What do you picture when I say “Badlands”? Is it hot, dry summers, rocks and dinosaur fossils, and maybe Drumheller and the Royal Tyrrell Museum? Well, keep going south along the Red Deer River Valley and you’ll come to the other Canadian Badlands, just north of Brooks, Alberta. Here you’ll find Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about two-and-a-half hours east of Calgary and about a half-hour drive northeast of Brooks. We left the cool, fickle summer of Calgary one August morning to set out for a dinosaur adventure. Fields stretched before us, many with their irrigation systems working hard. Clouds of dust travelled behind trucks on back roads and a few of the canola fields held their lingering yellow blooms. After a couple hours, the prairies suddenly split open to reveal a valley studded with hoodoos and the Red Deer River winding away in the distance.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is noted for being one of the richest dinosaur fossil caches in the world. There have been 58 dinosaur species discovered at this park, with more than 500 specimens being exhibited in museums around the world. Because the park has yielded such a large fossil collection, from tiny fern spores to huge carnivorous dinosaurs, the park was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
After we arrived and paid a quick visit to the exhibits at the Visitor Centre, where the kids checked out some dinosaur skeletons, a palaeontology tent, and a couple short movies, we were ready for our tour. The Fossil Safari Tour at Dinosaur Provincial Park allows visitors to discover the rich plant and animal fossil treasures that survived this harsh environment over countless years. New fossils turn up at the park every year and this tour allows you to discover fossils in the field. (There is no digging or taking fossils from the park permitted, however.)
A short bus ride, the road winding up and down around the towering hoodoos, takes you deep into the Natural Preserve at the park, where only tours, staff, and palaeontologists are permitted to go. With a guide taking you on a short, easy walk, this is a tour that kids can easily enjoy, too. Our guide gave us a crash course on how to tell a fossil from a rock, and thankfully, the two park guides who accompanied us helped apply this knowledge to actual specimens. Everyone was handed a checklist with a variety of fossils to look for and a real-life example to examine, and off we went!
Dinosaur bones littered the landscape at the micro-fossil site we visited. With the help of two park guides, we were able to find discover every fossil on the list. Just by sitting and looking closely at the loose rocks, you could discover amazing things. Even the youngest kids on our tour (perhaps they were 5 or 6) found many specimens, and whenever someone made a discovery, we all shared it. It was remarkable to bend down and pick up a toe bone fragment from a Hadrosaur, a piece of ancient turtle shell, or a Gorgorsaurus tooth. My son lay himself down wherever he found a promising scattering of rocks and intently examined the fragments. The closer, the better, I guess!
It was remarkable to consider the age and history of these dinosaur fossils and actually hold them in your hand. The time passed quickly and soon we were winding our way back to the Visitor Centre feeling awfully accomplished with all the fossils we had found.
This is a great tour for kids. Preschool ages and younger may not find it as intriguing, but anyone older will enjoy the thrill of searching through the rocks and discovering the ancient world right at their fingertips. The weather is likely to be warm, so be sure to bring water, and protect your feet with closed-toe shoes. Then get ready to sift through the dinosaur bones!
Southern Alberta and the Canadian Badlands offer more than just dinosaurs (although that seems to be the kids’ favourite!). From culinary delicacies to historical experiences to physical activities, like a swim in southern Alberta’s warmest lake, you could plan a convenient family holiday to this area. If you live in the Calgary area, plan a “staycation” instead and make easy day trips to see something new.
Near Dinosaur Provincial Park, only 14 km south of the City of Brooks, is one of Alberta’s best-kept secrets. (This could be true: I grew up in Alberta and I’ve only just discovered this.) Lake Newell is one of southern Alberta’s largest and warmest man-made lakes. Sure, it can be refreshing to take a plunge in an icy mountain lake, but now that I’m a mom, I need more coddling than that. The water is clear and warm and perfect for all kinds of water sports. Take the kids for a swim or a canoe, go fishing, or enjoy a variety of motorized water sports.
Okay, maybe a day trip isn’t long enough. Plan a couple days, camping either at Dinosaur Provincial Park or Kinbrook Island Provincial Park or stay at one of the many indoor options in Brooks. Take a tour at Dinosaur Provincial Park, cool off in Lake Newell, and add an educational side visit to the Brooks Aqueduct, an important link in Alberta’s past irrigation system. One year, be sure to plan your trip around the Brooks Medieval Faire, which takes place the second weekend of August and step back through time.
Fossils and rocks. Sunshine and lakes. A visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Newell area might be just what your family needs to get out and play!
For more information on these destinations and all of the Canadian Badlands, see www.canadianbadlands.com.