Homesteads, Bonebeds & Coalbeds Driving Tour

Route:

Calgary – Rosebud – Drumheller Valley – Brooks – Dinosaur Provincial Park – Calgary

Time/Distance:

6 hours – 546 Km

The Canadian Badlands is like no other place on earth. Home to the world’s most extensive dinosaur bonebeds, badlands and hoodoos and a world-class dinosaur museum, our natural heritage is over 75 million years old. Our culture is literally layered in the land. National historic sites and provincial parks reveal Indigenous rock art, farming and ranching history and rich industrial heritage. Our communities large and small boast festivals, rodeos, live theatre, local art and tea houses. Whether you prospect for fossils, canoe a meandering river or horseback ride in glacier-carved coulees, the Canadian Badlands experience is as vast and remarkable as the landscape.

The Canadian Badlands Touring Routes dig through the layers of our natural and cultural heritage. Regional driving tours are three to four days long and offer many ideas of what to see and do. You can customize your own one- or two-day road trip or use Side Trips to create a week-long vacation. The Touring Routes can be enjoyed in any season. While larger attractions are open year-round, local attractions often open from mid-May to early September. We wish you a memorable journey in the Canadian Badlands. Visit CanadianBadlands.com and TravelAlberta.com for more information on travelling in southern Alberta.

DAY 1 Calgary to Drumheller

  • Enjoy Alberta’s only professional rural theatre – Rosebud Theatre
  • Marvel at the view at Horseshoe Canyon
  • Prospect for fossils with interpreters from the Royal Tyrrell Museum
Rosebud Opera House. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

DAY 2 Drumheller to Brooks

Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

DAY 3 Brooks to Dinosaur Provincial Park and Calgary

  • Join an interpretive bus tour in Dinosaur Provincial Park
  • Hike among hoodoos and coulees on self-guided walking trails
  • Learn about Blackfoot culture at the Siksika Nations’ Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park 
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

This tour of the Canadian Badlands is a tour through time. Fertile farmlands stretch to the edge of the Red Deer River Valley and the first enticing view of the bones of the earth at Horseshoe Canyon. Carved by glacial meltwaters and washed by rain and snowmelt, the colourful layers of rock beneath your feet release a treasure of dinosaur fossils every sprint. You can explore these clues to the past at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller and on a bonebed hike in Dinosaur Provincial Park UNESCO World Heritage Site (located two hours southeast of Drumheller). Ancient plants – transformed into coal – stripe the Drumheller Valley and once provided a living for thousands of coal miners. A visit to the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site brings miners’ stories to life, along with a climb to the top of Canada’s last wooden tipple. Cattle have taken the place of the great herds of bison that once travelled the plains surrounding the Red Deer River, and early 20th-century irrigation feats turned parched land into fertile farmland. Evidence of human ingenuity is everywhere – from the Brooks Aqueduct National Historic Site to modern-day irrigation canals and reservoirs.

Brooks Aqueduct National Historic Site. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Plan Your Trip

Visitor Information Centre

Canadian Badlands Accommodation

Reservations highly are highly recommended during peak season.

Camping: Visit reserve.albertaparks.ca or AlbertaCampgroundGuide.ca for more information.  Reservations are highly recommended during peak season. 

Events

Distances and Driving Routes

Calgary to Rosebud: 100km, 60 min

Rosebud to Drumheller: 35km, 30 min

Drumheller to Dorothy: 40km, 35 min

Dorothy to Brooks: 115km, 90 min

Brooks to Dinosaur: 48km, 40 min

Brooks to Calgary: 188km, 110 min

DAY 1

Calgary to Drumheller

A paved highway traces the tracks rutted by settlers in search of the land of promise. Prairie villages keep the secrets of generations while eroded valleys gradually reveal secrets millions of years old. Explore the mysteries by land or air, on foot or by canoe.

Head east from Calgary on Country Hills Boulevard [Highway 564] to begin your journey in the Canadian Badlands. The prairies that stretch before you hide stories of hardship and success, the story of settlement that pitted young farmers against the relentless wind, baking sun and never-ending work. The faint of heart lasted a year or less, then packed up and headed back to town. Those who stayed built a wooden house when their crops prospered. As you drive along, look for these weather-beaten homes, now gray and leaning, ending their days as storage sheds.

Gradually, hamlets and villages formed to provide groceries, mail and schools: Ardenode, Nightengale, Harriot, Rockyford and Rosebud. Some were named by their inhabitants; others were given a name when a post office was opened or during the survey of the Canadian National Railway line.

As your route turns north on Highway 840, watch for Alberta’s official flower, the wild rose. Open your window to catch its sweet scent in early to mid-summer. The abundance of this pink flower led the local Blackfoot to name the river Akokiniskway, the river of many roses.

The river runs through the village of Rosebud, one of the almost-ghost towns in the Canadian Badlands. When the railway arrived in 1914, the village experienced a growth spurt: a hotel, Chinese restaurant, grain elevators, machinery dealerships, and even a dance hall, appeared as if by magic. The village prospered, with a few rocky years during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then the killer of many small towns struck – the local school closed. Students were bussed to Standard, and many parents followed for shopping and social activities. Rosebud’s businesses locked their doors and rolled up their sidewalks.

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Rosebud Theatre offers both matinee and evening dinner theatre for the whole family. Reservations are recommended.

Rosebud Theatre. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

In 1973, a summer arts camp was started which grew into a high school program by 1976. In 1983, the school hosted its first live theatre performance which proved to be the beginning of the Rosebud Theatre. Today the community is vibrant and alive with performing arts. Visit the craft shops, galleries, tea houses and the Rosebud Centennial Museum. Take in a performance at Rosebud Theatre and, if time allows, stay in one of the inns or bed and breakfasts.

North from Rosebud, Highway 840 ends at Highway 9. A right turn, and within minutes, you reach Horseshoe Canyon Lookout and the first view of the colourful and rugged Red Deer River Valley. It’s worth taking a few minutes to walk to the edge – the scenery will take your breath away! Hikers can follow footpaths on the west side of the Canyon but remember, after a wet spell the trails and valley sides turn into slippery gumbo.

Early French explorers called the eroded cliffs and canyons you see before you mauvaises terres, or badlands. Badlands form when water cuts through layers of rock. Glacial rivers with high volumes of water made the first slice 13,000 years ago. The Red Deer River continues to widen the valley today.

Imagine standing at Horseshoe Canyon Lookout 75 million years ago, a warm ocean tickling your feet and damp forests and swamps behind you. You might have thought that this was Florida. The big difference would have been the hungry dinosaurs eyeing you for lunch!

Horseshoe Canyon. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Settlers and ranchers have long known about strange bones eroding from the valley sides. In 1909, John Wegner, a local rancher, mentioned them to Barnum Brown, a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History and sparked the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush. Over the next five years, more than 200 complete or nearly complete skeletons were collected for the world’s museums.

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See a fossil? Let it be! Fossils uncover stories of past times when left on the ground with other fossils and rocks. Please be aware that collecting fossils in Alberta is illegal without a permit.

Be part of the modern-day Dinosaur Rush. From Horseshoe Canyon, continue on Highway 9 for 17km to Drumheller. Folk art dinosaurs are everywhere and the big granddaddy stands guard over the Visitor Information Centre. Climb to the top of the world’s largest dinosaur for 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.

Midland Provincial Park. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

The Tyrrell Museum promises an educational visit for two to three hours. The highlight for many visitors is the Dinosaur Gallery where reconstructed skeletons tower over you, still threatening after so many years. The museum’s guided hikes and interpretive programs are popular as well. Contact the Tyrrell in advance to join an interpreter on a realistic dinosaur dig and to cast your own dinosaur fossils.

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. Visit TravelDrumheller.com or contact the Drumheller Visitor Information Centre for details on these attractions, as well as where to golf, canoe, hike and horseback ride in the valley. Don’t forget to ask about scenic helicopter rides over Horseshoe Canyon!

DAY 2

Drumheller to Brooks

Journey through the 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. Then tip back your cowboy hat and drive across the open range to Brooks.

Dinosaurs hid in forests of dinosaur-sized trees, ferns, and ginko plants. You can see their relatives in the Cretaceous Garden at the Tyrrell Museum, or you can find their remains in layers of coal. In fact, every black line traced across the badlands around you is a layer of coal, marking a time when prehistoric plants fell into swamps and with time and compression, left only their carbon molecules behind.

It was carbon – coal – that Joseph Burr 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. 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 past, head east on the scenic Hoodoo Trail (Highway 10).

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Fill up your fuel tank before leaving Drumheller and take plenty of water and snacks. Pack a picnic or plan to lunch in the Willow Tea Room at the East Coulee School Museum.

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 miners 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.

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

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. If you have time, one such establishment to visit is the famed Last Chance Saloon in Wayne.

Last Chance Saloon. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

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 of summer residences, and some 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 6-room school linking 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.

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.

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 8-storey high bins while hearing stories of underground tours, you can take a mantrip ride – the old mode of transporting miners to the coal face. Allow at least two hours to enjoy the various interpretive programs, audio tours, walking trails, and the Atlas’ award-winning film.

Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Coal from the Atlas and other mines was shipped by train to heat homes across the prairies. The same trains stopped at the huge wooden elevators in even the smallest farming towns to pick up wheat and other grains for shipment to Calgary and points west. One such town was Dorothy, a ghost town situated at the east end of the Drumheller Valley.

The reach Dorothy, continue on Highway 10 (later Highway 570). Today only one of the original three grain elevators, the Roman Catholic and United churches, and a scattering of boarded up homes and businesses remain.

Past Dorothy, the road climbs out of the valley and onto the prairie. Watch for deer, coyote and pronghorn as you travel the next 100km through ranching country to Brooks via Highways 570, 36, 550 and 873.

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Cross the Red Deer River by ferry. Finnegan Ferry is located on the gravel Highway 862, south of Highway 570. The cable-driven ferry operates from spring when the ice breaks up (about May) to mid-fall when the river freezes (about October or November).

Great herds of bison travelled these lands, grazing as they went. By the mid-1870s, they were slaughtered almost to extinction, and the endless grass pulled at the pocketbooks of British investors. With land leased at 1c an acre per year, the potential profits were inviting. Dukes and princes, lawyers and wealthy landowners hired cowboys to trail cattle from Texas and Mexico. They placed experienced ranch managers in charge and waited for the cash to roll in. Some made a tidy profit; others soon sold out or abandoned their ranch to invest in more reliable ventures.

Two British dukes owned large parcels of land north of Brooks, although neither ever lived here. Their four royal ladies are remembered in the towns along Highways 550 and 554. Rosemary was the daughter of the Duke of Sutherland and Millicent was his wife. Duchess commemorates the wife of the Duke of Connaught who also served as Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. Patricia was their daughter.

Fifteen kilometres from Duchess is Brooks, the heart of the Eastern Irrigation District. You may have noticed more trees and green fields since crossing the Red Deer River. Irrigation has turned parched lands into luxuriant alfalfa and grain fields – crops vital in nourishing the province’s famed Alberta beef. Brooks is a small city with a multicultural and multi-skilled population. Lakeside Packers, the largest local business, employs around 2,500 people. These workers represent every province and territory and about forty countries as well. Don’t be surprised to be greeted by a Newfoundlander or a North African as you walk around the town. Visit the Brooks and District Museum to learn more about settlement and ranching in the Eastern Irrigation District. While in the area, you may even cross paths with a ring-necked pheasant or two! Brooks is the Pheasant Capital of Canada and celebrates the distinction with various activities every October including the Brooks Pheasant Festival.

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Explore the badlands by canoe. The Red Deer River offers a Class I (novice) river experience. Contact Red Deer River Adventures for information on guided tours and canoe/kayak rentals.

Red Deer River Adventures. Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

Side trip

Take Highway 10X to Wayne, counting the 11 bridges over the Rosebud River along the way. Wayne was once home to 2,000 bachelors and families, miners and shopkeepers. Hotels, restaurants, boarding houses, and stores thrived while the six mines operated. Once the mines began to close, people moved to the next 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.

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.

Side trip

Side trips to the Brooks Aqueduct National Historical Site and Kinbrook Marsh in Kinbrook Island Provincial Park can be made either in the evening or the next morning. Both sites offer self-guided trails; in summer months, park interpreters offer guided tours of the Aqueduct. Both sites can be reached from Highway 873.

To the eyes of Captain John Palliser, sent by the federal government to inspect western Canada, this area of the Canadian Badlands was not fit for settlement. Not enough rain fell to grow crops and frosts could occur in almost any month of the year. Experimental farms took care of one problem by developing hardier crops needing a shorter growing season. Irrigation solved the other.

Irrigation allows farmers to grow grains, canola, and specialty crops like peas and sugar beets on the prairies. The Brooks Aqueduct carried water from the Bow River to drier lands. At three kilometres long, it was a marvel of engineering. Completed in 1915, it brought water to the Millicent and Tilley areas until 1979. Construction required 300 workers, enough concrete for 630 house basements, and 1,800 tonnes of steel.

Irrigation systems also require storage areas. Local reservoirs include Lake Newell, to the south of Brooks. Lake Newell and Kinbrook Island Provincial Park attract boaters, swimmers, windsurfers, fishers and bird watchers – making the Brooks area the water-based playground of the Canadian Badlands. Pelicans, cormorants and every species of prairie duck and shorebird can be seen at Kinbrook Marsh. Allow about 1.5 hours for an evening or early morning stroll, more time if you plan to scan the cattails and bushes for colourful warblers and shy bitterns.

DAY 3

Brooks to Dinosaur Provincial Park 

Dinosaur Provincial Park to Calgary

Dinosaurs play the starring role in a visit to World Heritage Site, Dinosaur Provincial Park. Breath-taking scenery, unearthly rock formations and cool cottonwoods promise a day or more of discoveries for everyone.

Dinosaur Provincial Park is 48km northeast of Brooks accessed from Highways 873 and 544. As you approach the park, the prairie ends abruptly. Before descending into the valley, take time to stop at the lookout where a world truly likes no other stretches before you.

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For a unique dining experience, stop at the Patricia Hotel for a barbecue-your-own steak or bison burger and all the fixings, in a real western bar.

Dinosaur Provincial Park received its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for three reasons: the abundance and diversity of fossils, the largest and most spectacular badlands in Canada, and to recognize the endangered river edge habitat with its plains cottonwood trees.

Dinosaur Provincial Park received its UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Photo Courtesy of Travel Alberta.

The park is a giant laboratory of past life, grudgingly giving up clues to the researchers who come here from around the world. At least 35 species of dinosaurs have been found here, including more than 500 complete skeletons. Scientists have uncovered several bonebeds. Seventy-five million years ago, the climate was as unpredictable as a T. Rex. 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 1.5 kilometres thick.

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The park has lots to offer: interpretive trails, fossil exhibits, the John Ware cabin, the exhibits in the visitor centre and birding along the creek and river. As staff often say, a park that took over 75 million years to create deserves more than a day to visit!

Every year, new discoveries are made. Fossils are protected in the Natural Preserve which covers 70% of the park. You can enter this restricted area on a guided hike or Explore’s Bus Tour. Park interpretive tours are very popular, so be sure to book in advance. You can explore the rest of the park on your own.

As you leave the park, take a last look over the rim. As the sun drops lower on the horizon, the glare of mid-day disappears, and the softer light and shadows create a photographer’s dream.

The changing light also creates wonderful photo opportunities for your 250km drive to Calgary. For a quieter alternative to the TransCanada Highway, from the park, return to Highway 544 and carry on through Duchess on Highway 550, passing by the royal lady community of Rosemary. The colours change as you pass from native prairie to irrigated lands. Trees outline homesteads – you may still see a rhubarb patch or peonies planted 75 or more years ago. A weather-beaten old house, or just a space, show the site of someone’s. hopes and dreams, abandoned when the rains didn’t come. Now irrigation paints the fields yellow with canola, green and gold with wheat and barley, purple with alfalfa and occasionally blue with flax. Every tree, shelterbelt and caragana hedge grows on the prairies as a result of irrigation. As you drive the 28km from Rosemary to Bassano, look for irrigation canals, sprinklers and water pipes. Highway 550 joins the TransCanada Highway 5km east of Bassano. Return at your own pace to Calgary on the TransCanada Highway.

Side trip

This route crosses Blackfoot territory and the historic grazing lands of the buffalo. You can learn more about the relationship between the land and the Indigenous People at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. The interpretive centre, built as a stylized teepee and Sundance lodge, incorporates a theatre and exhibits on the seasons, as experienced by the Siksika tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Stunning views of the Bow River, a recreated medicine wheel and trails to Chief Crowfoots’s gravesite promise a very powerful experience. Blackfoot Crossing is accessed via Highway 842 off the TransCanada Highway.From settlements to dinosaur bones and hoodoos to coal mines, this touring route has given you a taste of the Canadian Badlands. More discoveries await in the Canadian Badlands. You can canoe the Milk River, tour ancient petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, and take in local rodeos, farmers’ markets and festivals in communities across the region. To plan your next Canadian Badlands experience, explore more options here.