The Canadian Badlands is pretty much the coolest sounding place you’ll ever visit in Canada (except perhaps for “Ragged Ass Road” in Yellowknife.) As the name implies, this is more or less an actual desert with sparse vegetation and amazing scenery deep in the heart of Alberta. The Canadian Badlands, like its American counterpart in South Dakota, is chock full of dinosaur fossils and towering rock formations. There are museums, canyons, hikes, trails, horseback riding, parks, buffalo, First Nations culture and a whole lot more. The place is vast and the roads are dusty, so slap on your driving gloves, grab a map and let’s get going to Canada’s modern “Wild West”.
Sadly, though the Royal Tyrell museum has nothing to do with either Game of Thrones or Blade Runner, one can be forgiven if the name evokes images of either the beautiful Queen Marjaery Tyrell or being strapped into a Voigt-Kampf machine. What the Royal Tyrell museum does have to offer is a hundred times better though: Dinosaurs! Over 130,000 fossils are exhibited in this incredible paleontological research center. See towering prehistoric beasts (well, you can see their skeletons at any rate) including, (but not limited to) Dimetrodons, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Triceratops, Iguanodon, Pterodactyl... you name it, they've got it. From the Precambrian period through the Cretaceous, the vast diversity of the Badlands’ fossil density is on full display. Not only is Tyrell the best dinosaur museum in Canada, it is one of the premier dinosaur museums in the entire world.
Another great day trip should include the Midland Provincial Park. See cougars and other local wildlife as you trek along both paved and unpaved trails and paths. There is even a coal mine you can explore, since coal mining was so integral to the history of Alberta. In fact, back in 1979, the park was established to enshrine the coal mine and its history. The park spans a great river valley and although it is vast and beautiful, unfortunately, there are no campgrounds in the park (hence: day trip.) The park is also a great border that connects many of the other features in this guide together; the Royal Tyrell Museum, for example, is actually adjacent to the park.
Need a home base for your forays into the Badlands and don’t want to stay in downtown Drumheller? Do you need a nice place to relax after a long day of dino-hunting and/or hiking? Look no further than the Heartwood Inn and Spa. The Inn features the “Rosebud Dinner Theater” as well as a full array of spa treatment like pedicures and a sauna. There are many different room configurations, each one unique and some even featuring huge fireplaces or walk-in showers or enclosed yards with BBQ grills and fire pits. Like all the hotels around the area, there are agents on site who can help you plan excursions to the dinosaur parks, museums or other activities. Pro tip: Zeke’s famous French Toast Breakfast is available most mornings, so hurry up and get some in the dining room before it’s gone!
The Coulee Viewpoint Trail is a full kilometre of beautiful countryside, and, as the name implies, the highlight is the views; great ravines and striated canyon walls that stand out around you. The trail is just outside of Princess, Alberta at the “stairway to heaven”, which is a quick climb that brings you up to the bentonite trail with all the rills, channels, caves, cavities and slick walls you’d expect. It is not open during rain or inclement weather as the trail can get dangerous, so plan accordingly.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is a couple hours' drive outside of Drumheller, the Dinosaur Capital of Canada. It’s worth the trip. The park is the final resting place of so many prehistoric beasties that UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site. When you approach it, you’ll swear you’re at Alan Grant’s dinosaur dig from Jurassic Park. The surrounding Badlands stand out in all their glory as you wander around the park filled with more than 150 fully intact fossilized skeletons that have been unearthed and preserved. The entire Badlands, back in prehistoric times at least, was a hot, steamy jungle crawling with cyclopean reptiles, but a few hundred million years' worth of climate change has left us with the starkly beautiful badlands we see today. And it’s a good thing too, as the climate, dryness and other ecological factors all contributed to the fossils’ amazing preservation. Bring the kids along, obviously, since 58 dinosaur species were discovered right there in the park, and who knows if your child will be the one to discover the 59th? Seriously, tourists often literally stumble across new fossils all the time!
“The sunniest city in Canada” is, as one would expect, renowned for its summer festivities. Medicine Hat is coulee central, right in the heart of those odd rock formations. The town originally began as a terminus of rail lines for the Westward pioneers and then really “boomed” when, in 1883, they struck natural gas pockets and discovered one of the largest and most concentrated deposits of natural gas in the world. Don’t let the name “The Gas City” fool you, this place is as famous and as prosperous as a small nation due to the richness of the gas. Wordsmith Rudyard Kipling in 1907 even remarked that the city had “All Hell for its basement” in reference to those immense reserves of clean-burning, industrial grade natural gas.
A nice made-from-scratch meal can really make you feel right at home on the road, especially when you're spending so much time in the prehistoric era. Erna's whips up soups, sandwiches and home-cooked meals for the cafe, along with mouthwatering tasty baked treats. They make traditional holiday delicacies like appelflappen and olibollen around Christmas, and you'll find delicious donuts, cupcakes, cinnamon buns, breads, cookies, and more on a year-round basis.
What is a coulee? They're actually big, spherical balls of rock that will probably make you believe in aliens or in a man-eating giant version of a snowball fight, but with sandstone. Red Rock Coulee Natural Area is a sight to behold, with acres and acres of these large oddly spherical rock formations spanning the horizon. And coulee isn’t the only neat word you get to use there to describe the unusual topography... there are also hoodoo formations, huge jutting rock columns, each one showing off the geological history of the world with each layer and ‘ring’ of concreted sediment. Some of the coulees are as wide around as a man is tall, and are considered the largest in the world.
As you may be able to deduce, the name "Writing-on-Stone" is a Native name (“Áísínai'pi” in the local Blackfoot dialect), and it is a sacred place. The park is full of First Nations rock art and wall paintings, the highest concentration in the entire country, in fact, and is the second UNESCO heritage site to grace this road trip. There are petroglyphs carved into the rocks and pictographs painted on them all around, including right on the hoodoo formations. The park is also prime camping grounds, located on a lush prairie with the lovely Milk River coursing through it. It's worth at least a day trip or an overnight stay, and guided or unguided tours are available.
Before the advent of horses in North America, native peoples like the Blackfoot had one surefire way of hunting the mighty buffalo of the plains. They would startle a grazing herd of the great beasts and cause something of a stampede, then guide the herd towards a cliff, and the momentum of the chaos would cause dozens of buffalo to fall to their deaths. The entire hunt was carefully orchestrated, incredibly daring and highly ritualistic and spiritual. The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo jump (named for one hapless brave who wanted to see the spectacle of falling buffalo from directly below) is the third and last UNESCO World Heritage Site on this trip. Everything is perfectly preserved from pre-Columbian times, from the ‘drive lanes’ the Buffalo Runners would usher their quarries into, demarked by standing cairns, to the kilometre-long cliff wall itself. The park is a great place to bring the family if you enjoy the outdoors or museums and want to immerse yourself in a thrilling chapter of native life on the plains of Alberta.
The Smashed-In-Head Buffalo Jump is also home to a great museum, The Interpretive Centre and Museum, which preserves the rich Blackfoot culture, the patron of which, Joe Crow Shoe Sr, has a lodge named after him. He dedicated his life to fostering understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. The museum opened in 1987 and is built directly into the cliff face of the Buffalo Jump. Here you can see traditional rituals including dancing and drumming and learn how the First Nations peoples used to build their homes and fashion tools and clothing out of the sacred buffalo they would hunt. Be sure to catch the “Lost Identities: A Journey of Rediscovery” exhibit featuring photographs of Aboriginal communities, that until recently, were mysteries with their meanings and subjects unknown.
Do you want to see a rodeo? Do you like camping? Do you enjoy antiquing and boutique shopping? Then Nanton is the place for you. This is one eclectic destination. There is a historic Main Street to serve all of your shopping needs. Then there’s the Nanton Nite Rodeo to serve all your wrangling and bucking needs. There’s even two unique destinations for history lovers: the Bomber Command Museum & Visitor Information Center, which includes a fully preserved WWII Lancaster Bomber, the legendary “Dambusters” of Operation Chastise! You'll also find a museum built around a preserved grain elevator, the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre. Grain elevators were an integral part of agricultural life in Canada for over a century but are quickly becoming obsolete, the Discovery Centre was built to preserve the authentic historical experience for posterity. There is something for everyone in Nanton!
From traditional baked goods to antiquing to First Nations history and dinosaur fossils, this trip has it all. Adults and kids alike will be thrilled by this field-trip of a road trip!
Banner Photo Credit: via Flickr/daveynin