Story by Ilona Biro
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
DRUMHELLER, ALBERTA — When our family thundered into the Canadian Badlands on a dinosaur-hunting holiday, we did it in an armoured beast of our own — a 25–foot recreational vehicle. We’d come to search for the fossil remains of some of the most bloodthirsty beasts of the Late Cretaceous period, and our kids thought it might be wise to have a little extra protection. So, for five days our beloved RV became our home away from home.
Safely cocooned, we had the best of both worlds. Camped underneath 75-million-year-old rock faces, we were still able to enjoy our creature comforts — soft beds, a solid roof, and instant access to ice cream and running water. For an urban family trying out camping for the first time, RVing struck the perfect balance of rough and luxe.
Our prehistoric road trip began in Calgary, 140 kilometres (88 miles) from the heart of the badlands. Our vacation planning was simple — fly into town, see a bit of the Calgary Stampede, and then grab our RV from the rental company and head out on the road.
Rumbling out of Calgary in our rig, we got our first glimpse of the badlands at Horseshoe Canyon, where the prairie abruptly ends and cracks wide open, exposing steep sandstone canyons. Streaked with the deep red ochre of ironstone, these fast-eroding walls are awash in dinosaur bones, making Alberta’s badlands one of the richest prehistoric bone beds on the planet. A day of rain can wash away enough sandy grit to expose a 65-million-year-old skeleton.
Perched at the canyon’s edge, a fossil shop brimmed with trilobites, ammonites, and crocodile teeth. We oohed and ahhed over them, anxious to start exploring and spotting some of our own. So we headed a few more kilometres into Drumheller, home of the World’s Largest Dinosaur (which we climbed) and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, one of the finest paleontology museums in the world.
As we settled into our campsite on the banks of the Red Deer River, we imagined herds of dinosaurs thundering through this weather-beaten and mud-caked landscape. But when dinosaurs ruled in southern Alberta, things looked entirely different — a fact we were to discover the next day, when we toured the incredible Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Walk with Dinosaurs in Alberta
Standing in the museum’s Dinosaur Hall the next morning, we saw the badlands as they looked 75 million years ago — an oozing, subtropical swampland, on the edge of a shallow sea that geologists have dubbed the Bearpaw. Posed in front of this panorama were 40 or more towering dinosaur skeletons, duking it out in grand prehistoric style.
Walking through this awesome place it was easy to see why the Tyrrell is regularly ranked among the finest museums in the world and why Drumheller, celebrating its 100th anniversary, was named Vacay.ca’s No. 3 Place to Visit in Canada for 2013. Chronological galleries take visitors back to the 4-billion-year-old primordial soup, whose remains turned up in Yoho National Park’s Burgess Shale, and then forward to the present mammal-dominated world we’re familiar with today. We marvelled at Black Beauty — a pitch-black Tyrannosaurus Rex skull that was pulled out of a mountainside near the Crowsnest Pass — and wondered how many more discoveries were yet to be made, right outside the doors of the museum.
After hiking along trails that surround the museum grounds, we headed to Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about two hours south of Drumheller. This is where most of the specimens at the Tyrrell were found, and where visitors can pick up a dinosaur species checklist along with the usual birding and animal-spotting lists. Activity in the park is centred around the Field Station, where visitors can sign up for park tours; but during the busy summer months it’s advisable to reserve tickets well in advance, through the park website.
In our three days at the park, we almost did it all — five self-guided hikes, a lab talk, and a Badlands bus tour. Our kids joined other campers in mock game shows like Dinosaur Family Feud and “paleomusicals” staged by park staff in the outdoor amphitheatre. But our absolute favourite tour of the trip was the Fossil Bed Safari. This is where kids and grown-ups are let loose on an ancient bone bed, searching for signs of fossils underfoot. “You’re in luck,” said safari guide Kamala Hutchison. “It rained last night, so it should be even easier to find them.”
And was she ever right. The ground was awash in bones, and within minutes every one of us had made a discovery. During our morning of prospecting, we lost count of the number of dinosaur bones, turtle-shell fragments, and crocodile teeth that were found and duly identified by Hutchison. “Way funner than the bus tour,” said 12-year-old Jake Hudson from Edmonton.
Thanks to the constant erosion that gives the badlands its ever-changing face, fossils are exposed or literally washed down the hillsides with every rainfall. As park supervisor Fred Hammer put it, “We get a totally new park here every 10 to 15 years.” Or, as I overheard one visitor say to his wife, “If you don’t like the landscape, just wait a minute.” For kids (of all ages) who dream of discovering dinosaur bones, this corner of Alberta is pure paradise.
More About Royal Tyrrell Museum
Telephone: 1-888-440-4240 (toll free)
Admission: Adults (18-64) $11 one-day, $16.50 two-day; Youth (7-17) $6 one-day, $9 two-day; Kids free
Hours: Daily, 9 am-9 pm until August 31, 2013; fall and winter hours are 10 am-5pm, Tueday through Sunday
Gift Shop: www.tyrrellmuseumshop.com/shop/shoppingcart/products.php
Gift Shop Contact: 1-403-823-7707 ext 6229, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
More about Dinosaur Provincial Park
Contact: 1-403-378-4342 Extension 235