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Home > Destinations > Canada > Canadian Badlands
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.

Badlands Tours
  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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
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