Alberta: Vast badlands once a real Jurassic Park
When French-Canadian explorers headed west across the Prairies in the mid-1700s, they had no idea there was a massive hole in the middle of Alberta.
They attempted to cross it, got fed up and returned to Ontario and Quebec labelling the west, "les mauvaises terres" or "the bad lands."
The land wasn't always so bad, though. Its towering, muddy cliffs with deep scars and alien-like curves had once been lush coastal plains. Millions of years earlier, dinosaurs ruled the day under an almost tropical climate in Alberta.
But a cataclysmic event and a couple ice-ages later, the dinosaurs were gone and the last remaining glaciers had carved through the earth leaving behind the Red Deer River and tens of kilometres of gorgeous, sprawling valleys.
Today, Alberta's badlands are known worldwide for producing some of the most important dinosaur fossils ever discovered, and some of the most stunning landscapes.
About 135 km northeast of Calgary is the town of Drumheller. Once a hub for the coal industry, dinosaurs now run the show. They pose near welcome signs and on street corners wearing hard hats.
Keep your eyes peeled for the 86-ft-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex that watches over the town.
For $3 you can climb up it to view Drumheller from within its gaping jaws. Children five and under get in free and a percentage of admission and gift shop earnings go to the World's Largest Dinosaur Legacy Fund to invest in the community.
After climbing up and down the T-Rex, swing by the Last Chance Saloon for a great burger and more knickknacks than you can shake a stick at. The saloon also has a back patio with a live music stage and an outdoor bar with saddles as stools.
For outdoor adventurers, the area's natural wonders, such as the Hoodoos, are a must. Standing 5-to-7-metres tall, these sculpted pieces of earth take millions of years to form.
Horse Thief and Horseshoe Canyons both offer postcard views and hiking trails while the latter also has seasonal helicopter tours. Pick one, probably Horse Thief, head there for sunset and whatever you do, don't forget your camera.
-- For more details, visit traveldrumheller.com.
ROYAL TYRRELL MUSEUM
The Royal Tyrrell Museum opened in 1985 and is Canada's only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of palaeontology. It's the crown jewel of Drumheller having hosted 12 million visitors from more than 150 countries.
The museum features more than 160,000 fossil vertebrates, invertebrates, plants and geologic specimens, including more than 300 holotypes.
For non-science majors, it offers amazing visual displays with full-sized skeletons placed in beautifully re-imagined backdrops, from land to sea. Visitors can wander freely or follow a path along a geological timeline. The journey covers eras from the Precambrian (4.6 billion to 541 million years ago) to the Cenozoic (66 million years ago to present day).
The Museum is also an active research facility with a viewing window to watch scientists work on fossils brought in from the field.
Audio tours are available for rent in English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Dutch and German and the museum is wheelchair accessible. There's also a cafeteria and gift shop.
Beyond its indoor exhibits, visitors can take guided hiking tours such as the Seven Wonders of the Badlands. And there are educational programs, including The Dig Experience, where visitors (seven years and older) go digging for dinosaur bones using the same tools and techniques as palaeontologists.
-- Visit tyrrellmuseum.com for seasonal hours and program details.
DINOSAUR PROVINCIAL PARK
Try not to be the one driving when you visit Dinosaur Provincial Park. During the descent into the valley, it's awfully hard to focus on the road. The views are simply indescribable.
About 170 km southeast from Drumheller, the park was established by the Alberta government in 1955 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
There is a visitor centre with a few exhibits, a fossil preparation lab and a theatre, but the real action is outside and all around you.
The activities seem endless: Five self-guided hiking trails through the badlands, multi-day guided fossil excavations, fossil prospecting, guided hikes and bus tours -- even a sunset tour.
Whether you're rolling in with a van full of kids or on a solo photography adventure, you'll be kept busy for days. Keep in mind that some outdoor activities are weather-dependent so check ahead.
Sites are available yearround for campers and RVs but reservations are recommended during the summer months.
If you like the idea of camping but don't like sleeping on the ground, from May to October, the park has seven "Comfort Camping" tents. Each wood-framed, canvas-covered unit has a queen bed with blankets and pillows, a pull-out futon, electricity (even WiFi if you really need it), pots and pans and a BBQ out front. If it gets chilly, there are electric heaters, while washrooms and showers are just a short walk away. There is also a gift shop.
-- Check dinosaurpark.ca for details.
PHILIP J. CURRIE DINOSAUR MUSEUM
Dinosaurs perished millions of years ago but that doesn't mean they can't be brought back to life for a few exciting, educational moments.
The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum uses animation, CTI scans, 3D printers and other technologies to give visitors a unique dinosaur experience.
Point a holstered tablet at a skeleton hanging from the ceiling and watch the screen as it transforms into a full-bodied, moving creature. Put a dinosaur together, piece by piece, and learn what each part is in the process. There's also an area dedicated to the oil and gas industry for those interested in connecting the dots between dinosaur fossils and modern-day natural resources.
A restaurant (with craft beers), a gift shop and a 70-seat theatre that hosts guest speakers and documentary screenings complete the experience.
The Museum opened in September 2015 in Wembley, about 20 km west of Grand Prairie, near the Pipestone Creek Bonebed, one of the densest accumulations of fossils in the world.
If you can only visit one dinosaur museum in Alberta, the Royal Tyrrell should be it, but the Currie Museum puts on a great show for those who make the trek.
-- For more, visit dinomuseum.ca.
-- To plan a trip to Alberta, see travelalberta.com.