Known as one of the richest dinosaur fossil destinations in the world, Dinosaur Provincial Park is one of Alberta’s top travel destinations and is a must-visit for anyone interested in spectacular badland scenery and all-things dinosaur.
Located in the spectacular Canadian Badlands (the largest of its kind in Canada), 160 km east of Drumheller, this UNESCO World Heritage Site offers a unique chance to explore the Badlands, find dinosaur fossils, and even participate in real excavations. Established in 1955, the 20,000-acre Dinosaur Provincial Park has become a paleontologists dream, with more than 50 species of dinosaurs being found here, including Lambeosaurus, Centrosaurus, Chasmosaurus, Corythosaurus, and Gorgosaurus.
There are all sorts of fun things to do in Dinosaur Provincial Park, including self-guided hikes, guided interpretive hikes, camping, and much more. Learn more about the best hikes, the best tours, and everything else there is to in Dinosaur Provincial Park below.
Before you go: Going for a hike in Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, is unique because there’s a high chance you’ll stumble upon dinosaur fossils. However, please keep in mind that it is highly illegal to take one home with you. The fine is $50,000, so it’s not something you want to get.
1. Get Amazing Views Right From the Start
There’s only one road into Dinosaur Provincial Park and right before you head down the hill to the Visitor Centre, you’ll see the welcome sign and a place to park and admire the park you’re about to explore. This viewpoint offers the most spectacular views of the entire area, giving you a really good glimpse of the Canadian Badlands.
2. Walk the Short Prairie Trail
If you’re eager for a short stroll, the first trailhead starts at the same parking lot where you’ll find the first viewpoint. Prairie Trail is a short 0.3 km hike but takes visitors through the often overlooked prairie grassland surrounding the park, giving you insight into how animals and plants survive and thrive in their dry and windy homes.
3. Visit the Visitor’s Centre & Museum
Once you enter the park, you’ll quickly come across the Visitor Centre and Museum. While the museum here is nothing compared to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, it’s only $2 to visit and is well worth it to see some of the dinosaur fossils they’ve found on site. One of the most impressive things to see is the large Lambeosaurus skeleton being attacked by multiple Dromeosauruses. It’s quite chilling. There are also lots of educational panels and movies throughout the day and it’s a great place to also learn about the geology and wildlife of the badlands today. Plus, you can ask the staff any questions you may have, use the washrooms, or buy something from the little gift shop.
While you can drop people off at the Visitor Centre, the parking lot is shared with the Cretaceous Cafe, which also doubles as the check-in for campers. From here, it’s just a short walk to the Visitor centre itself.
Tip: Download your dinosaur, bird, and flora checklist at Alberta Parks before arriving.
4. Take One of the Many Interpretive Tours
While walking around the badlands and looking at dinosaur skeletons is wonderful in and of itself, perhaps the coolest thing to do in Dinosaur Provincial Park is to take a guided Interpretive tour. In fact, we highly recommend signing up for an interpretive tour in advance, as not only do they sell out, but they really are a unique and incredible way to experience the Canadian Badlands and get a feel for paleontology. For the most part, Dinosaur Provincial Park is actually a nature reserve that is inaccessible to the general public. Aside from the short hiking trails mentioned in this article, the rest of the park is “out of bounds”. However, you can access those areas by taking an interpretive tour.
There are a variety of different tours here that last from two hours to two days, and all of them look awesome. We would have loved to do the 1-2 day guided excavation experience, which would be especially awesome for anyone really into paleontology, but since we didn’t have that much time to give, we opted for both the Fossil Hunters tour and the Cast From The Past tour. The Fossil Hunters tour is roughly 2.5 hours and takes you on a guided hike through the badlands to find fossil beds, which are areas of the park home to very concentrated amounts of fossils. We learned a lot along the way and got to search for fossils. Together, we found close to 100 fossils, some of which were teeth from crocodiles, bones from a T-Rex, and even shells from turtles. Cast From The Past, on the other hand, is a 1-hour tour at the Visitor Centre where you get to make your own cast from a real fossil, giving you a sort of behind-the-scenes tour of paleontology lab work.
Other tours include the Bare Bones Bus Tour, Bonebed Express, Beyond The Bones, Explorer’s Bus Tour, Centrosaurus Bonebed Hike, Family Dino Stomp, Fossil Safari, Golden Hour Wander, the Great Badlands Hike, and the 1-2 day Guided Excavations mentioned earlier.
Whatever tour you end up on, it’s bound to make your time at Dinosaur Provincial Park that much more memorable.
5. Drive the Scenic Loop
Just past the Visitor Centre and campground, you’ll reach the start of a four-kilometre one-way driving loop that takes you through a beautiful stretch of Dinosaur Provincial Park, including the trailheads for three of the self-guided hikes. This makes up the bulk of the publicly-accessible portion of the park and is obviously something you don’t want to miss.
Because it is a one-way loop, you can’t stop anywhere except for the four small parking lots along the way. In addition to driving, you can also bike or walk the loop as well.
6. Hike the Badlands Interpretive Trail
While making your way through the scenic driving loop, the first trailhead you’ll see is the Badlands Interpretive Trail. This 1.3 km trail takes you through the badlands while learning about the area through a series of interpretive panels. This was the first hike we did, and it’s a really beautiful one that doubles as an educational hike. In fact, this is the only trail in the park that allows visitors to access part of the nature preserve without taking an interpretive tour.
This trail features some mild elevation climbs and will take you past hoodoos and pinnacles, sandstone ridges, and areas of bentonite clay. The views are wonderful and it’s a great way to experience the Canadian Badlands.
7. Hike the Trail of the Fossil Hunters
The next trail you’ll find on the scenic driving loop is the Trail of the Fossil Finders, which is near the two dinosaur fossil displays that we’ll talk about below.
This 0.9 km trail leads to a 1913 quarry site, allowing visitors to relive the excitement of the early fossil hunts that came here in search of the next big discovery. It begins and ends at the second fossil shelter and features interpretive panels along the way to help bring you up to speed on the significance of the area as well as one of Alberta’s most famous paleontologists, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, who gives the name to the famous museum in Drumheller.
8. See the Two Dinosaur Fossil Displays
Located next to the trailhead for the Trail of the Fossil Finders is Fossil Display #2, which is also just a 2-minute walk from Fossil Display #1. Both of them have a parking area and both of them are cool to stop and see. Because they’re so close to each other, there’s no reason to park in both locations. Just pick one and walk to the other.
Fossil Display #1 contains the famous “headless hadrosaur”, which is still partially buried. This is a real fossil, which is quite incredible when you think about it. There are information panels that explain everything as well.
Fossil Display #2 features a replica of a real find in the area and is set up to look like a real excavation, giving you a look into the types of equipment they may use in the field.
9. Hike the Coulee Viewpoint Trail
Right next to the visitor centre is the trailhead for the Coulee Viewpoint Trail. This short 0.9 km trail is ranked as slightly more difficult due to the various climbs it features but offers beautiful views of the badlands, the campground area, and Little Sandhill Coulee. Upon return, you’ll get to walk through various deeply carved rills, pipes and tunnels. Please keep in mind, however, that this is a fair-weather trail, which means it won’t be accessible when the weather isn’t good. Rock surfaces here can become very slippery when wet.
10. Grab Some Food at the Cretaceous Café
While the Cretaceous Cafe is not listed here as a “thing to do” based on its remarkable food, it is listed here due to it being the only place to get food in the park. Whether you’re camping or coming on a day trip, the Cretaceous Cafe is the only place to eat. However, it’s not bad. They serve things like chicken fingers, burgers, wraps, and fries, and they also have lots of drinks, snacks, and sweets.
This is also where campers check in for camping and buy firewood and other camping supplies. There are also showers, washrooms, and washing machines.
11. Hike the Cottonwood Flats Trail
The last trail you’ll see on the scenic driving loop, just before you enter the campsite again, is the Cottonwood Flats Trail, which differs from the other hikes in the area as it takes visitors to the lush riverside world beneath the canopy of plains cottonwood trees. Birders will especially love this 1.4 km hike as the area is home to 165 species of birds. In fact, Dinosaur Provincial Park protects 26 km of riparian habitat along the banks of the Red Deer River.
12. Visit the John Ware Cabin
If you’re interested in a really unique slice of Alberta ranching history, don’t miss the John Ware Cabin, which is right behind the Cretaceous Cafe. This was the residence of a former African American slave that became a legendary cowboy in the United States before crossing over into Canada and calling Alberta Home. This cabin was where he lived his last five years of life, from 1900 to 1905.
It’s not too often you hear about African American cowboys, which is another reason why this site is so important. Reading about John Ware’s story at the cabin was really interesting. He was a truly remarkable figure who helped lay the foundations of Alberta’s ranching industry while overcoming prejudice and stereotypes.
Born a slave in the United States, he learned the fundamentals of ranching in Texas after the American Civil War. He then worked at the historic Bar U Ranch along Alberta’s Cowboy Trail, before settling down along the bank of the Red Deer River with his wife and five kids in 1900. Unfortunately, that original cabin got destroyed in a flood back in 1902, which is when they relocated to higher ground in a spot overlooking a stream now called Ware Creek. That second cabin went through extensive deterioration and in 1998, Parks Canada finally restored the cabin based on traditional log structure building techniques. After the cabin was completed, new interpretive displays were installed and the cabin became a site to explore in Dinosaur Provincial Park.
The cabin is free to visit between 10 am to 3 pm in July and August.
13. Take Your Kids to the Playground
Playgrounds don’t usually wind up in our “things to do” lists but in this case, we figured we’d give it a spot. After all, kids always love playgrounds and it’s not too often you find one next to a world-famous paleontology site.
This large playground can be found across the road from Cretaceous Café, near the campground. If you’re camping with kids, it will most likely be on your list, but even if you’re not camping, your kids will probably like to have some fun for an hour or so.
14. Dinosaur Provincial Park Camping
If you can, camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park would be the ideal experience. We tried to camp during our trip but it was too last minute to secure a spot. Camping here is limited and very popular, often booking up months in advance, especially for the busy summer months. However, if you can, they have two different campgrounds as well as comfort camping options.
The main campground is Dinosaur Campground and it is located right next to the Cretaceous Cafe and the John Ware Cabin. In fact, you have to drive through the campground to access the scenic driving loop and most of the hikes. There are more than 120 RV and tent-friendly sites, including unserviced, powered and pull-through options, which cost between $31 to $39 per night. The campground is nestled in a valley by the Red Deer River and is shaded by cottonwood trees. This campground is quite comfortable as there are indoor washrooms, showers, and even washing machines. In addition to the normal campground options, there are also comfort camping options now, offering walled tents for $100 to $115 per night.
The second campground is Steveville Bridge Campground, which is located outside of the main park. This campground can be found off Highway 876, close to the Red Deer River and the northern edge of Dinosaur Provincial Park. This campground is quite secluded. There are no services here and it is only optimal for tents or small camping units that are self-sufficient. There is no cell phone service, water, power or septic service available. This campground is not well suited to large camping units, but there is a fire pit, picnic tables, and a pit/vault toilet. This is also one of the cheapest campgrounds in Alberta, coming in at just $12 per night.
If you can’t get a camping spot or don’t want to go camping, we recommend staying at a hotel in Brooks. This small city is only a 30-minute drive and has many hotels to choose from.
15. Visit Brooks and the Brooks Aqueduct
Whether you’re looking for more things to do or a place to stay that’s close to Dinosaur Provincial Park, the best option is Brooks. This small city is only a 30-minute drive from the park and is home to many different hotels and restaurants, making it a convenient place to stay if you’re wishing to explore the park for a few days.
However, if you do stay in Brooks, you should go see the Brooks Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site. The Brooks Aqueduct was built between 1912 and 1914 as part of an irrigation system to provide water to the arid farmlands of southeastern Alberta and was once one of the largest concrete structures of its kind in the world. A visit only takes 10-20 minutes, unless you wish to go for a walk along the 3-km structure.
16. Cook Your Own Steak at the Steak Pit
Located in-between Brooks and Dinosaur Provincial Park is the Patricia Hotel, which is quite known for the Steak Pit restaurant. While you can order from the menu at this small “hole-in-the-wall” saloon-style bar, the most popular option is the DIY steaks and burgers. Inside the restaurant are two massive commercial grills. What you do is order your cut of steak or burger and then cook it yourself on the grill. They’ll also provide you with baked potatoes, garlic bread, salad, and soup.
17. Get Wet at Lake Newell
As you’ll notice when you’re exploring the Canadian Badlands, there’s not a lot of water. In fact, there are not a lot of lakes in the prairies of Alberta. However, Lake Newell is one of Alberta’s best-kept secrets. Located just 14 km south of Brooks, this is one of southern Alberta’s largest and warmest man-made lakes. The lake is massive and is great for all sorts of water activities, including canoeing, kayaking, sailing, boating, fishing, swimming, and more.
It’s easily explored from Brooks, but if you’re into camping, there are camping options at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, which is situated right on Lake Newell. Lake Newell is also home to Lake Newell resort, which includes a marina and boat launch facilities.
If you’re looking for a tour around the lake on a pontoon boat or speed boat, check out By The Lake Rentals. They offer tours by the hour, making it an easy way to get out on the lake without worrying about operating a boat.
Looking For More Things to Do?
As much as we love Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Canadian Badlands, there’s so much more to Alberta. If you’re looking for even more things to do in Alberta and beyond, check out these guides below: