Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: July 2022
Drumheller is known as the dinosaur capital of the world. It is located in the Canadian Badlands just northeast of Calgary and has been home to a significant amount of dinosaur-related discoveries, including fossils and skeletons. The landscape also contains an impressive display of rock formations, canyons and hoodoos.
We started our day at the Horseshoe Canyon, which is located just west of Drumheller. From the parking lot there’s a trail that leads to several viewing platforms along the rim of the u-shaped canyon. It also winds down to the canyon floor for a closer perspective of the barren landscape and interesting rock formations. The layers in the rocks represent passages of time down to the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs once roamed the region millions of years ago.
It was a bit of a gloomy day, but the overcast was probably a good thing since we were out in the open. The clouds (or the bug spray) provided minimal protection from the mosquitoes, which were out in full force. We didn’t complete the entire trail through the canyon as the bugs were brutal. Plus we had other places to be (that were bug free).
Along the way, we passed the welcome sign for Drumheller and naturally had to pull over to take a picture since it had a dinosaur on it.
We had booked tickets to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in advance, which was probably a good thing as the parking lot was packed. The museum features one of the largest displays of dinosaurs in the world and focuses on many specimens found within Alberta. There are thirteen exhibits that highlight the history and evolution of dinosaurs through the different eras and showcase some of the most significant fossils in the museum’s collection. Alberta takes their dinosaur fossils very seriously and it is actually illegal to remove or sell any fossils from the province without the permission from the Alberta government.
Afterwards we hiked along the Badlands Interpretive Trail (1.4km loop) located in Midland Provincial Park, across from the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The trail weaves through the badlands and contains twelve interpretive signs that provide more information about the unique geology of the area. After the first signpost, the trail splits off to form a loop through the valley. There aren’t too many plants found in the valley of the badlands, but we did come across some prickly-pear cacti.
While Drumheller is best known for its badlands and dinosaurs, it also has a history of coal mining and was once the largest coal producers in Canada. The town was actually named after Samuel Drumheller who started coal mining operations in the area in the early 1900s. To learn more about the history of mining in Drumheller, we visited the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site, which is considered to be the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and has the last standing wooden coal tipple in the country.
The national historic site includes a collection of old mining equipment and buildings, along with storyboards that provide more information about the history of the Atlas Coal Mine, which operated from 1936 to 1979 until natural gas became more popular for heating homes.
We signed up for the Mine Portal Tour (75 minutes, rated difficult) to learn more about the history of the mine and to get a sneak peak into the reconstructed entrance of the mine. The tour started at the Washhouse where we were provided with hard hats and headlamps. Our guide then led us up the valley wall and through the wooden tipple, which was used to load the coal into rail cars. The first half of the tour was predominantly uphill and involved a lot of stair climbing, but we made several stops along the way to take a break and learn more about the mining machinery and the conditions and dangers of working in the mine.
Once we wrapped up our tour, we hit the road again. We made a quick detour to see the Drumheller Hoodoos, a small group of sandstone rock pillars that have been shaped by erosion. The pillars are topped with a harder rock that protects the softer rock underneath from eroding as quickly as the surrounding rock. There’s a short trail that loops around the hoodoos. Typically there’s a small fee to park, but since we were visiting later in the afternoon, there was no one around to collect our toonie.
We then made another quick stop at the Horsethief Canyon to get another spectacular view of the Badlands. Legend has it that back in the day, the canyon was used by horse thieves to smuggle and hide livestock. Horses would often disappear in the canyon only to reappear a few days later with a different brand on the other side of the valley.
From Drumheller we planned to drive to Elk Island National Park to spend the last couple of days of our vacation and road trip.