The Canadian Badlands: A road trip through time
At the heart of the Albertan prairie sits a landscape of dramatic expanse, inviting the prospect of an adventure as limitless as the skies which sit stark and omnipotent above it. The area also gives a rare and largely well-preserved glimpse into the prehistoric era, a world so far removed from the ‘now’ as to be almost unearthly.
The Canadian Badlands are a curious mix of misshapen rust-coloured rocks (‘hoodoos’) sat amongst undulating grassy fields, and serve as a mecca for palaeontologists and geography enthusiasts alike, as the region is the richest place on Earth for both quality and quantity of prehistoric remains. Digs still take place here, and due to the way the sand and mud deposits were left 75 million years ago, the dinosaur skeletons and other prehistoric remains found in the Badlands are among the most intact in the world. North American ‘Badlands’ in general were so named by the Lakota people after the extreme temperatures and rugged terrain, coupled with lack of access to water made these areas largely inhospitable to travel through. The name has stuck, and now evokes in the imagination – or in mine at least – a land of mystery and discovery, of an untameable wilderness which drags you into touch with Earth’s natural history with an almighty crash, whilst simultaneously stirring your sense of adventure undeniably into action.
I wanted something iconic, “American”, and powerful to explore the vast distances of Alberta whilst I was there, so had rented a brand new Ford Mustang convertible – in metallic red no less. Slung in the boot was a one-man tent and sleeping bag, and not a lot else. There are plenty of places to camp in the region, and the local food prices and Canadian hospitality (read: Tim Horton’s coffee shops) meant living in the region was pretty cheap too. With the hood down and the sun out, we were ready for an adventure. It was just as well I had the V6 – I was leaving from Calgary and it was quite the drive to Patricia, the town from where visitors are most likely to access the Badlands.
The ‘dino-fever’ centres itself around two main locations; the Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and natural preserve, and the town of Drumheller – a modest and friendly town: the self-styled ‘Dinosaur Capital of the World’, which serves as a base for exploring the Badlands.
The Dinosaur Provincial Park Visitor’s Centre has many hikes through the hoodoo formations and surrounding terrain, and is located along with the main campsite for the region, in the Red Deer River basin. It’s easy to kill two or three days here. Climb up out of the dip, and you will benefit from some absolutely amazing views, where you can see the lush green of the river lands meet the dusty beige of the badlands. Some of the hikes from here include dinosaur skeletons along the wayside (protected from the elements, of course) together with information on the species and how the fossil was found. Wildlife is abundant here and hikers must be cognisant of this, and the dangers some species pose to humans. The sun beats down relentlessly, so suncream and ample water are essential. Kayaking and other water leisure activities are also available to do in the Red Deer River.
The drive on to Drumheller includes other trails, such as the Hoodoo trail off the route 10, a lovely meander which hugs the river valley and takes you through quaint hamlets like Dorothy and East Coulee. The rather impressive Royal Tyrrell Museum is also located in Drumheller, and has an astonishing number of specimens on display and caters for all age groups and interest levels. The town is a good place to take on a decent meal and refuel, and check out the massive dinosaur statue at the visitor’s centre.
All in all, the Canadian Badlands offer a mix of old-school adventure mixed with an appeal to your inner child who never quite grew up after watching Jurassic Park. It features an education on prehistoric times, and how the natural world around us has been shaped. Throw in the absolutely epic scenery you see at every turn, and you get a destination well worth exploring.