You can find adventure in all four directions you choose to leave from Calgary, but if you point your compass to the east, you’ll discover yourself in the heart of the Canadian Badlands.
It is rich fertile prairie soil, but also rugged. The Canadian Badlands are criss-crossed by dead straight back roads that suddenly descend into ancient valleys.
Lost for ideas? Here are some of my favourites:
1. Pretend you’re on Tattooine
Dinosaur Provincial Park is one of our favorite places to camp in the province. It is home to the largest concentration of Cretaceous fossils on the planet and it is surrounded by dry hoodoos. The boys like to climb and wander and pretend they’re on Tattooine while I add in the light sabers later.
2. Ride the free Bleriot Ferry
If you take the scenic, longer route from Calgary to the Royal Tyrrel Museum near Drumheller, you can take this unique ferry in the heart of a badland valley. The Bleriot Ferry was commissioned in 1913 and runs on a cable across the Red Deer River.
3. Hunt for Geocaches
A daytrip through the Canadian Badlands can be as long or as short as you want it to be. You can drive right to your destination, or you can stop and explore along the way. We like to stop and treasure hunt. Geocaching gets you out of the car, taking the scenic route, and taking the time to experience your surroundings. There are hundreds of caches in the Canadian Badlands, take some time to find a few of them.
4. Wander the hoodoos
From Dry Island Buffalo Jump to Drumheller to Dinosaur Provincial Park to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, the entire badlands are scattered with dramatic hoodoos. You’ll drive along the flattest prairie you’ve ever seen, make a turn, and then descend into the valleys of the Red Deer River, Milk River, or a dry coulee and watch as the landscape suddenly changes.
5. Hold an owl at The Alberta Birds of Prey Center
The Alberta Birds of Prey Center In Coaldale (just NE of Lethbridge), is my son’s favorite place in the province. It was started in 1982 by Colin Weir, when wildlife rescue was almost non-existent in Western Canada. The current facility was built in 1989 and has been expanded and upgraded over the years to have, what is believed to be, one of the largest aviaries in the world. Thousands of birds have been through the facility. Zacharie loved seeing the owls, eagles, and hawks. The center is his charity of choice for his birthday party.
6. Fire a cannon at Fort Whoop Up
7. Bite into the best corn of your life in Taber
The southeast corner of Alberta is one of the sunniest places on the planet. It is also home to the best corn you will ever have in your life. Ever. Taber is the corn capital of Alberta, it’s prized golden kernels the juciest I’ve ever had. You can buy Taber Corn roadside in much of the Badlands, but if you really want an experience, visit town when CornFest happens in late August.
8. Ride an old train and help stop a train robbery in Stettler
There used to be a vibrant rail circuit in Alberta. One spur line that still thrives today goes between Stettler and Big Valley. The Alberta Steam Train runs all sorts of themed tours down the line from Teddy Bear Picnics to Murder Mysteries. Some get a little wild as bandits chase down the train and rob the passengers before being rescued by Metis hero, Gabriel Dumont. All money “robbed” from passengers is donated to Alberta’s Children’s Hospitals.
9. Touch a dinosaur’s egg and make hadrosaur tracks at Devil’s Coulee in Warner
Warner, Alberta was mostly famous for a hockey school until, in 1987 when Wendy Sloboda found a dinosaur egg was found nearby. Warner is now worth a stop en route between Writing-on-Stone and Lethbridge to visit the Devil’s Coulee museum. The display is small, but very informative and they have a sandbox in a work room where kids can make their own dinosaur prints and uncover fossils. The discovery of dinosaur eggs has been an important development in understanding hadrosaurs.
10. Collect pictures of Grain Elevators
They’re not used so much anymore, but these tall sentries of the prairies are still a sight to see. I like to stop and take as many pictures of them as I can.
11. Sit on an old tractor in Picture Butte
There is no longer a butte to picture in Picture Butte, but you can take a picture of your butt riding an old tractor. Just south of town is the Prairie Tractor and Engineer Club Museum. It is a large piece of land featuring a dozen or so heritage buildings from around Southern Alberta as well as a collection of hundreds of pieces of farm equipment. They’re all lying out in the field, and you can drive around, wander about, or climb in all of them. Admission is by donation and it’s a fabulous place to kickstart the imagination of kids who love mighty machines.
12. Find fossils anywhere
Lick your finger, touch a stone. Lick your finger, touch a stone. Like your finger, touch a bone! This lick test really does work to find fossils, and if you look hard enough you’ll find them everywhere.
13. Shake a rattlesnake
When we stopped at the viewpoint at Dinosaur Provincial Park, we saw a group of people with a bucket hanging around some rocks. They were from a nature group that was counting and monitoring rattle snakes. Rattlers are everywhere in the Badlands. At Writing-on-Stone, Zacharie got to touch an old rattler’s rattle. Watch your step!
14. Have Some BBQ in Medicine Hat
Culinary tourism is a big deal. People will travel for good eats, and in Medicine Hat, you’ll find them (along with great old school neon signs). You’re far from the deep south, but Skinny’s Smokehouse serves up the real deal. The hickory smoke hits you on the way in and your fully belly smiles on the way out.
15. Count the gophers at the Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington
Torrington is a treat. There’s no real reason to get off the highway and go there other than .. the gophers. The gopher hole museum is a collection of diaramas that put taxidermied gophers into peculiar situations. They’re playing hockey, riding bikes, going to church, getting married, working at the firehall. The World Famous Gopher Hole Museum was created to bring tourism to the town of 200. And it works. 7000 people visited last year.
16. Live long and prosper in Vulcan
Vulcan, Alberta takes its name from Roman god of Fire. That was fine and dandy when the town was incorporated in 1912, but nowadays there’s more money in tourism by linking the town’s name to Star Trek. In 2010, Leonard Nimoy came “home” to Vulcan in a move that put the small town of 2000 on the map. They celebrate celebrate Spock Days every June, have a Star Trek Walk of Fame and a Enterprise statue to greet visitors.
17. Eat in an old train car in Mossleigh
In the 1962 federal election, John Diefenbaker crossed the country by rail to campaign. His business car was an 1887 Pullman car that has now been converted to a dining car. It (and many other rail cars, some converted into hotel rooms) now resides at Aspen Crossing in Mossleigh.
These are just some of the things I’ve experienced and loved in the badlands. I still haven’t been to dinner theatre in Rosebud, gone coal mining in East Coulee, tried to get away at Horsethief Canyon, golfed the toughest course on the continent in Drumheller, paddled the Milk River, searched for the Albertosaurus in Dry Island Buffalo Jump, straddled the border in Cypress Hills, listened to Nickelback in Hanna, or visited a doctor in Medicine Hat.
Whether you’re taking a daytrip from Calgary, or wandering a corner of the province for a long weekend, or a week, there’s lots to do with kids in the Canadian Badlands. You can plan your Canadian Badlands adventure here.
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