Coal Trails & Prairie Rails Driving Tour

Route

Red Deer – Boomtown Trail – Dry Island Buffalo Jump – Drumheller Valley – Trail of the Buffalo – Red Deer

This tour of the Canadian Badlands travels through fertile farmlands rich in settlement history to the remarkable Dry Island Buffalo Jump. Dry Island Viewpoint is one of many overlooking the Red Deer River Valley: Horseshoe Canyon, Horsethief Canyon and Orkney Hill near Drumheller also showcase the sculpted cliffs, rills, tunnels, and hoodoos of the Canadian Badlands. You can dig through these layers of time and prospect for dinosaur fossils at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller. Black bands visible along eroded cliff sides mark the layers of coal that fueled steam trains and warmed settlers’ homes both in and out of the Drumheller Valley. You can experience first-hand the life of a miner at the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site and can climb to the top of Canada’s last wooden tipple. The settlement story is evident in the boomtown architecture and rail lines of the communities east and west of the Red Deer River. You can imagine life as a settler by stepping into the Morrin Sod House, riding the steam locomotive to Big Valley, and trolling the main street of the ghost town of Rowley.

DAY 1

Red Deer to Drumheller along the Boomtown Trail

Fields of colourful crops surround boomtown communities on this relaxing drive through Alberta’s breadbasket. Visit museums rich with settlement artifacts and hike in the breathtaking badlands of Dry Island Buffalo Jump, and explore the world of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.

Head east from Red Deer on Highway 595, the Coal Trail, to begin your journey in the Canadian Badlands. This northern part of the Canadian Badlands is one of the best growing regions in Alberta with its rich black soils and plentiful moisture. Red Deer and surrounding communities have prospered because of the consistently high yields of wheat, barley and canola in the fields. Coal for heating and wood for lumber was easy to find. Towns in the Red Deer area grew up as agricultural supply centres, catering to the needs of farmers. But settlement came slowly.

The Coal Trail became a well-travelled route for farmers and freighters. To imagine life as a settler, step into a replica homesteader’s shack at the Anthony Henday Museum in Delburne. To reach the town, at the junction of Highways 595 and 21, 45km east of Red Deer, turn south on Highway 21. An extensive collection of pioneering artifacts is housed in the old train station and water tank tower. After your visit to Delburne, continue south on Highway 21.

Anthony Henday Museum. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Communities along Highway 21 belong to the Boomtown Trail. Many of these towns and villages sprang up quickly during the heyday of settlement in the early 1900s. Today, towns like Lousana, Elnora and Huxley have few shops or services, but almost a hundred years ago their business districts bustled! Banks, stores, lumber yards and barbershops vied for space and attention. The owners faced their small and simple wooden buildings with a grand, square-topped front to appear larger and more significant. This building style, common to Western movies, has the descriptive name of boomtown architecture. Stroll down the main street of any boomtown community and you will see several examples – some restored and some leaning towards better days.

Between Elnora and Huxley, turn left onto Township Road 344 to access Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. Continue 20km east on a good gravel road to reach the edge of the Red Deer River Valley. At the park entrance is Dry Island Viewpoint; below lies a stunning landscape of hoodoos, gray hillsides scored by rainwater, sandstone cliffs and the silty Red Deer River. Walk to the interpretive panels at the edge of the grassy bench. To your left is the “dry island”, a mesa separated from the valley edge; look right and you will see the grassy cliff-top of a buffalo jump.

The sea and rivers running into it laid down layers of sand and silt. Over time and under great weight and pressure, the sand turned into sandstone while silty mud formed darker bands of rock. Sudden storms and flash floods panicked herds of dinosaurs, drowning large numbers. Sand and mud washed over the carcasses, burying them. Over the next three million years, more sediment poured in, finally covering the dinosaur graveyards in a rock blanket 1.5km thick. The valley before you was cut by ice and meltwater during the last Ice Age, ending 13,000 years ago. Rain, river water and wind continue to sculpt the valley today.

From the Dry Island Viewpoint, you can descend on the park road to the picnic area near the river. Unofficial trails lead in several directions; look for wildflowers and fossils, leaving them untouched for future visitors.

It was the people of Huxley and area who valued this valley enough to lobby the provincial government for its protection as a park. 

From Trochu, continue 14km south to Three Hills, set just west of Highway 21. As in many prairie towns, grain elevators line the railway in Three Hills. Many of these prairie sentinels were built in the wheat boom of the 1920s, perched next to the rail line that would link small towns to far-flung markets. By the mid-1930s, Alberta boasted over 1,700 elevators. Now there are only a few hundred left. Many elevators have been torn down as rail lines closed and grain companies built concrete and metal silos in larger, regional centres. You can view the new and the old in grain elevator architecture in Three Hills. Over tea in the restored train station at the Kneehill Historical Museum, look through photos of early days in Three Hills.

From Three Hills, return to Highway 21 and continue south for 7km to Highway 27. Head east 19km to Highway 837, then strike south and follow the road 35km to Drumheller. Be sure to stop at the Orkney Hill Viewpoint – the scenery will take your breath away! Imagine standing here 70 million years ago, a warm ocean tickling your feet and damp forests and swamps behind you. The big difference would have been the hungry dinosaurs eyeing you for lunch!

You can be part of the modern-day Dinosaur Rush in Drumheller. From Orkney Hill Viewpoint, continue on Highway 837, past the old coal mining communities of Kirkpatrick, Nacmine and Kneehill into town. Folk art dinosaurs are everywhere in Drumheller and the big granddaddy stands guard over the Visitor Information Centre. Climb to the top of the World’s Largest Dinosaur for a Tyrannosaurus-eye view of the badlands and the cottonwood-lined Red Deer River. Then join Alberta’s dinosaur hunters at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. The museum is located in Midland Provincial Park, 6km northwest of Drumheller on Highway 838. 

World’s Largest Dinosaur. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta

DAY 2

Drumheller & Drumheller Valley

Journey through Drumheller Valley’s coal mining heritage. Watch for signs of the 140 mines that operated in the valley: red slag heaps, broken timbers, iron rails and battered coal cars.

Dinosaurs reigned in the Drumheller area for millions of years. Yet dinosaurs are only half of the Drumheller Valley story. Coal is the other half. Every black line traced across the badlands around you is a layer of coal, marking a time when prehistoric plants and dinosaurs were buried in swamps and estuaries near the Bearpaw Sea and, with time and compression, left only their carbon molecules behind.

It was carbon – coal – that Joseph Tyrrell was searching for when he came to the valley in 1884. He knew that coal would power the development of the West. And for many years it did, as fuel for steam trains and for home heating. Today it is still used to produce most of Alberta’s electricity. The Drumheller Valley was Alberta’s hotbed for coal mining from 1911 until the 1950s. The last mine closed in 1984. To journey through Drumheller’s coal mining pat, head east on the scenic Highway 10, the Hoodoo Drive Trail.

Call-out

Throughout the valley, you will see red piles of shale near mine entrances. These piles of shale and coal burn for years – often without any visible smoke. It’s best to stay off all slag heaps.

Rosedale is the first historic mining town east of Drumheller. Follow the signs to the Rosedale Suspension Bridge, a swaying cable bridge hanging over the Red Deer River. Cross in the footsteps of the minters as they walked to work at the Star Mine on the far side. After changing from street clothes to mining clothes in the wash house, the miners picked up their lamps, batteries and identification tags and headed into the mine. A coal-dusted sandwich and a flask of water or tea broke a day of heavy work with pick and shovel, or drill and coal cutter. After a full day, it was back to the surface and a hot shower before heading home.

Rosedale Suspension Bridge. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Side trip

Take Highway 10X to Wayne, counting the eleven bridges over the Rosebud River along the way. Wayne was once home to 2,000 people – bachelors and families, minters and shopkeepers. Hotels, restaurants, boarding houses and stores thrived while the six mines operated. Once the mines began to close, people moved to the net mine that was hiring, often taking their houses with them. Now only the Last Chance Saloon in the Rosedeer Hotel remains. Stop in for a buffalo burger and to see the photographs and artifacts of a town that died over 50 years ago.

There were always several mines near each community, creating rivalry but plenty of employment, especially during the war years. Towns like Rosedale and nearby Wayne regularly pitted their sports teams against each other. After cheering on their players, they retired to some friendly drinking and gambling in the pool halls and bars. 

From Rosedale, continue 13km east on Highway 10, passing the historic mining towns of Cambria, Willow Creek and Lehigh, to reach East Coulee.

This mining town continues to thrive as a village of commuters, artists and retirees. Many old miners’ homes have been restored as permanent or summer residences. Retired miners still live here. Look for huge vegetable gardens that in lean years kept the families fed.

With 3,000 people in 1940, East Coulee sprawled across the valley. The town prospered with shops, churches and a six-room school lining the main street. Today the East Coulee School Museum presents a fascinating glimpse of life during the heyday of mining. Join a museum interpreter to tour the restored 1930s schoolroom and, over tea or a light lunch at the Willow Tea Room, look through old mining photos or chat with a local. The museum’s quaint gift shop features local artisan items, including jewelry and body products.

Side trip

The Hoodoos Recreation Area is 7km east of Rosedale on Highway 10. Like stone mushrooms that have popped out of the valley floor, these hoodoos are just some of the hundreds, large and small, that you can see throughout the Canadian Badlands. A hard rock forms the cap of the hoodoo, sheltering the softer rock beneath from the chiselling action of rain and wind – at least for a while. Hoodoos are the creation of erosion. Once the cap rock falls, the pillar shrinks rapidly. It is important not to climb on the hoodoos, both for your safety and theirs. Note, a two-dollar parking fee came into effect in 2019.

Ready to try out the mining life? From East Coulee, continue east on Highway 10 for 1.5km, and follow signs across the river to the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site, Alberta’s most extensive coal mining museum.

Atlas Coal Mine. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta

The Atlas was the last mine in the Drumheller Valley to close. A large wooden tipple – the site of size-sorting shakers and coal storage bins – dominates the site. You can climb to the top with a guide and peek into the eight-storey high bins while hearing stories of underground work, accidents, unions and Wildfire brand coal. Or, book a guided tunnel tour and follow in the historic footsteps of miners. There are a number of experiences at the site to enjoy, so allow at least two hours to explore the walking trails and partake in one or more themed tours. Return to Drumheller by the same road. 

Side trip

Drumheller can keep you busy for days! Take time to visit the Homestead Antique Museum, squeeze into Alberta’s smallest church, drive the Dinosaur Trail via Bleriot Ferry, and shop in historic downtown Drumheller. Stop in at the Drumheller Visitor Information Centre for details on these attractions, as well as where to golf, canoe/kayak, hike and horseback ride in the valley. Don’t forget to ask about scenic helicopter rides over Horseshoe Canyon, 17km west of town on Highway 9!

DAY 3

Drumheller to Stettler & Red Deer

Abandoned railroad tracks link villages and a ghost town on the east side of the Red Deer River. Step back in time with a visit to the Morrin Sod House and stroll the nearly abandoned streets of Rowley. In Stettler, board a historic train to Big Valley and shop for local art along Jimmy Jock Boardwalk.

Alberta Prairie Steam Train. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta

Today’s journey takes you north of Drumheller, along the west side of the Red Deer River; begin by following the North Dinosaur Trail. To reach the trail, take Highway 9 north to Highway 838 and turn left to follow the Red Deer River upstream. You soon pass the Homestead Antique Museum. Stop in to stroll through the museum for stories of the farmers, ranchers and farmers who settled this valley. Some of these stories depict the early 2,000 miners who worked at the Midland Mine, now a provincial park, 2km further up the road.

The original office for the Midland Coal Mining Company presents an introduction to the coal mining history of this valley. Midland Mines No. 1 and No. 2 were among the 140 coal mines that operated in the valley between 1911 and 1984. Take a walk on the 1.1km interpretive trail to see some of the equipment used underground.

At the west end of Midland Provincial Park sits Drumheller’s star attraction, the Royal Tyrrell Museum. If you didn’t have time to visit yesterday, interpretive programs and exhibits are well worth a two to three-hour visit today.

Continuing upriver on Highway 838 you pass the Little Church and attractions such as golf and go-carts. The road climbs steeply out of the valley to Horsethief Canyon Viewpoint. Take a few minutes to stop and breathe in the striking panorama before you. The canyons, cliffs and channels were the haunt of horse and cattle thieves in Drumheller’s early ranching days.

Horsethief Canyon. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

From Horsethief Canyon Viewpoint, continue north on the Dinosaur Trail. Highway 838 crosses farmlands before dropping back to the river with a steep descent through a large coulee. At the bottom waits the Bleriot Ferry, once the only means of getting wagons, livestock and people across the Red Deer River without getting wet. The ferry linked neighbours, preventing the loneliness that often-plagued isolated farmers. In operation since 1913, the ferry is a real prairie workhorse. One of the few left in the province, it operates from spring break-up (about May) to fall freeze-up (about October or November).

You can take the ferry to retrace your route along Highway 21 and the Boomtown Trail, or as a day trip to return to Drumheller. Otherwise, turn right on Township Road 302 and drive East 8km, via Munson to Highway 9. Turn left and continue north 10km to the junction of Highway 9 and 56. Turn left to access the village of Morrin where you can step into a reconstructed “soddie”. The town is 5km west on Highway 9, just north of the road.

Imagine that it’s 1910 and you have arrived by wagon to homestead on the prairie. Your first task: build a house where wood is scarce, and sawmills are far away. Like your neighbours, your first home is a “soddie”, built from prairie dirt and grass turned by the plow. These sods were cut into large, brick-like sections and stacked. The roof was a series of angled poplar poles covered with more sod. As to the floor, it was simply dirt. On hot days, the house was cool, and on cold days, warm. It remained dry during a short rainstorm but could rain inside for several days afterwards! Homesteaders used this technique to build barns for their animals and storage sheds. The buildings lasted until they could afford sawn lumber. After visiting the Morrin Sod House, return to Highway 56 and continue north toward Stettler.

Settlement in this vast land depended on the availability of settlers to reach their homesteads. Most arrived by rail in Calgary and, eventually, Stettler. From Calgary, homesteaders packed all their belongings into a horse-drawn wagon and followed rutted trails east. They had to cross the Red Deer River, a few in itself. Once the first ferry was established east of Trochu at Tolman in 1907, settlement boomed. Villages like Morrin, Rowley and Rumsey became the social and commercial hearts of their districts.

Rowley was once a booming community; now it is largely a ghost town with a mixture of restored buildings and those left to the whim of time. Rowley is 13km north of Morrin, accessed from Highway 56 on gravel Township Road 324. Walk the main street past Sam’s Saloon, the hardware store and the pool hall to the train station. The tracks are now gone but a gust of wind whistling around the corner of the Yesteryear Artifacts Museum suggests better days when the train brought mail, freight and passengers to the crowd of farmers and ranchers waiting on the platform. Periodically, movie producers discover Rowleywood’s charm and film movies and commercials, often using locals for extras. Rowley’s businesses and museum open daily in the summer months and the last Saturday night of every month is pizza night.

As you travel north, notice how the land has become hillier. Several ice advances have sent their glacial tongues scouring this landscape from north to south. As the climate warmed, these ice sheets melted and dropped their loads of boulders and gravel. The knobs, or kames, left behind are covered with grass while the hollows, or kettles, often collect water, attracting waterfowl and migrating birds. This knob and kettle landscape is set in the last remaining tract of aspen parkland in Canada and is part of the Rumsey Provincial Ecological Reserve and Natural Area. The land is managed in conjunction with leaseholders, and it is a courtesy to contact them if interested in walking on the land.

Thirty kilometres north of Rowley, just west of Highway 56, is Big Valley, a town that managed not to drift away with the prairie wind. Originally established as a coal mining town, it was the railway that attracted settlers and business people alike. Railway workers moved into town when it was named a terminal and a roundhouse was built. The boom didn’t last long – competing railways merged under the Canadian Northern Railway and traffic and railway workers were diverted elsewhere. More residents were lost when a branch from Hanna to Mirror opened, bypassing Big Valley. Yet it is the railway once again that is bringing people to town.

Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions offers scenic train rides to Big Valley. Departing from Stettler, 32km to the north, this leisurely rocking ride chugs through vibrant parkland and farmland. You may meet Gabriel Dumont, a leader of the Riel Rebellion from Saskatchewan, take part in a murder mystery, or be a victim of an old-fashioned train robbery. At the stop in Big Valley, you will have time to walk the interpretive trail at the roundhouse, visit the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame in the restored train station, climb to the bright blue St. Edmund’s Church or shop at Jimmy Jock Boardwalk. The train tours last between four and eight hours, with lunch or dinner included. Be sure to book ahead.

If you would like to see history rather than be part of it, Stettler’s Town and Country Museum shows every aspect of local history in 26 buildings. You can browse throughout historic homes and shops, learn a lesson at the schools, ride a speeder at the CN station or check the engines of restored tractors. One of the museum guides might even tell you about Stettler’s cigar factory! You can also head downtown Stettler; the main street is lined with relics from its boomtown past. Be sure to pick up a copy of the town’s historic walking tour at the Stettler Board of Trade office (6606 – 50th AVE).