Thinking of road-tripping in Alberta this summer? The Rockies are amazing, but don’t skip the Canadian Badlands. Fly into Calgary and head south and you will be amazed by the variety of sights and activities that are truly too good to be missed.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to 40 fossilized species of dinosaurs. Go on a guided tour or be part of a dig surrounded by the hoodoos – rusty-coloured sandstone rock eroded into giant mushroom shapes. Would-be paleontologists are given a toolkit that includes an awl, a paintbrush, a hammer and a dental pick for the more delicate work. I barely had my hands dirty at Bone Bed 30 before I realized I was staring at actual fossilized dinosaur bones. It is impossible not to find a fossil, whether it’s a small piece of tendon or the edge of giant femur; the natural history is everywhere. Remember as part of your planning that Dinosaur Provincial Park and the better-known dinosaur attraction, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in the town of Drumheller, are actually two hours’ drive apart. Pre-book your tour or dig in advance.
If arts and crafts are more your speed, head to Medicine Hat and check out the former Medalta clay factory, now a national historic district. The iconic beehive kilns of the former factory can still be toured. A highlight is the surprisingly cool museum, which chronicles the history of the factory. My favourite displays are the china collection used by the historic Canadian Pacific hotels and the one-of-a-kind line of dinnerware created for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. The Yuill Family Gallery showcases rotating exhibits, including creations from Medalta’s artist in residence program.
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
An hour and a half drive away from Medicine Hat, the town of Elkwater is the entry point into Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Straddling the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, it is the only interprovincial park in Canada. In addition to the expected variety of hiking trails, the park includes Elkwater Lake, which provides a perfect spot for all varieties of water sports. I got a lesson in canoeing while I was there from the park staff which was great fun. Camp or spend the night at a lodge in Elkwater if sleeping on the ground is not your thing. The park is also one of a growing number of parks across the country that has a Dark Sky Preserve. For stargazers out there, the lack of light pollution makes for some amazing night sky viewing.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
Approximately a three-and-a-half-hour drive south of Calgary, Alberta’s Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to the largest concentration of rock art on the North American Plains. It is as sacred to the local Blackfoot tribes as Mecca is to Muslims. Hundreds of paintings (pictographs) and thousands of rock carvings (petroglyphs) on the steep valley walls tell the story of the Blackfoot people over thousands of years. As a culture that relies on oral tradition to survive, it was fascinating to hear our guide, Deserae Yellow Horn, interpret the scenes played out on the rock faces as told to her by generations of elders. She also explained that the valley is sacred because it is home to the spirits of her ancestors who communicate with those inhabiting the living world through the rock art.
Camping in the park is the only option, but if you prefer glamping, reserve a comfort camping site. Built on wooden platforms, the canvas-tented structures provide all the necessities of home: a fridge and fan, pots and pans and a bed with pillows and linen. A gas barbeque and fire pit made it easy to throw together a meal, and watching the sunset over the hoodoos while we ate was an added bonus.