April Squares: Canadian Badlands

Badlands Interpretive Trail, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

After our 2017 road trip in the Canadian Rockies we headed for a very different area of Alberta – the Badlands. We were blown away by the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller. Here I am feeling on top of the world on its Badlands Interpretive Trail.

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Another place we found fascinating and amazing was Dinosaur Provincial Park. Here it’s John’s turn to take the top spot.

If you have just joined my gallivanting, and fancy some armchair travel, I have four posts about the Canadian Badlands:

Linked to Becky’s #SquareTops challenge.

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Like Drumheller, Dinosaur Provincial Park is hidden in the valley, up to 100 metres deep, of the Red Deer River. Shortly after the sign in the picture above, the road plunges to the 27km stretch of park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Digging began here in the 1880s, and since then more than 300 top-quality dinosaur skeletons have been found, a greater concentration than anywhere else on earth. (Parks Canada has a nice, simple explanation if you’re wondering why this is.) The skeletons can be found in about 30 museums world-wide, the biggest number in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology which we had visited a few days before, so it was an interesting follow-up to see where they came from. The park’s Visitor Centre also has some impressive specimens, as well as other exhibits, and is worth spending time in. One of the dinosaurs appeared to have escaped outside 😉

Most of the park is out-of-bounds unless you are on a pre-booked guided tour. We hadn’t been organised enough to arrange this, so we stuck to the five self-guided trails along the 3km public loop road. It was enough! We spent all day admiring the views and amazing rock formations.

We also spotted a little bit of flora and fauna. The area near the river was much more lush than the rest of the park, and several times we saw deer peering up at the weird humans scrambling about the arid rocks.

And – that was it! The end of our vacation. The next day, we packed up and headed for Calgary Airport and the long journey home. We had a great time in Canada, and I’ve enjoyed reliving it through blogging. Next time, I’ll be back writing about Scotland again.

Drumheller to Brooks

Last Chance Saloon, Wayne

All good things come to an end, and it was time to set off for the last stop of our trip: the small town of Brooks. However, we took in a few more sights around the Drumheller area before we left.

The Hoodoos

These weird, mushroom-like rocks have been naturally eroded over thousands of years. They are beautiful, but we felt the local tourist maps over-hyped them – it’s a very small site and, well, we’ve been to Bryce Canyon.

Atlas Mine

This whole area was once a prosperous coal-mining community, and one mine, Atlas, has been preserved as a National Historic Site. I found this much more interesting than I expected and we spent a couple of hours wandering around and riding the coal train.

Star Mine Suspension Bridge

I’m letting the picture above do the explanations for me! Here’s proof that we crossed the bridge:

Last Chance Saloon

For lunch, we headed up a side road to Wayne, home of the Last Chance Saloon. A short stretch of road (6km) had 11 bridges as it crossed and re-crossed the winding Rosebud River. You can see the saloon exterior at the top of the post and below is the interior, packed with quirky memorabilia. I can’t remember what we ate: I think it was basic pub food such as burgers and wraps, but we were too busy looking at our surroundings to take much notice.

Brooks

From Wayne, a gravel road took us onto Highway 56 and then to Brooks. There’s not much to it as a place, although we were thrilled to find an Indian restaurant near our hotel – curry is something we always miss when away from home, and we seek it out whenever we can. Our evening stroll also brought us to some attractive murals.

So why did we stay in Brooks? It was close to somewhere I was very keen to visit – Dinosaur Provincial Park, where many of the fossils we had seen in Drumheller were found. Coming up soon!

Horseshoe Canyon and the Dinosaur Trail

Horseshoe Canyon

17 km west of Drumheller is Horseshoe Canyon, a spectacular chasm in otherwise flat prairie. Trails lead down from the parking lot (take care, they are steep and slippery) and we set off to see if we could find the end of the canyon. We couldn’t! There were other things we wanted to do that day so eventually we gave up and turned back.

From Horseshoe Canyon, we drove back into Drumheller and crossed the Red Deer River by bridge to follow the 48 km Dinosaur Trail, a loop on both sides of the river. Our first stop was The Little Church which can seat a mere 6 people at a time.

Next, it was on to Horsethief Canyon, once a hiding place for its namesake outlaws, and an opportunity for more hiking.

There is no bridge to cross back over the river – instead the Dinosaur Trail takes you via the Bleriot Ferry, the eponymous Bleriot being André, brother of the more famous Louis who was the first man to fly the English Channel.

Once back on the south side of the river, there was just one last stop at the beautiful Orkney Viewpoint. I’d love to know how it got its name.

Then we headed back to Drumheller for our last night. Despite our misgivings when we arrived, largely because of the terrible hotel, we had a great time and could have spent longer exploring. However, we still had one more Badlands adventure to come, so the next day we were back on the road again.

Drumheller

Royal Tyrrell Museum

From Lake Louise, we left the Rockies and drove east: destination Drumheller. The road was flat – very flat – and I was puzzled when we came to the 3km sign for Drumheller: where was it? Surely we should see it by now? Then the road suddenly plunged down into the Red Deer River Valley, and there it was at the bottom. We were in the Badlands! (Badlands are a type of dry terrain where soft sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded by wind and water.) The next surprise was how small Drumheller is. We were here to visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, a world leading institution, which we expected to have rather more sophisticated surroundings (sorry Drumheller).

The third surprise was unpleasant. Our hotel claimed to have no knowledge of us and was “fully booked”. Now, I spent my entire career in public service and I know that the answer to a problem is “Oh, I’m sorry that has happened – let’s see what we can do to fix it.” The two staff here had obviously missed that memo and were truculent and defensive. Apparently, it was all our fault for booking through a third party, despite the fact that we had booked most of our accommodation through the same site months in advance and had no problem anywhere else.  It became my responsibility to call the booking company to sort it out – I was grudgingly allowed to use one of the hotel phones when I pointed out that it would cost me a fortune to use a UK mobile. I have nothing but praise for the young lady I spoke to who then spent half an hour talking to one of the staff, and – surprise again! – it turned out they did have a room, although more expensive than the one we’d booked. I don’t know why they couldn’t have found this in the first place: presumably the booking company was inveigled into paying the extra amount. I shan’t name the hotel, but I definitely won’t be using that chain again.

After my blood pressure had returned to normal, we set out to explore Drumheller. They love their dinosaurs. This T Rex is the largest dinosaur in the world, apparently – the one on the right is much smaller, it’s just the perspective making them look similar.

There were also smaller dinosaurs all around town. We even met one in our (nameless) hotel lobby! He arrived every morning to entertain the children, but didn’t seem to mind being photographed with a couple of slightly older visitors.

Drumheller is a former mining area and, if we’d had time, there is a mining trail we could have followed. We did visit one historic mine (which I’ll include in a later post) and stop for reflection at the memorial in town to all those miners killed in the area. A lot of names.

As for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, which we visited on our first full day, it blew us away. It has to be one of the best museums I have ever visited. The layout was so clear that you could easily follow a logical path through it, and the signs had just the right amount of information. And if all you wanted to do was look at dinosaurs (there were many young children who were there to do just that), you could still have a ball.

Why have so many fossils, particularly dinosaurs, been found in Alberta? Apparently, it’s because of the high sedimentation rate in the Late Cretaceous Period which meant that dead animals were buried quickly before they started to decompose, preserving the skeletons intact.

The museum also has a Badlands Interpretive Trail (below) which we spent some time exploring before, mid-afternoon, returning to our hotel to freshen up for our next event at 6pm – the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

We didn’t know until after we’d decided to visit Drumheller that this was on, but we jumped at the chance to get tickets when we found out. The epic representation of the life of Jesus has been produced every summer since 1994 and, if you live nearby or are likely to visit next July, I strongly recommend it. There are a few professional actors involved, but most are amateurs and they are simply amazing. Photography during the play is not allowed – the first picture below was taken by John beforehand and the other two were supplied to me as part of a set sent to ticket holders after the event, hence the attribution.

The Canadian Badlands Passion Play 2017
The set © Canadian Badlands Passion Play
Cast and crew © Canadian Badlands Passion Play

The site for the play was a few miles out of town and there were hundreds of cars parked, yet the volunteers directing us out were so efficient that we hardly had to queue at all before we were back out onto the main road. An excellent and well-organised event.

On our second day in Drumheller we set out to explore the Badlands further and get some hiking in. More next time!