Discovering Ancient Alberta

We dig it

Wanted: – A family-friendly destination between Toronto and Vancouver with enough to see and do to turn a long weekend into an active, memorable mini vacation

Found: – Drumheller and the Alberta Badlands

My husband and I have rendezvoused in Calgary with two teenaged grandchildren (who agreed to bring along their parents), planning to delve into the wonderful world of dinosaurs, digs and hoodoos.

Drumheller (population 6,000), the western gateway to the badlands, is a two-hour drive northeast of the Calgary airport. The die-straight ribbon road cuts a swath through flat prairie that seems to stretch forever. We drive past nothing but green fields and more green fields sporadically dotted with cows, llamas and oil-pumping iron horses. Thankfully the rental car has a full tank of gas, for service centres are noticeably missing from this bucolic countryside.

Just when we think there is no end to the flat green, we abruptly plunge 100 meters down into a coulee. We find ourselves in an eerie, sand-coloured moonscape surrounded by weird outcrops of rock. This is the carved-out badlands of the Red Deer River Valley with coulees, or corridors, linking the different habitats throughout the valley. “It’s like we’re driving beneath Alberta rather than through it,” comments 18-year-old Claire.

Alice, tumbling into Wonderland, couldn’t have been more awestruck.

Our first foray is to check out a cluster of hoodoos along the Hoodoo Trail, between Drumheller and East Coulee. Each of these misshapen, ochre pillars is composed of soft sandstone. Each is topped with a resilient cap which slows the erosion of the softer rock beneath. Each is different. “They look like giant petrified mushrooms,” says 14-year old Emma, as we hike amidst them and up the surrounding hillside.

It’s not hard to understand why Aboriginals believed these sculpted rocks were giants, turned to stone by the Great Spirit because of their evil deeds. According to the information plaques along the trail, “a hoodoo, wears down on average 3 mm per year, adding up to a colossal 80,000 tonnes of eroded sand, salt and clay every year.” Amazing.

Wanting to get down, dirty and dig, we head for Dinosaur Provincial Park, a two-hour drive south of Drumheller. Situated at the northern limit of the Great Plains, the park, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, is home to the largest concentration of Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils in the world.

Seventy-five million years ago the valley’s semitropical climate and lush vegetation provided ideal living conditions for dinos. They ruled this land. Ten million years later, when the climate drastically changed, the area became one gigantic dinosaur graveyard. Their bones settled on the riverbed. They were covered up by soft sandstone and mudstone. There they lay and, over time, they fossilized.

Fast forward to 1884 when J.B. Tyrrell, an explorer in search of coal deposits, stumbled, by sheer chance, across a pile of very large bones. What followed was the “great Canadian dinosaur rush.” Paleontologists from around the world came streaming into the region in search of skeletons. Over the past century, more than 300 partially complete skeletons have been excavated and are now on display in museums around the globe. More are still being uncovered.

It’s here in the park where we planned to join a real dinosaur dig.

As luck or the rain gods would have it, the rain starts when we’re halfway to the park. By the time we arrive, the trails are too wet and slick to be safe. The dig is cancelled and we content ourselves with touring the museum, learning more about these enormous beasts and the lifestyle of early explorers.

Visitors can learn even more about dinosaurs at the world-renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller.

Museums, I always thought, were nothing special. I remember too many boring school trips through room after endless room of dreary, static displays. So I approach the Royal Tyrrell with less enthusiasm than it deserved. Within minutes, I am totally captivated. So are the rest of the family and presumably the 400,000 visitors who tour each year.

Arguably we are in the best dinosaur museum in the world. For starters, it is rich in hands-on experiences for all ages. We hang out with a colossal T. rex in the gigantic dinosaur hall. We are gobsmacked viewing the remains of the last supper of a
mosaurus marine reptile. Exquisitely preserved in its stomach is a one metre-long fish. We get up close and personal to every one of the 40 complete dinosaur skeletons that loom about. Awesome.

Sensing their mighty presence surely beats staring at an arrangement of dusty bones in a glass case. It’s like stepping into the real Jurassic Park and we become dinosaur-crazed kids again.

If you go, there’s an assortment of restaurants and places to stay in Drumheller, but the most unforgettable choice is The Last Chance Saloon and adjoining Rosedeer Hotel, 8 kilometres away in Wayne. When the coal mine was operating, Wayne boasted 2,490 inhabitants. Today there are 33. Turning south off the Red Deer Valley Road, we find ourselves counting the quaint one-way bridges along 11 Bridges Road.

The saloon, located between bridges 9 and 10, was founded in 1913. The establishment looks as if it belongs in a Wild West movie. “Running Brave was actually filmed here,” Paula Sutherland, Last Chance’s friendly manager tells us. Go for the atmosphere. The place drips with memorabilia, including three bullet holes in the back wall and a 1940s band box. Beer, to accompany the steak or bison-burger specials, is served in mason jars. Even though the seven guest rooms have recently been spiffed up with paint and funky, themed furnishings, and the bathroom at the end of the supposedly haunted hall has new fixtures, there’s no mistaking Rosedeer for a 21st-century hotel.