One of the things that makes travelling in Alberta such a special experience is that the landscapes are so varied. Home to the Canadian Rockies, the Boreal Forest, the Foothills, the Prairies, and the Alberta Badlands, there is so much beauty in this province and so many things to do in Alberta.
Things have certainly changed though. 75 million years ago, for example, southern Alberta was a subtropical region with towering redwoods and giant ferns, not to mention a landscape teeming with dinosaurs. It is this very history along with the stunning landscapes that makes this area one of Alberta’s tourism gems today.
If you’re after dramatic landscapes, gorgeous hikes, cool towns, and an incredible prehistoric history with dinosaurs, the Alberta Badlands is a great place to go. Collectively referred to as the Canadian Badlands, it stretches more than 35,000-square-miles through a significant portion of central and southern Alberta, with two of the most famous places being the town of Drumheller and Dinosaur Provincial Park.
In this guide, we’ll show you what to do, where to go, how to get there, and more!
Alberta Badlands History
Before we get into the fun tourism part of the Alberta Badlands, we thought we’d give some quick insight into the history of the area.
75 million years ago, southern Alberta was a subtropical region with towering redwoods and giant ferns, a fertile ground for dinosaurs. Today, those fertile plains have become a world of multi-hued canyons and wind-sculpted hoodoos. Spanning east from Drumheller to the Saskatchewan border and south to the United States, this region is known as the Canadian Badlands and is home to the largest deposits of dinosaur bones in the world. Some also call it the Alberta Badlands, as this is the only province they’re found in.
In more recent history, The Alberta Badlands owes part of its transformation to both the coal industry and the vast amount of dinosaur bones buried underneath it. There is literally nowhere else on Earth that has both the quantity and quality of prehistoric remains than the arid badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where digs are still on-going.
Nowadays, Drumheller and the Canadian Badlands are a hotbed for anyone interested in Dinosaurs, incredible sunsets, and majestic-looking landscapes that are perfect for hiking and sightseeing.
Reading Tip: Want something to read before you go? Check out Dinosaur Provincial Park: A Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed by Phillip J. Currie and Eva B. Kopelhus (Indiana University Press, 2005). This book gives a scientific overview of the park’s major fossil excavations, flora and fauna, and history while also including illustrations of the park’s animals by some of the world’s finest paleoartists.
Best Time to Visit the Alberta Badlands
As with most of Canada, the best time to visit the Alberta Badlands is during the warmer months between June and September. The fall can also be a good time and the winter certainly offers dramatic white landscapes, but for maximum activities and attractions, mid-June to late September is best.
How to Get Around the Badlands
Unless you’re just visiting the area around Drumheller (see below), tours and bus trips are unlikely. You will need your own vehicle. You can rent a car from any major centre, including Calgary, Lethbridge, Edmonton, Red Deer, and Medicine Hat. The roads are very well maintained and are easy to drive. In fact, most of the driving is fairly flat and straight. While gas stations can be found all over the place, this area is not very populated, so it’s wise to fill up whenever you can. For the safest trip, we recommend spring, summer, or fall. The winter is also a beautiful time to visit, but we only recommend that if you have winter-driving experience, as this area is prone to winter storms and snowfalls.
What to Do in the Alberta Badlands
In a land where the dinosaurs used to roam, the Alberta Badlands is nothing short of spectacular. Get ready to explore incredible rock formations and fossil beds. Snap a photo next to a hoodoo, take a hike inside Horseshoe Canyon, and marvel at the massive prehistoric specimens at the Royal Tyrell Museum.
Explore the Royal Tyrell Museum
The most famous site of them all, located in the Alberta Badlands top city of Drumheller, is the world-famous Royal Tyrell Museum. From Calgary to Drumheller, the drive is less than two hours, which makes it an excellent day trip from Calgary but also a place you could easily spend a few days. Many iconic badlands attractions are located within Drumheller and the surrounding region, but no visit would be complete without a stop at this museum.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is a paleontology museum that houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs. Young or old, this place is an incredible place to learn about the massive creatures that use to roam this planet. You can even dig for a fossil in the real-life quarry or take a guided tour of the Badlands. The museum offers a tour where you can get to know all the scientists that have helped to build up the collection. However, even without the tours or activities, a half-day looking at all the specimens makes for an incredible day of learning.
(Want to explore even more? Then check out our guide to the best things to do in Drumheller that includes where to eat, stay, and more.)
Midland Provincial Park
This is actually the area where you’ll find the Royal Tyrell Museum, so if you’re looking for some beautiful badlands scenery and hiking trails, look no further than right outside the museum itself, which offers great spots for hiking and wildlife viewing. It is also the site of the former Midland Coal mine and is known for the horrible tragedy of the mid-1920s. Be sure to visit the fossil beds and the old mine site while you’re there!
Get into the Mouth of the World’s Largest Dinosaur
Another fun and famous attraction in Drumheller, especially for kids, is the world’s largest dinosaur. This massive dino-attraction stands 86 feet (25 metres) tall, is reached by a 106-stair climb, is 4.5 times bigger than an actual T-Rex, weighs 145,000 pounds, and can fit 12 people in its mouth, which despite the bad breath (just kidding), offers good views of the surrounding area.
Explore Horseshoe Canyon and Horsethief Canyon
For the most dramatic views in the area, if not the entire Alberta Badlands, is the views over Horseshoe Canyon and Horsethief Canyon. Whether you stop to just look out over the incredible landscapes or strap on your boots for a few hours of hiking, this is a must-visit when exploring Drumheller.
Visit the Little Church
As a kid, one of my favourite memories about Drumheller was visiting the cute Little Church, a miniature church in the desert that’s big enough for maybe 6 people at best. The little church was actually built back in 1968 and then rebuilt by prisoners from the Drumheller Institution in 1991. There’s not much to it but it is a functional chapel that holds regular services and can fit in most people’s backyards.
Visit the Ghost Town of Wayne
After Drumheller, you really shouldn’t pass up the opportunity for a short little road trip to the ghost town of Wayne, Alberta. Driving along Highway 56, you’ll pass over 11 bridges before reaching the town, where you can stop into the Last Chance Saloon for a delicious meal, beer, and a chance to learn about its “haunted” history along with the”wild west” bullet holes still in the walls. On the way to the town, you’ll also cross over 11 wooden bridges, all of which cross over the snaking Rosebud Creek, making for a scenic road trip in and of itself.
Rosedale Suspension Bridge
Looking for a simple, fun, and scenic thing to do in the Alberta Badlands? The Rosedale Suspension Bridge is a 117-metre long bridge that crosses the Red Deer River in Rosedale. It was originally built to allow the miners on the north side of the river to get across to the Rosedale community. Until that bridge was built-in 1931, the miners had to cross in rowboats, which is much more of an inconvenience. Today, it is open to the public and you can take the walk by yourself and enjoy the scenery at your own pace.
Walk the Hoodoos Trail
Located on Highway 10, not far from Drumheller, Hoodoos Trail is the best way to explore the Hoodoos of Dinosaur Valley. A hoodoo, which is also known as a fairy chimney, is basically a thin rock that protrudes from an arid rock basin or Badlands. On top of the hoodoo is a soft rock with softer, eroded stone as the column. If the rock topper is dislodged the hoodoo can erode completely, which is why it is prohibited to climb them.
The hoodoos can be seen right from the highway, but it really is worth the stop to admire them up close. After all, it took millions of years to form these unique natural art pieces.
Ride the Bleriot Ferry
The cable-operated Bleriot Ferry links the two sections of the North Dinosaur Trail near Drumheller (Highway 838) as it crosses the Red Deer River, from Kneehill County on the west to Starland County on the east. It was built by Andre Bleriot in 1913. We wouldn’t say it’s a “must-do” attraction, but it is quite unique and provided a wonderful detour that connects the roads between Horsethief Canyon and Orkney Viewpoint. The ferry ride is free and takes about seven minutes but it only runs seasonally between late May and early September. Check the website for more details.
Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site
If you’re looking for some human history in the area, another great spot to visit is the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site. Once a working mine back in the early 1900s, it now features historic surface plant buildings, a wash house, a lamp house, a supply house, and an interpretive building. You can walk in the footsteps of the miners around the tipple trail and get insight into the stories vi the many interpretive panels. Whether you choose to go underground on a tour or stay above ground and still learn about how it worked, the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site is great for the whole family. The mine is typically open from May to October.
The Canadian Badlands Passion Play
For those of you into religion and/or plays, the Canadian Badlands Passion Play should be high on your bucket list. Staged in a natural amphitheatre in July, this play takes you back 2,000 years to tell the story of Jesus Christ. Started in the 1960s, the play is a portrayal of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The play has won numerous awards over the years and really is worth a visit. Keep in mind, however, that this play is done outdoors and in all weather, so you’ll want to prepare in advance and pack accordingly.
Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
Not too far north of Drumheller near Trochu, Alberta is a secret gem within the Alberta Provincial Park system. With beautiful views of the Red Deer River valley, Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park boasts over 150 different species of birds, a boat launch for paddlers, and a number of trails that snake their way throughout the coulees and native grasslands. The park is day-use only though, so don’t expect to camp. It can also close due to wet weather.
Explore Dinosaur Provincial Park
Located 165 kilometres east of Drumheller is Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers both camping and a range of activities. If you’re wondering how it earned its name, it’s actually home to the biggest fossil deposit sites in the world and has unearthed more than 50 different dinosaur species over the years. Fossils range from the largest carnivorous dinosaurs right down to the smallest microscopic fern spores. Whether you decide to spend the night or not, there are a variety of guided tours and hikes, both of which can help you learn the history of the area.
If you happen to be driving from Calgary, it’s an excellent road trip that transitions from the Alberta prairies to the painted coulees of the Canadian Badlands. It really is a gorgeous drive.
Admire the Brooks Aquaduct
Not too far from the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park is the small town of Brooks, which is also home to the Brooks Aquaduct, a 3.2km long aqueduct suspended 20 metres above the ground that once supplied water to the southwest croplands of Alberta. Built back in 1910, it really is an engineering marvel and was completed in partnership with the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The Bassano Dam is a reservoir for the local communities and is part of the irrigation system for the surrounding farmlands. The Dam forms part of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s mainline. The highest point of the dam is 150 metres wide at the base. The amount of water the dam holds is an incredible sight to see. Some people like to have a picnic here but just admiring the architecture is also great. The dam was refurbished in 1984 and today it offers irrigation water to more than 1500 farmers that are part of the irrigation system.
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park
Those looking for indigenous culture should not miss out on the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, which preserves the site of the signing of Treaty No.7 and showcases the culture, traditions and history of Siksika Nation Peoples. Visitors can take an indoor tour of the exhibit hall with a local Siksika guide, go hiking, see traditional dances, or even stay in the Tipi Village.
Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur & Heritage Museum
Want more dinosaurs? Head over to Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Museum in Warner, which is just 50 minutes south of Lethbridge) to learn about the exciting discovery of a dinosaur eggshell that began the exploration of this area. In the museum, you’ll see everything from a Hadrosaur nest and embryo to murals, exhibits, ancient fossils, and dinosaur models. It’s not just dinosaurs though. The museum also features a Heritage Gallery with artifacts and stories from the early days of the Warner region, from settlers to the two World Wars.
Visit the City of Lethbridge
Not only is Lethbridge the biggest city within the Alberta Badlands but it’s also the third biggest city in the province. One of the most striking features of Lethbridge is the dramatic coulee, which goes right through the heart of the city. You really can’t miss them and you can drive right through via Whoop-Up drive. You can also get fabulous views of the coulees from the Galt Museum or can go hiking all around them. There are also some really cool sites within the coulees, including Fort Whoop-Up and the Helen Schuler Nature Centre.
(Want to explore even more? Then check out our guide to the best things to do in Lethbridge that includes where to eat, stay, and more.)
Alberta Birds of Prey Centre
Located just outside of Lethbridge in Coaldale is the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, which offers visitors the unique opportunity to get an interactive experience with Alberta’s birds of prey. From experiencing a visit from a friendly owl to learning ancient falconry training methods, this place is incredible for anyone interested in birds or wildlife in general. There are also daily interpretive programs featuring eagles and hawks will fly free and visitor admissions help this non-profit organization return injured and orphaned owls, eagles, and hawks back to the wild.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is one of the most gorgeous places to not only enjoy the Alberta Badlands but to also learn about the vast history of the Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot Nation). You’ll find thousands of rock art drawings and carvings, many of which date back to 1050 BC! This is one place where we highly recommend taking the very informative tour offered by the visitor centre. Whether you snag a spot at the campground or just visit for the day, Writing-on-Stone is a gem!
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s just a short drive north of Lethbridge is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a site that dates back 6,000 years when the Blackfoot hunted buffalo by driving them off cliffs. The building itself, which won the Governor General’s Award for Architecture, is worth the visit alone, but the incredible wealth of information and history inside makes this a must-see destination. In fact, we’ve been here many times and recently had the opportunity to experience “Piskun, the Buffalo Jump”, a 3-hour immersive experience that takes visitors back in time to learn the basics of buffalo hunting, get deeper into the Blackfoot culture, and get a much better appreciation of the site.
You may also like Fort Macleod: Although we don’t really consider Fort Macleod as part of the badlands, it is very close to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and is home to the wonderful Fort Macleod Museum and NWMP musical ride, which is held during the summer months.
Gopher Hole Museum
Another unique and truly odd-ball experience is the Gopher Hole Museum, which isn’t too far from Drumheller and Highway 2. Located in Torrington, Alberta, this attraction features stuffed gophers (aka Richardson ground squirrels) posed in a series of 47 anthropomorphic scenes, from a hairdresser to an RCMP officer. Did we say odd?
Explore the City of Medicine Hat
Another major city (by Canadian standards) that sits within the Canadian Badlands and is not too far from Saskatchewan is Medicine Hat. Here you’ll find an array of accommodation and restaurants as well as some outdoor adventure, cultural events, and the World’s Largest Teepee. Another popular attraction here is Medalta Potteries in the old clay district, which is known as being one of the best things to buy on a Canadian Badlands vacation.
Admire the Unique Boulders at Red Rock Coulee
Not too far south of Medicine Hat are the unique and fascinating boulders of Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. Popular for hiking, hunting, geocaching, and wildlife viewing, this area is full of dramatic badland scenery. This area features large red spherical sandstone concretions that have eroded out of the softer bedrock, which just so happens to be the best example of spheroid rock formations in Alberta. Concretions measure up to 2.5 metres across and are believed to be among the largest in the world. Wildlife you might be lucky enough to see include white-tailed jackrabbits, mule deer, pronghorn, western rattlesnakes, bull snakes, short-horned lizards and scorpions.
Outdoor Adventure in Cypress Hills
Another very popular outdoor area is Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, which is shared between Alberta and Saskatchewan. This is a great spot for those looking for outdoor adventure and camping, although there are a number of lodges and cottages as well. Popular activities include canoeing, SUP-ing, Kayaking, hiking, and so much more. Even in the winter, Cypress Hills is a wonderful spot to go snowshoeing, tobogganing, and skiing! While here, don’t miss a meal at Camp Cookhouse, which is run by a former Top Chef contestant.
Where to Stay in the Alberta Badlands
Considering the vast size of the Alberta Badlands, we can’t recommend all the accommodation that fills this destination. However, some of the most popular places to stay include:
Dinosaur Provincial Park: Families who want to maximize their prehistoric exposure should consider camping out in Dinosaur Provincial Park, where paleontological digs continue.
Beyond: There are hotels and motels all around this area. With so many small towns, there’s a variety of choices for most budgets. There’s also campgrounds for those looking to pitch a tent or perhaps an RV. If you’re after more of a Wild West vacation, you can find ranch vacation options from deluxe to rustic and from city slicker to hardcore across the region. Elkwater Lake Lodge has pet-friendly suites.
Explore the Canadian Badlands
Considering that Alberta is the only place home to the Canadian Badlands, this province is a great place for an adventure. Whether you’re game to spend all your time in the hotbed of former dinosaurs or if you’d rather split up with some time in the magnificent Canadian Rockies, there’s no shortage of incredible things to do in Alberta.
For more, consider checking out these articles below:
- Things to Do in Calgary
- Things to Do in Edmonton
- Things to Do in Saskatchewan
- Things to Do in Regina
- Things to Do in Saskatoon
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