumheller and the nearby awesome canyons, I drove along the Hoodoo Trail, to check out the renowned hoodoos in the badlands and to view some of the old coal mines.

I stopped at the village of Rosedale along the way – to see its Star Mine Suspension Bridge. Coal miners used to walk across a rickety old suspension bridge here to reach the mine – and now a more stable one has been erected for visitors to enjoy (for free).

Another short drive brought me to the village of Wayne, and the claim to fame of this short drive is having “the most bridges in the shortest distance” (11 bridges in 7 km./ 4 mi.). Continuing on past the hoodoos themselves, I soon arrived at the Atlas Coal Mine, now a National Historic Site.

This coal mine operated until 1979, and it’s now considered to be Canada’s most complete historic coal mine. Here you can wander through the historic surface plant buildings (including a miner’s shack and the lamp house, wash house, and mine office).

You can even walk around in the footsteps of the miners (on the Tipple Trail) and read the informative interpretive signs. You can also climb Canada’s last remaining wooden tipple. Children can don a miner’s hat and enter a tunnel – or they can choose to ride on an old coal car.

On special summer dates, there’s even a Ghost Walk offered, for although the mine has been closed for many years, it’s rumored that all the miners haven’t ‘checked out’!

Drumheller, an Intriguing Location Worth Visiting

The Drumheller area is, indeed, fascinating – and its grand canyons and mysterious badlands contribute significantly to the overall feeling of awe in this unique destination.

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Author Bio: John enjoys travelling the world and then writing about his experiences. He has written travel articles for a group of community newspapers and has published pieces in many magazines. He’s also the author of two major bicycling books: “Cycling the U.S.A.” and “Cycling Canada”.

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