The badlands of Alberta, in Canada, were once home to more than 35 species of dinosaurs. Now they’re a draw for tourists and paleontologists unearthing millions of years of history
Driving from Calgary, where weekend cowboys mingle with oil-company executives on the streets of Alberta’s biggest city, to the badlands is a bit like taking a road trip to the moon. Heading east, the city gives way to suburban sprawl, then to small towns surrounded by fields of wheat and canola, and finally to the badlands, an unearthly landscape of arid soil and rusty-red pillars of sandstone known as hoodoos.
It’s a bit of a shock to go, in just a couple of hours, from licking the foam off a cappuccino in a downtown Calgary cafe to a place that looks like a set from Jurassic Park. But the otherworldly beauty of the topography has a lure all its own.
In the badlands
Alberta’s badlands are a relic of the ice age, carved out of the prairie landscape by ice, water and wind more than 70 million years ago. Back then, the area was a fertile floodplain, ideal stomping grounds for more than 35 species of dinosaurs. Now, the soft, clay-rich soil has been sculpted into hoodoos, gullies and buttes that look more like the deserts of Utah than any part of Canada.
The ideal way to see the badlands is by driving the 770km-long Canadian Badlands Trail, which loops south from Calgary through the cities of Lethbridge and Medicine Hat before heading north to Drumheller. They are at their ethereal best in Dinosaur Provincial Park, about 200km southeast of Calgary along the trail. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it is a dusty treasure trove of fossils and bones — fertile ground not only for dinosaur-loving tourists but also for paleontologists, whose work has unearthed more than 300 museum-quality fossils and skeletons now displayed at museums around the world.
Much of the park is off limits to tourists because it’s a working site for paleontologists, who converge on the site every summer to dig for bony treasure. So as tempting as it might be to root around in the sandy soil and try to unearth a Triceratops or a Sauropod yourself, don’t even think of trying.
The best way to see the park is on a guided hike with a park interpreter, who will walk you through millions of years of history as he points out fossils in a wall of rock or maps out where a dinosaur skeleton was discovered.
Although most of the hikes themselves are relatively easy and are open to both adults and kids over seven, you need to be prepared for the elements — in July and August, temperatures often reach the high-30°s on the Celsius scale, so a wide-brimmed hat and a water bottle are essential. Think Indiana Jones with a slathering of sunscreen and you’ll be on the right track.
If you’re prone to wilting in the desert sun, you can also take a two-hour bus tour of the park. For both that tour and the hikes, reservations are all but mandatory, especially during the busy summer months.
Heading north from the park along the Badlands Trail, you’ll hit Drumheller, where the best of the finds unearthed from the park can be found at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Opened in 1985, it houses close to 40 complete dinosaur skeletons, the largest such collection in the world.
Although the hordes of dinosaur-crazy kids who flock to the museum on school trips and with their families can be a bit overwhelming at times, the museum’s interactive displays will entertain both adults and children. And no one can fail to be impressed by Dinosaur Hall, where winged reptiles are suspended above a towering skeleton of the granddaddy of all dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Plan to spend at least a full day at the museum and a day or two at Dinosaur Provincial Park. Driving the entire Canadian Badlands Trail will take four or five days. Given how long it took for the dinosaurs to plod their way from world dominance to extinction, it hardly seems like enough time to pay them homage.
Airlines serving Calgary include Canada, Westjet and British Airways.