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Alberta's Not So Badlands
For more than a hundred years, Alberta has been known as a mountain
playground. Peering at the pages of travel magazines you will see
endless images of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Even our $20 bill shows
an image of the mountains in the name of Moraine Lake. More recently
though, the tide is beginning to turn as more and more people begin to
explore some of our numerous, non-mountainous attractions. One of the
most exciting landscapes within the province can be found hidden within
the middle of our vast prairies--the badlands.
Alberta's badlands can best be described as a miniature version of
the Grand Canyon. Similar in appearance, they seem to have been carved
out of the prairie itself. This is in fact the case. With the retreat of
the last glaciers around 18,000 years ago, immense amounts of water were
released to carve large and intricate drainage channels through the soft
rock. Over time, these channels have been sculpted and molded by wind
and water into the intricate, and almost eerie, landscapes we see today.
When you first set eyes on the badlands, it's usually very
unexpected. Traveling across the flattest of prairies, the ground
abruptly opens up into a wide, beautiful canyon. Exploring the badlands
provides endless excitement as they bring a little of the southern
desert to Alberta. In spring, the desert comes to life as the prickly
pear and pincushion cactus' explode into fiery yellow and red flowers.
Since most of the badlands areas are located along river valleys, they
are like an oasis for bird and animal life. Pronghorn antelope and mule
deer peer at you from a safe distance and an endless variety of birds
roost in the trees lining the river.
Wander away from the shoreline and the climate quickly changes. The
ground immediately dries and cracks. The plants choke out a tough
existence in this wild and dry land. The landscape is stark--almost
moonlike. In fact one area of Dinosaur Provincial Park is known as the
Valley of the Moon. You have stepped into a wondrous new world--a world
that begs to be explored. Be cautious though! This is an area to be
explored in good weather only. Many badlands, including the Drumheller
and Dinosaur park areas, are underlain by a bentonite clay soil. This
clay swells and forms a completely frictionless surface when wet. In
addition, the clay causes flash floods through this normally dry valley.
Luckily though, rainfall is rare in this dry desert area.
Unfortunately for the badlands, the name tends to drive away tourism.
Who, in their right mind, would want to visit an area described as
"bad". In reality though, the badlands are an area of incredible beauty
and stark character. The name 'badlands' was actually a mis-translation
of a French term used to describe similar landscapes in the American
Dakotas. Apparently early French voyageurs called similar areas "mauvaises
terres a traverser" or simply "bad lands to cross". This is a very apt
description as the badlands are indeed difficult to cross by walking in
a straight line. However, if you don't mind a meander, they provide
endless opportunities for exploring.
- Drumheller. Heading towards Drumheller on Highway 9, northeast
of Calgary, you first experience Horseshoe Canyon. This miniature
version of the Grand Canyon is an excellent example of badlands
landscape. You may want to explore this area or head onto Drumheller.
From here you have two options. You can head west along the north
Dinosaur Trail towards Horsethief Canyon and on to one of Alberta's
last working ferries; eventually looping back to Drumheller on Hwy.
575. You can also head east along Highway 10 and loop back on Hwys.
569 and 56. This takes you past the Hoodoos Campsite and the old
Atlas coal mine where one of the provinces few remaining coal
tipples can be viewed.
- Dinosaur Provincial Park. 48 km northeast of Brooks, this UNESCO
World Heritage Site provides both Badlands and Bones. Stay overnight
at the campground or in nearby Brooks and join interpreters on
guided walks past towering hoodoos and the bones of long vanished
dinosaurs. Click to learn more
- Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park. Carefully hidden 42 km
southeast of the town of Milk River, this badlands site has a long
history. In addition to its eerie badlands appearance, it holds the
stories of long vanished visitors in the form of ancient carvings in
its sandstone faces. Join interpreters as they attempt to unravel
the meanings of these ancient art works. Accommodation is available
in the form of primitive camping within the park or in the town of
Milk River. Click to learn more