Canada: Coast to Coast – The Badlands

“I wouldn’t call it (Canada) a melting pot . . . more like a tossed salad.” – Derek, 26, Brooks, Alberta

The inclement weather arrived as forecast, with snow in the same mountains I’d strolled the day before in shorts.  The balmy 28 degrees had dropped overnight to a brisk 4 and I hunkered down in Calgary while the wind howled at speeds up to 100 km/hr and rain battered the land.

The Alberta Badlands

Once the storm had passed, I hit the road again, this time travelling northeast to the town of Drumheller in the heart of the Alberta Badlands.  The mountains have receded in the rearview mirror, now no more than a dark shadow on the horizon.  About an hour and a half outside Calgary, Highway 9 leaves the flat prairie fields and descends into the Red Deer River valley and towards a landscape reminiscent of a sci-fi film.  The earth is exposed, the striations reflecting the sedimentary deposits from the rivers and flood plains that existed millions of years ago.  The soft deposits slough away with the weather, leaving stone-capped hoodoos behind (feature photo).

The Badlands

The region has two distinct histories which are inextricably linked – coal and dinosaurs.  It was in 1884 when geologist Joseph Burr Tyrell arrived in the Red Deer River valley seeking coal and discovered the skull of a large dinosaur in a local creek bed.  This dinosaur was dubbed the Albertasaurus, the first discovered in the region, though the bone beds along the valley had existed in native lore for centuries.  It was believed that the hoodoos were the gatekeepers for the spirits of the ancestors to the modern buffalo that roamed the grasslands.

The Royal Tyrell Museum

Albertasaurus Skeleton

With black clouds threatening more rain, I drive ten minutes from the Drumheller Visitor centre to the jewel of Alberta paleontology.  Opened in 1985, the Royal Tyrell Museum offers 13 galleries exploring the history of the Badlands from the cretaceous period though to the ice age, including a view of the preparation lab where the bones are removed from the rock and prepared for display.  In the centre of the galleries is Dinosaur Hall where you can wander among life-sized skeletons of some of the largest dinosaurs, including the triceratops, stegosaurus and the tyrannosaurus rex.

Of particular interest is the “Grounds for Discovery” exhibit, new this year, showing how industry has been paramount in the continued discovery and protection of dinosaur bones and fossils in the region, including the Nodosaur, the best preserved armoured dinosaur in the world.  Titled “One day at work”, the story of the discovery is displayed with the find, workers in the oil and gas, mining and road construction industry credited for preserving the history for future generations.

Atlas Coal Mine

The sun reappeared while I was indoors so I head back down the hoodoo trail to the Atlas Coal Mine.

Coal mining was prominent in the valley for almost 50 years, with 27 mines active by 1921.  One of the first was the Atlas Coal Mine, a national historic site about 25 km along Highway 10 from Drumheller.  Established in 1910, the Atlas mine was active until 1979 and the #3 mine site retains its integrity as a representation of coal mining in the region.  The old buildings stand as they were, allowing visitors the opportunity to explore the life and work of the local miners.

Buoyed by my success in the Horne Lake caves (no claustrophobia – yeah!), I decide to take the tunnel tour into the Atlas mine.  While the shafts themselves have been blocked for safety reasons – the government requires all mines to blast the entrance when the mine is decommissioned – the conveyor tunnel to the mine entry is open to the public as part of the tour.


We start at the washhouse where miners would begin their shift by changing and hanging their clothes near the ceiling to protect them from the coal dust as shift workers enter and leave.  Geared up in our helmets and headlamps, we enter the shaker building where the coal was separated by size before travelling to the only wooden tipple still in existence in Canada.  We climb along the conveyor shaft to the mine weigh station beneath the mountain, briefly shutting off our lights to get a sense of the dark in which the miners worked.  The lack of sight is unnerving, every sound amplified in the black void surrounding me.

The guide regales us of tales of the 15 minute strike, saving the pit ponies from the flooding in the Brilliant mine, and the ghost that’s seen running past the tipple.  Before we know it, an hour and half has passed and we make our way back out into more cloud, wind and rain.

Exploring the area, including Horsehoe and Horsethief Canyons, is a full day and I spend the night in Drumheller.  I’ll continue east across the Prairies in the morning, hoping for some sunshine along the way.

Fun Fact:  Both the Royal Tyrell Museum and the Atlas Coal Mine were both used as a detour on the Amazing Race Canada, Season 1.


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