Formed by the meltwaters of the last Ice Age, the Red Deer River valley cuts a deep gash through the prairie – about 240km northwest of Medicine Hat and 140km east of Calgary – creating a surreal landscape of bare, sunbaked hills and eerie lunar flats dotted with sagebrush and scrubby, tufted grass. On their own, the Alberta Badlands justify a visit, but what makes them an essential detour is the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, one of North America’s greatest natural history museums, located 8km outside Drumheller, a dreary but obvious base. You’ll need your own transport to explore and get to Dinosaur Provincial Park, home to the Tyrrell Museum Field Station and the source of many of its fossils.
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A downbeat town in an extraordinary setting, DRUMHELLER lies roughly ninety minutes’ drive northeast of Calgary or two hours on dirt roads from Dinosaur Provincial Park. Nestled at the bottom of a parched canyon and surrounded by the detritus and spoil heaps from its mining past, the otherworldliness of Drumheller’s immediate surroundings is heightened by the contrast to the vivid colours of the wheat and grasslands above. Its Red Deer River once exposed not only dinosaur fossils but also coal seams, which attracted the likes of Samuel Drumheller, after whom the town is named. The first mine opened in 1911, but within fifty years it was all over and today Drumheller is sustained by agriculture, oil and tourism. There’s not much to do in its tiny hardscrabble downtown, but the Royal Tyrrell Museum ensures visitors pass through in droves. The town has gone out of its way to try to tempt them in, with dino-mania at every turn. Though the museum is clearly the major local draw, the rest of the semi-arid Red Deer Valley is dotted with viewpoints and minor sights.
Royal Tyrrell Museum
A sleek building packed with high-tech displays and blended skilfully into desolate surroundings, the Royal Tyrrell Museum, 6km outside Drumheller, will appeal to anyone with even a hint of scientific or natural curiosity. Although it claims the world’s largest collection of complete dinosaur skeletons (120,000 specimens), the museum is far more than a load of old bones. As well as skilfully and entertainingly tracing the earth’s natural history, it’s also a leading research centre and you can watch scientists painstakingly scratch, blow and vacuum dirt from fossils. Hands-on activities include fossil casting or the chance to dig in a realistic quarry; book ahead for both. There’s also a gift shop and cafeteria, while outside you can spend the best part of an hour exploring a 1.4km hiking trail dotted with various information boards.
The Dinosaur Trail and Horseshoe Canyon
For a scenic drive from Drumheller take the 48km Dinosaur Trail; maps are available from the visitor centre. Highlights include the Little Church (capacity six) and Horsethief Canyon and Orkney Viewpoint, both of which offer spectacular panoramas of the wildly eroded valley and are connected by a small car ferry at Bleriot (daily 10am–8.45pm; free).
For easy badland hikes, try Horseshoe Canyon, 19km southwest of Drumheller on Hwy-9, where a multitude of good trails snake around the canyon floor.
Wayne and the Hoodoos
A couple of sights are an easy drive southwest of town. First is the near-ghost town (population 27) of Wayne, 14km from Drumheller, with its atmospheric Wild West-style Last Chance Saloon. Another 9km southeast on Hwy-10 a series of Hoodoos – slender columns of wind-sculpted sandstone topped with mushroom-like caps – makes for a good photo.