The Canadian Badlands are an area steeped in history. Visiting them is like stepping back into the pioneering days and the coal mining era. They are also a vast and unique area of prairies, grasslands, rustic ranches, ghost towns, hoodoo rock formations, coulees and ravines. Parts of the landscape look like the face of the moon or another planet, yet you can experience them by driving just 90 minutes northeast of Calgary. The badlands were created over 10,000 years ago when the glacier floodwaters carved the Red Deer Valley. They stretch from southeastern Alberta into a small portion of Saskatchewan. This land is 2000 feet above sea level, but was once covered in jungle and under a shallow sea. It’s an area with rich deposits of fossils and dinosaur bones that have been unearthed from 75 million years ago. They are on display in museums around the world.
The Must Do’s Of The Drumheller Badland Area
- See Horseshoe Canyon
- Drive the Dinosaur Trail
- Visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum
- Check out the world’s tallest dinosaur at the Drumheller Visitor Center
- View the Hoodoo’s along Hwy 10 (the Hoodoo Trail) southeast of Drumheller
- Watch for prairie dogs, the comical little critters that can be seen scurrying about and popping up from their ground burrows.
The Town Of Drumheller
Drumheller is the town most associated with the badlands. It’s home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum that houses exhibits of dinosaur bones and fossils from the area. It’s a friendly little community with a population of 8000. During the coal mining days it was fast developing but now the economy is based mostly on agriculture and tourism. The downtown area is compact and easy to get around on foot. Outside of that you need to have a vehicle to see the sights. Travel Drumheller
Drumheller Visitor Center And The World’s Largest Dinosaur
Centennial Park is a popular attraction and picnic area in Drumheller. In the center of the park is a children’s water spray area. It’s a great spot to take the kids on a hot summer day. The waterslide at the nearby Aquaplex is another popular attraction.
The park is the location for the Visitor Center, it also houses a gift shop with fossil and dinosaur souvenirs. Free maps, travel guides and tourist information are available and hotels and tours can be booked free of charge. During July and August the center is open from 9am to 9pm and from September to April 10am to 5:30pm. In May and June the hours are extended as the tourist season picks up. Address: 60-1 Avenue West, Drumheller.
The star of the park is the world’s largest dinosaur. The Tyrannosaurus Rex towers over the parking lot at 26 meters (86ft.) The visitor center sits right underneath it. For a small fee you can climb up the 106 steps inside the belly and then lookout at a view of the town and Red Deer Valley through the mouth and teeth. The adjacent Centennial Park grounds have grass lawns, picnic tables and sitting benches.
There’s 18 km’s of pathways that run alongside the Red Deer River, through downtown and from the Royal Tyrrell Museum. They are perfect for walking or biking. Park your vehicle at the Visitor Center at Centennial Park and pick up a walking tour brochure. The park is within walking distance of the shops and boutiques in downtown Drumheller. Play a game with your kids to see how many concrete dinosaurs they can spot around town.
The Red Deer River Nature Trail connects to Centennial Park offering views of the community along the banks of the Red Deer River. It’s a popular spot for walking, hiking and roller blading.
Horseshoe Canyon got it’s name from the two 5km arms that were formed into a horseshoe shape when it was carved by a glacier long ago. It’s located 17 km’s southwest of Drumheller on Highway 9. When driving from Calgary it comes as quite a surprise. Suddenly the flat prairie grassland abruptly opens into a steep canyon full of unique formations that have been eroded for centuries by wind and water. A pullout leads to a parking lot that offers spectacular views of the coloured layers of the canyon. It’s a great spot to get a beautiful sunrise photo.
Well worn paths lead to the bottom, but be prepared for 40C. temperatures in the summer. It is not recommended to hike into the canyon if it is raining or has recently rained. The particular type of clay and mud on the canyon floor is as slick as oil when it’s wet.
Royal Tyrrell Museum
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is a world class paleontology facility that holds over 130,00 specimens, including 35 full scale dinosaur skeletons. It is dedicated to Joseph Tyrrell who discovered the Albertosaurus in 1884, one of the first of hundreds of skeletons that was excavated from the area.
The museum’s incredible range of exhibits and galleries show the rich fossils of the Alberta Badlands and take you through earth’s history. Large windows allow for viewing into the preparation labs where scientists prepare remains for display and research.
The museum is enjoyed by adults and children of all ages. Allow 2 to 3 hours to go through the various exhibits and interactive stations. Those who have a keen interest in paleontology could easily spend the better part of a day.
Several programs are offered including moderate hikes leading to areas with fossil artifacts, fossil casting, digging experiences and assembling replica dinosaurs. It gets very busy in the summer, register in advance to secure a spot.
- Museum Hours: From mid-May through August 9am to 9pm. It can be very busy in July and August, the evenings can be a great way to avoid the crowds. Hours are reduced in September through mid-May and after September the museum is closed on Mondays. Check their website for their current schedule.
- Address: 1500 N Dinosaur Trail, Drumheller, AB
- Directions: 6 km (about 4 miles) northwest of Drumheller, in Midland Provincial Park
- Website: Tyrrell Museum Phone: 1-888-440-4240
Midland Provincial Park
The Royal Tyrrell Museum stands on the southwest corner of the 280-hectare Midland Provincial Park. A trailhead a few hundred meters east of the museum marks a 1.4 km interpretative walk. Signs show how the glacial forces sculpted the badlands from 70 million year old layers of sedimentary rock. Further east of this path is another self guided tour that goes past the remains of old coal mining sites. This was once the town of Midlandvale, it was home to several hundred residents and four major coal mines. Six hundred acres of the coal mine land was donated to the province to form the Midland Provincial Park.
McMullen Island Park shares the same park grounds as the museum making up part of the Midland Provincial Park. It is a day use picnic area situated on the banks of the Red Deer River with lush green areas and trees. It’s quite a contrast to the mostly dry and barren badlands.
The Dinosaur Trail
This is a 48 km route that runs west from the town of Drumheller. The North Dinosaur Trail on Hwy 838 follows the north side of the Red Deer River into Midland Provincial Park and through the Valley of the Dinosaurs. After crossing the river on a cable ferry it loops around to return to town on the South Dinosaur Trail, utilizing portions of Hwy 575 and 827.
The drive can be done as a self guided tour. Start the loop at the Visitor Center where you can pick up a map marking the points of interest in the Drumheller Valley and viewpoints overlooking the Badland coulees. Depending on what you want to see along the route allow between one and three hours, longer if you plan on visiting the Tyrrell Museum at the same time.
Heading west on North Dinosaur Trail the points of interest are in the following order:
- Homestead Antique Museum – local history items from settlement camps from aboriginals and pioneer farmers in the area
- Fossil World shop – dinosaur exhibit of sculpted creatures
- Midland Provincial Park – picnic areas by the river and a hike around an old mine site
- Royal Tyrrell Museum – allow several hours just for this attraction
- Midland Provincial Park – wander through the old mine site
- The Little Church – cute little church that seats only 6 people
- Horsethief Canyon – landscape of coulees and fossil oyster beds
- Bleriot Ferry – crosses the Red Deer River to South Dinosaur Trail
- Orkney Viewpoint – a great place to take photos of the valley before heading back to Drumheller
The Little White Church
Located on the north side of Dinosaur Trail near the Royal Tyrrell Museum this little white church was built in 1958 as a place of worship. It’s 7 by 11 feet in size, complete with a steeple and brass bell. The church can hold 6 people and the minister. People actually have weddings here!
Horsethief Canyon is approximately 10 km’s past the Tyrrell Museum on Highway 838. It’s very similar and just as beautiful in appearance as the Horshoe Canyon, but less visited. Both were created by different tributaries of the Red Deer River. The true reason of the name is not clear, but it’s rumored that stolen horses were hid in the coulees for rebranding before being shipped off the state of Montana for sale. Footpaths lead down into the canyon to fossizlized oyster beds, but be cautious as it’s very easy to get lost.
The Bleriot Ferry
The Bleriot ferry crosses the Red Deer River connecting the north Dinosaur trail ( Hwy 837) with the south Dinosaur Trail (Hwy 838). With a 5 minute crossing time it’s probably the shortest ferry you will ever take. The unique cable operated system is the last of its kind being operated in Alberta, it’s been running since 1913. Be prepared for a bit of a wait in the summer months, it can only take about a dozen cars at a time. The ferry runs from the spring ice break up to the late fall freeze up, check with the visitor center to confirm operating times beforehand.
As you head back towards Drumheller on the South Dinosaur Trail stop at the Orkney Viewpoint that overlooks the Red Deer River Valley.
Hoodoo Trail Drive
Highway 10 heading southeast from Drumheller is known as the Hoodoo Trail. It’s a route offering a look into the historic past of coal mining in the area. It takes you to ghost towns and the unique rock formations called Hoodoos. The points of interest along the Hoodoo Trail are marked out on the same map as the Dinosaur Trail available from the visitor center. Allow approximately 2 hours for the return drive, longer if you are stopping at any sights.
Points of Interest On the Hoodoo Trail Drive
- Rosedale Suspension Bridge
- Side trip to Wayne
- Hoodoo Recreation Area
- East Coulee School Museum
- Atlas Coal Mine
- Hamlet of Dorothy
Rosedale Swinging Suspension Bridge
One of the first points of interest along the route is the Rosedale swinging suspension foot bridge crossing the Red Deer River. You’ll reach it approximately 8 km’s from Drumheller. Follow the signs through Rosedale town to the reconstructed 117 meter suspension bridge. On the north side of the river are a variety of hiking trails through the abandoned remains of the Star Mine.
Historic Hamlet Of Wayne
At Rosedale you can take a side trip onto the Highway 10x turnoff to the near ghost town of Wayne. It was once a prosperous coal mining community. It had 6 coal mines in the 1920’s and 30’s and a population of 2500. The last population count was 27. On the way to the small hamlet the road zigzags across the Rosebud River on eleven narrow bridges in a span of just 7 km’s. Wayne is home to the historic Last Chance Saloon at the Rosedeer Hotel. It remains as a relic from the bustling coal mining era. Several short hikes around Wayne lead to old mining ruins. Take note that the paved road ends at Wayne. There is an option to get through to East Coulee, but it requires going over a steep gravel road. It’s best to head back the way you came back to Highway 10 and then continue east. Last Chance Saloon
Hoodoo Recreation Area
Back on Highway 10 and continuing southeast will bring you to the highlight of the drive, the Hoodoo Provincial Recreation Day Use Area. It offers some of the best examples of hoodoos. Straight from Drumheller it’s approximately a 15 minute drive.
Hoodoos are pillars of sand and clay that have been created through millions of years of erosion. A harder capstone shelters the softer base beneath while the surrounding earth around it is eroded by wind, water and thawing and freezing cycles. This leaves behind a free standing pillar that looks like a mushroom shape. Some of them are over 20 feet tall. The Hoodoos are very delicate, help preserve them by staying on the designated pathways.
East Coulee And The School Museum
Shortly after the hoodoos is the town of East Coulee, once a booming coal mining town. At the School Museum you can get a feel for what life was like in a coal mining town including a 1936 classroom and have tea or lunch in the Willow Tea Room. East Coulee School Museum
Atlas Coal Mine
The Atlas Mine has been preserved as a provincial historic site. It was the most modern mine in the area. When it ceased operating in 1979 it was the end of coal mining reign in the Drumheller Valley. Guided tours are available to go to the top of the eight story high wooden coal tipple. This is one of the last mines in North America with a wooden surface-standing tipple. The tour also goes through the historic buildings and allows you to see exhibits of the mining equipment. Atlas Coal Mine
Hamlet Of Dorothy
Another 10 km’s past the Atlas Coal Mine on Highway 570 is the tiny hamlet of Dorothy with less than a dozen residents. It will give you a taste of what a pioneering community was like. There are many abandoned buildings including several houses, two historic churches and a grain elevator. Visitors can browse through a small museum.
Exploring Other Areas Of The Canadian Badlands
You could easily spend weeks or even months visiting all the other places in the Canadian Badlands. Below are some of the other most popular places and attractions. Canadian Badlands Information
Tip: When driving around the badland areas make sure you keep your tank filled up. In many areas the gas stations are few and far between.
Hamlet Of Rosebud
A popular stop when driving between Calgary and Drumheller is the town of Rosebud. It’s located 35 km’s southwest of Drumheller on Hwy 840.
The charming hamlet has fewer than one hundred residents, but it is a tourist and fine arts attraction. The old community hall, originally a grain storage facility was renovated into a 220 seat Opera House that attracts thousands annually to its productions. It has a 9 hole golf course, a Centennial Museum, an art gallery, recording studio and several bed and breakfast accommodations. A self-guided walking tour of the town will take you through the pioneer history. Rosebud Tourism
Trekkie Town of Vulcan
The Town of Vulcan is located about an hour southeast of Calgary on Highway 23. The town has capitalized on the coincidental name of Vulcan to help make it a tourist attraction. It has built a replica of the Star Ship Enterprise next to a spaceship shaped visitor center, called the Tourism and Trek Station. It provides tourist information, displays Star Trek memorabilia and offers photo opportunities in Star Trek outfits. The town hosts an annual Star Trek convention known as Spock Days, attracting Star Trek fans from around the world. Vulcan Tourism
Writing On Stone Provincial Park
This is a sacred landscape with special spiritual significance to the Blackfoot people. The area has one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the North American Plains. The First Nations petroglyph carvings and pictograph paintings cover the sandstone cliffs. The park has camping, a day use area, fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. Writing On Stone Provincial Park
Dinosaur Provincial Park
Dinosaur Provincial park is often mistakenly thought to be near Drumheller, but it is 177 km’s southeast. The drive between the two places takes a little over 2 hours. It is home to the Tyrrell Museum Field Station and the source of many of its fossils. The visitor center provides information and houses a gift shop. This is also where you can book guided hikes, bus tours and hands-on excavations. In the summer months it’s best to book ahead, the programs fill up quickly. The vast landscape of hoodoos and canyons is its own attraction. There’s walking trails and a day use picnic area with tables and fire pits. There’s a nearby campground within the Provincial Park. Dinosaur Provincial Park
When Is The Best Time To Visit Drumheller And The Canadian Badlands?
The tourism aspect of the Drumheller area is very seasonal. Some of the large attractions are open year round, others are closed or have limited hours from October To April. The most ideal time to visit for sunny weather and to ensure access to all the attractions is from late June to early September. Keep in mind early June can be rainy and the summer months are usually very hot. The heat can get overwhelming in the dry, rocky badlands of the Drumheller Valley. Daytime temperatures can be above 30C. (85F.). Be sure to pack plenty of water and sun protection. If possible try to plan your outdoor excursions for the cooler hours of morning and early evening.
How Much Time Is Needed For The Drumheller Area?
Ideally you will want two days to take in everything Drumheller and the surrounding areas have to offer. This will allow you to time to drive the Dinosaur Trail, see the Hoodoos, visit the Tyrrell Museum and take additional side trips to Wayne, Dorothy or Rosebud.
Drumheller has a couple of larger hotel chains, some smaller motels and a few B&B options. The amount of places to stay is limited in comparison to a bigger city. Advance reservations are highly recommended for the busy summer months.
There’s camping and RV parking options in Drumheller and along the Dinosaur and Hoodoo Trail. They are often full by the afternoon. Book ahead for the campgrounds that allow reservations or show up early in the day for the first come, first served ones.
Other camping options are in Rosedale, Wayne, Cambria and in surrounding areas such as Rosebud, Dorothy, Delia, Michichi and Morrin. Drumheller Accommodations/Campgrounds
Drumheller Dining Options
Drumheller offers a variety of places to eat from pizza, burgers, Greek food to a Vietnamese noodle house. There’s a couple of family style restaurants, a flapjack house and even some of the typical chain establishments like McDonald’s, Tim Hortons, Dairy Queen and A&W. Drumheller Restaurants And Cafes
Directions To Drumheller From Calgary
Drumheller is 135km northeast of Calgary, about 1 hour 45 minutes by car. Drive north along Highway 2, then east along highway 72 and then highway 9. An alternative route is east along the Trans Canada Highway, then north along Highway 21, and east along highway 575, approaching the town from the west.
Distances and Times by Car From Other Alberta Cities To Drumheller
- Edmonton: 280 km (174 mi) 3 hrs
- Red Deer: 169 km (105 mi) 2 hrs
- Banff: 264 km (163 mi) 3 hrs
- Brooks: 138 km (85 mi) 1 hr 30 min
- Lethbridge: 302 km (188 mi) 3 hrs 15 min
- Medicine Hat: 251 km (156 mi) 2 hrs 30 min
Have your camera handy along Highway 9 as you head towards Drumheller. There’s lots of interesting photo opportunities that pop up from the flat prairie landscape.