Alberta Badlands Information
Located just under a two hour drive northeast of Calgary, Drumheller is the hub of the Badlands. From here, many visitors make daytrips and driving tours around the region. Geographically, the Badlands extend along the Red Deer River and southeast to Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks.
Other smaller pockets of badlands exist in southern Alberta, including the Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park area near the US border. For purposes of convenience, if not terrain, we will also feature here the area around the Cypress Hills, another beautifully panoramic area with sweeping grassland plateaus and western heritage found in the far east of the province.
The Badlands is a translation of the French, "les mauvaises terres," which is how explorers in 1743 saw the semi-arid environment around Drumheller. In fact, badlands are an incredibly unique and starkly beautiful ecosystem. It’s a landscape characterized by rocky buttes and sharp, winding canyons. Bare canyon walls expose millions of years of sedimentary layers that change hue in sun or shadow. Hoodoos – transient sandstone structures carved by erosion and wind – rear their heads like weird stone giants. The aboriginal tribes that lived on the badlands for thousands of years were inspired by them to create sacred pictographs, with the highest concentration of rock art being found at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. And, since Joseph Tyrrell discovered the first fossil in 1884, the badlands have become a focus for dinosaur study.
The area’s small communities have an established western history. So though visitors are initially drawn by the world-famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology and Dinosaur Provincial Park, many enjoy its other attractions, from dinner in a ghost town to farmer’s markets and rodeos, to a professional rural theatre company.Getting There/ Getting Around
Travel by car or Recreational Vehicle (RV) is almost essential for visting the Badlands unless you plan on taking part in an organized tour. Drumheller is about 130 km (81 mi) from Calgary and about 278 km (172 miles) or about a 4 hour drive from Edmonton. Check the Distance Calculator for suggested routes.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is technically down south in Cowboy Country, near the town of Milk River. You can get there via Highway 4, US Interstate 15, or Secondary Hwy 501. It is 297 km (186 miles) from Calgary, 85 km (53 miles) from Lethbridge and 20 km (12.5 miles) from Coutts/Sweetgrass USA.
Medicine Hat is 293 km(182 mi) southeast of Calgary and the Cypress Hills are 66 km(41mi) from "The Hat."Dinosaurs!
A fitting place to kick-off your Badlands and Drumheller adventure is inside the World’s Largest Dinosaur. Climb this 86-ft T-Rex and survey the surrounding Badlands from behind its giant teeth. Located conveniently beneath it is the Drumheller Information Centre, where you can get maps, book museum tours and even get help securing accommodation, which can be a challenge in the busy summer months.
Royal Tyrrell Museum – widely acclaimed as one of the world’s best dinosaur museums and centres for paleontological research, the Tyrrell is a fascinating, interactive museum that anyone curious about dinosaurs and the earth they lived on will enjoy. In addition to life-size models and skeletons, there are many impressive, educational displays and you can even take a hike out to a fossil dig to learn what tools paleontologists use to unearth them. Most visitors need a day in order to see it all.
Dinosaur Provincial Park – UNESCO world heritage site found 193 km (120mi) east of Drumheller and 225 km (140 mi) east of Calgary, near the town of Brooks. Simply put, Dinosaur Provincial Park is one of the most important places on earth for fossils. Here prairie grasslands abruptly disappear and breathtaking badlands open up beneath you. Deep within the steep valley, large stands of cottonwood trees line the river, providing a haven for animals and birds escaping the dryness and heat of the valley. There are numerous guided interpretive hikes and bus trips to get you into the park to see such interesting sights as an Albertasaurus embedded in the ground. Observe paleontologists at their work in lab tours. The thrill of finding a bone fragment or dinosaur tooth is something many experience but the gift shop is the place for keepsakes.
From ghost towns to hay rides that get you up close to buffalo, to a trip into the past on an old-fashioned steam train (complete with an "attack" by a gang of outlaws) check out these and other activities in the Badlands region.The panoramic vistas and big skies of this region lend themselves to sightseeing drives and many activities can be built into a three to four day driving itinerary. Here are some suggestions.
Drumheller and Area – There are several options for sightseeing and activities in the region, some close to or in Drumheller and others up to several hours drive away, so it’s a good idea to check distances when planning an itinerary. Close to town, take a view from the bouncy Rosedale Suspension Bridge, make a short river crossing on the tiny Bleriot ferry or stop at Little Church (seating for six.) There are numerous family-friendly activities, from a reptile zoo to go-karts and a water park.
Horseshoe Canyon – viewed either from the bottom on one of its hiking trails or from above in a helicopter tour, the views are spectacular. Just off Hwy 9 between Calgary and Drumheller.
Horsethief Canyon – named for the rustlers who hid out here in bygone times, its as impressive as Horseshoe Canyon, but without the addition of marked trails (or summer crowds). Find the entrance just past the Tyrell Museum on the North Dinosaur Trail.
Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site – this valley’s coal-mining history is well displayed here, with fun, informative guided tours. Put on a miner’s lamp and go underground or ride a coal car or hear about the darker side of mining, including mysterious "ghostly" sightings.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park – this badlands park in the far southeast of the province has the most extensive collection of native pictographs and petroglyphs found in North America. Take a guided or self-guided interpretive tour, then canoe or float down the Milk River, which winds through the park.
Cypress Hills and Medicine Hat – Nature, history and outdoor adventure lovers will enjoy this area, which forms the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. It is not a badlands environment, being an island of moist grasslands and forest in the prairie. Ta-tanka-I-yotank (Sitting Bull) and 4000 Hunkpapa Sioux sought refuge here following the Battle of Little Big Horn. The inter-provincial park is a preserve and home for many species of plants and animals, and it boasts some impressive trophy fishing. Nearby Medicine Hat is a city known chiefly for natural gas, but also its preserved downtown frontier buildings and Clay Industries National Historic District, where pottery lovers will learn how this area became the ceramics capital of Canada in the early 20th century. See more than 2,000 pieces and take a tour of the original factory. It also happens to be one of Canada's sunniest cities!
Golf – There are several premier golf courses and a few regional ones within driving distance. With prairie grass fairways weaving through coulees, interesting water hazards and stiff rough, golfers will face both challenge and natural beauty here.Museums, Festivals and Culture
The region is peppered with small museums highlighting everything from pioneer and cowboy times and badlands history to dolls and pottery.
Rosebud Theatre – take in dinner and a show at Alberta’s only rural professional theatre company, then grab a cappuccino at the café next door. This award-winning company mounts a variety of shows every year.
Passion Play Interpretive Centre – recognized as one of the most popular and authentic biblical passion plays in the world, the Badlands Passion Play takes place every summer.
Big Valley Jamboree – if you’re a fan of superstar country music, drive the couple of hours to Camrose to take in this concert held every year in July (named as the 2010 Canadian Country Music Association Event of the year.)
Find Badlands restaurants in towns such as Drumheller, Medicine Hat and many others, from family-style diners to Greek restaurants and pizza places, and more.Accommodations
Finding accommodations in the Badlands, which vary from campgrounds and RV parks to basic motels and chain hotels to local bed and breakfasts can be challenging in the busy summer months, so think about booking ahead.
Return to the Alberta Regional Overview page.
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Photo credits: Tyrell Museum dinosaurs courtesy of Travel Alberta
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