There is nothing like watching a tyrannosaur on the rampage to whet the appetite for gawking at dinosaurs. The release of Jurassic World, the fourth in the series of films that began with Jurassic Park, is bound to turn the thoughts of many people to the delights of dino-tourism. It goes without saying, of course, that there is no prospect of visiting a Jurassic World for real: partly because, if Spielberg’s film is anything to go by, it would seem inevitably to involve being chased by escaped Velociraptors, and partly because no one as yet has actually managed to clone a dinosaur. All those wanting to see a real one are going to have to rest content with fossils.
Which is where Alberta comes in. Fly to Calgary, the beautiful city in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, and you will be within striking distance of the nearest thing to Jurassic World currently in existence. Alberta ranks alongside Mongolia and the remoter reaches of Argentina as the best place anywhere for discovering dinosaur remains; but unlike Mongolia and the Argentine badlands, it makes for an easy and relaxing holiday. A simple hour-and-a-half drive from Calgary, along the delightfully straight roads in which Canada seems to specialise, will bring you to Drumheller: a picturesque small town on the beautiful Red Deer River, and deservedly known as the dinosaur capital of the world.
Initially, back when the West was still wild, it was a frontier town – and there are still plenty of traces of its rough-and-ready origins. North of Drumheller stretches the atmospherically-named Horsethief Canyon, where a key scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was shot; south of it, in the tiny mining town of Wayne, stands a bar which in the 1920s was called the ‘Bucket of Blood’, and still sports three bullet holes above its piano. The cowboys, though, have long since ridden on – and in their place, everywhere you look in Drumheller, are dinosaurs. Fashioned out of concrete and painted a bright assortment of colours, they adorn shop-fronts, gardens, car-parks and pavements. Rare is the street without one. The most spectacular concrete dinosaur of all is a 25 metre high Tyrannosaur, complete with a stairway up to its open mouth. It markets itself, immodestly but with perfect accuracy, as the World’s Largest Walk-Through Dinosaur. It is certainly hard to imagine anyone ever building a taller one.
The true wonders, though, lie just outside Drumheller. The Royal Tyrell Museum is probably the greatest treasure-trove of paleontological riches anywhere in the world. This is largely due to the sheer wealth of fossils to be found along the length of the Red Deer River, and which first became apparent in 1884 when a geologist named Joseph Tyrrell, as he worked in the heights above the river, came across the skull of a vast carnivorous dinosaur. A relative of the larger Tyrannosaurus, it was named Albertosaurus in honour of the province in which it had been found. Nevertheless, for many decades, the fossil beds of Alberta were mined largely by American bone-hunters. Most of the skeletons which fill the great natural history museums of Washington and New York came originally from the banks of the Red Deer River. Only in 1985 did Alberta finally get its own paleontological museum. Fittingly, it was named after Joseph Tyrrell.
So jaw-dropping is the museum today that the visitor with even the most casual interest in dinosaurs will wander round it in a daze of utter happiness and amazement. Nowhere else in the world, for instance, are there three Tyrannosaurs to be seen under a single roof. One stands in the so-called ‘Dinosaur Hall’, amid an astonishing assemblage of over forty other fossils: horned dinosaurs, duck-billed dinosaurs, plated dinosaurs. Another tyrannosaur is the exquisitely but menacingly lit centrepiece of an entire display devoted to the carnivores of the late Mesozoic. Most stunning of all is the third specimen, a fully articulated Tyrannosaur skeleton still half-embedded in rock, its neck arched backwards in its death-agony, its bones a deep and gleaming shade of black. It is a thing of wild and terrifying beauty. Rare is the sculpture gallery with anything to rival its remarkable power.
The wonders in the Royal Tyrrell Museum, though, can be tiny as well as vast. Hallucinogenic organisms from the very beginnings of life; the oldest known plant to have colonised dry land; the tracks left by millipedes 200 million years before the first dinosaurs: it is hard to gaze on such exhibits, and not feel a disorienting sense of awe. Jurassic World fans will be simultaneously delighted to find a lump of amber on display, and reminded by it that the film deliberately ignored the most up-to-date understanding of dinosaurs. Look closely at the amber, and you will see preserved in it something as precious as it would otherwise have been perishable: the feather of a dinosaur.
It was a palaeontologist working in the Royal Tyrrell Museum who identified the first feathers on a dinosaur fossil to be found anywhere in North America: a reminder that the museum is not just a visitor attraction, but a ground-breaking centre of research. Much of the work is done in public: visitors can watch through open glass as a technician chisels the rock away from an ankylosaur skeleton or an anatomist studies the jawbone of a tyrannosaur. Nothing, though, can beat the thrill of venturing out into the badlands which surround the museum, and searching for fossils in the company of one of the museum’s palaeontologists. The organised trips do not necessarily take long; but they can be pretty much guaranteed to turn up a find. Stumble across a Hadrosaur bone, and even if you had never thought to go fossil-hunting in your life, you will suddenly find yourself longing to do more.
“The fossil hunter does not kill,” a famous palaeontologist once observed, “he resurrects.” The best place of all to feel the truth of this observation is not in Drumheller itself, but 150 miles to the south. Dinosaur Provincial Park is fittingly named. More dinosaur species have been discovered in it than any other location of a comparable size. There are stretches where every other fragment underfoot seems to be a fossil: if not of a dinosaur, then of a turtle, or a crocodile, or a fish. It can literally be impossible in certain places to walk without stepping on the remains of a prehistoric beast.
Adding to the eeriness of the experience is the stark and austere beauty of the landscape. Viewed from the cliffs that rise above them, the badlands have the look of rippled sand; venture down among them, and they can seem like the surface of an alien planet. Fortunately, there is no need for anyone who fancies staying there a night or two to rough it. Luxuriously-outfitted tents enable visitors to “glamp” it up beside the slow-flowing waters of the Red Deer River. Sitting on its bank beneath the blaze of the stars and contemplating the immense freight of fossils in the landscape all around me, I truly felt that I was in a land that time forgets.
No one with an interest in dinosaurs should miss out on a trip to Alberta, and the chance to experience it for themselves.
About The Royal Tyrrell Museum: The Royal Tyrrell Museum is located near Drumheller, Alberta, approximately 1.5 hours northeast of Calgary. It houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs and is Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of palaeontology.
About Alberta, Canada: Located in the heart of Western Canada, bordered by the Rocky Mountains to the west and the prairies to the east, the province of Alberta is a vacation destination known for surprising even the most experienced travellers. The picturesque mountain towns of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper are revered by hikers and nature lovers for their awe-inspiring terrain, jaw-dropping vistas and abundant Canadian wildlife. From exploring Calgary and Edmonton, lively cities brimming with music, culture and nightlife, to discovering dinosaur fossils in the mysterious Canadian Badlands, visiting Alberta promises an experience unlike any other.