Alberta: Ghost Towns in Canada’s Badlands

Welcome to the Alberta badlands. Jennifer Merrick photos.
Welcome to the Alberta badlands. Jennifer Merrick photos.

Hoodoos, Ghost Towns, and Dinosaur Bones: Exploring the Canadian Badlands

Drumheller's t-rex.
Drumheller’s t-rex.

By Jennifer Merrick

The change in landscape is as sudden as it is dramatic. We’ve been driving east of Calgary, Alberta on the flat prairie for a little more than an hour, a valley appears out of nowhere, and we drop down into a fantasy land of canyons, strangely-shaped rock pillars and sandstone hillsides covered with rills.

Before this trip, I had no idea this type of landscape existed in Canada. But not only do we discover an extraordinary Badland terrain, we also find a family adventure of a lifetime filled with dinosaur bones, ghost towns and abandoned mines.

A view from a T-Rex’s mouth

Our first stop is Drumheller, a former coal-mining town, located about 80 miles east of Calgary. The dinosaurs are impossible to miss. Not only are replicas of these prehistoric creatures on every street corner, the town boasts the world’s largest T-Rex.

At 85-feet tall, it is four times the size of the real thing and towers above the Badland town, guarding it with its fierce teeth. We climb up the stairs into the giant lizard’s jaw to get a dinosaur-eyed view. Back on the ground, the kids are thrilled to slide down the monster’s toe.

A hoodoo spell.

Five miles away, along Highway 10, is the Rosedale Suspension Bridge. We venture across the swaying cables to hike amongst the mystical Badland hills, whose banded layers changed colours before our eyes. Further down the highway on East Coulee Drive are the Willow Creek Hoodoos.

The word hoodoo is thought to have originated from a misspelling of voodoo, so named because of the bizarre shapes of these stone pinnacles. Hoodoos are scattered throughout the Badlands, but this particular spot is one of the best. The kids play hide and seek among them, and we snap dozens of photos until the sun sets and we reluctantly leave.

Badlands Interpretive trail
Badlands Interpretive trail

Where the dinosaurs are

The same geological features that created this remarkable scenery also reveal the secrets of 75 million years of history. Hard to believe today that this desert environment was once ideal dinosaur habitat supporting lush coastal forest and swamps. Only the fossils remain. Some of the world’s best can be found at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, just outside of Drumheller, and Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60 miles away near the town of Brook.

At both sites we participate in organized fossil safaris which has us in the hills digging for petrified treasures. We strike paleontological gold with finds of a toe bone, a vertebra, and even a dinosaur tooth.

Canada's Badlands in Alberta. Jennifer Merrick photo.
Kids love it here!

The tooth was found at Dinosaur Provincial Park, which is so rich in fossils that our guide tells us, “You literally can’t take a step without stepping on a bone.”

Museums all over the world exhibit skeletons found here, and we marvel at huge bones that look like they should be in a museum instead of sticking casually out of the arid ground.

We’re tempted to pocket a souvenir, but it’s a 50,000 dollar fine, and so we take photos instead and leave with prehistoric memories.

Along the trail
Along the trail

Haunted encounters

A once thriving coal-mining industry in the region has now disappeared leaving behind ghost towns and abandoned mines.

Wayne, near Drumheller is the most famous of these towns and was the set of Jackie Chan’s, Shanghai Noon and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, among others. In the midst of abandoned buildings and broken-down equipment proudly stands the Last Chance Saloon.

The Rosedale suspension bridge.
The Rosedale suspension bridge.

Nicknamed ‘Bucket of Blood’ back in the day because of the miner fights, it’s now a much calmer but still character-filled place for a meal. Next door is a general store that serves ice cream. The building is reportedly haunted, but one older Drumheller resident dismisses this idea and tells us that when she was a kid they used to play in the empty rooms, and the spirits people heard were just them.

We hear more ghost stories at Atlas Coal Mine, the last of the region’s 139 mines, which has now been turned into a tourist attraction. Employees entertain us with animated, stranger-than-fiction tales of the miners and the community, including accounts of workers who never checked out and still roam the shafts and tunnels to this day. We shiver despite the heat.

Whether these haunted stories are true or not really doesn’t matter as they bring to life the wild-west ways that were once the norm in these parts. It adds to a sense of adventure that we’ve experienced throughout this humbling land of primordial history and sculpted desert.

Jennifer Merrick.

After teaching English as a Second Language abroad for 7 years, Jennifer Merrick ‘settled down’ in Toronto. But my feet continue to itch and I now travel whenever I can with my family, writing about our adventures in numerous on-line and print publications.

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