Photo: TT

There’s More to the Badlands Than Drumheller

By AMA Staff

Where does one start exploring the Canadian Badlands? It’s a good question to ask when planning a road trip to a region that’s twice the size of Denmark. Many Albertans only think of visiting Drumheller, but the Badlands stretches from Stettler in the north, south to Milk River. Here’s your guide to Badlands attractions and adventures that simply cannot be missed.

The Badlands is something of an arid dessert, so it may be surprising to know that canoeing and kayaking are popular hobbies here. If you have little paddling experience, start with the Red Deer River Adventures two-to-three-hour, 14-kilometre Islands Tour. In late July and August, the river level is so low you can float downstream with minimal effort. Your guide will regale you with stories of Drumheller’s coal-mining history, which peaked in the early 1900s with 130 registered mines. Of course, when you’re smack dab in the middle of technicoloured coulees, you’ll be forgiven if the only thing you’re paying attention to is the landscape. Once you pass the ghost towns of Kirkpatrick, Nacmine and Midland, you’ll navigate around a handful of islands before reaching the end of the journey. Longer guided tours of Rosedale and Horsethief Canyon are also available.

If you’re really into dinosaurs, paleontology and geology, Dinosaur Provincial Park is the place to be. The 80-square-kilometre site contains one of the world’s richest deposits of fossils. If you don’t want to spend your day driving around, hop aboard a Prairie Sprinter bus for a guided view of the park. You’ll be shown the best lookout spots and tour a private preserve area alongside a park interpreter before returning to Calgary. Other stops include, a visit to John Ware cabin, home of one of Alberta’s first black cowboys. The tour even offers lots of time for fossil hunting and hiking along the Cottonwood Trail.

Two girls with painted faces sitting at a table.
Fun and games aboard the Aspen Crossing Circus Train

A variety of Aspen Crossing train experiences are offered along a track stretching southeast of Calgary: book a dinner-theatre excursion, a circus-themed trip, a champagne brunch or a wine-and-cheese ride, among many other themed tours. The best bet for young families is the Circus Train. While you won’t see any lions and tigers on the 28-kilometre journey, little ones can revel in scavenger hunts, face painting, clown shows and live music. For an even more immersive experience, the Aspen Crossing campground boasts three “caboose cabins”—spacious train cars that have been outfitted with modern hotel-style amenities—that can be booked for overnight stays.

Explore rough and tumble Drumheller on two wheels

You won’t find a more dramatic spot for a dinner party than Drumheller’s Horseshoe Canyon. The must-see region, located along Highway 9, about 17 kilometres west of Drumheller, draws more than 400,000 visitors annually to its incredible views of rust-painted coulees, eroded buttes and sculptured hoodoos. On August 18, the canyon hosts the Growing Kneehill Country Market and Long Table Dinner. Local chefs will prepare a sumptuous multi-course meal using incredible area produce. Plan an early visit to take in the market from 2 to 6 pm.

Any trip to Medicine Hat should include a visit to Medalta Potteries. In the 1920s, the company produced 75 percent of Canada’s pottery. Its distinctive grey crocks, jugs, bowls and pitchers were sought after across the country. Production stopped in the 1950s, but the iconic factory and its beehive kilns still stand as a museum in Medicine Hat’s Historic Clay District. Visitors can marvel at the 30,000-piece historic collection, see the inner workings of a ceramic production line or get their hands dirty in a pottery class. Every Tuesday, the site also hosts The Market @ Medalta, where you can take home a treat from Sweet Pure Honey or chewy beef jerky from Medicine Hat Meat Traders.

Get to know one of Drumheller’s earliest residents

Lethbridge’s landscape plays a role in natural and constructed attractions alike. The Galt Museum and Archives is one striking example. Preserving southern Alberta’s history through award-winning exhibitions, the institution is housed in an angular glass-encased building, attached to a century-old former hospital. It overlooks the Oldman River valley’s coulees and grassland, as well as nearby Indian Battle Park, which commemorates the Battle of Belly River, a significant 1870 conflict between the local Cree and Blackfoot First Nations. The park is also home to Fort Whoop-Up, a recreation of an 1860s trading post that offers further insight into the settlement of the west and its impact on existing First Nations populations.

For unlimited admission to Badlands attractions like the Royal Tyrrell Museum and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, buy an annual Experience Alberta’s History pass. AMA members save 10% on the purchase price when bought at an AMA centre.

Save 10% on regular admission to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller’s famed institution dedicated exclusively to paleontology.