Day 15: On the Trail of Dinosaurs

More snow greeted us this morning.  And the forecast where we are going is looking ominous.  What can you do?  Most Calgarians we spoke with were surprised by this snow – they weren’t expecting it for another 2-3 weeks.  We got ready and were out the door by 9am, driving through downtown Calgary one more time on our way out.  The fog had lifted and we could finally see all the buildings at once.  Again, we were really taken with Calgary, and this just sealed the deal.

It's tough to get scale, but those are full-sized trees in the picture

Horseshoe Canyon:  it’s tough to get scale, but those are full-sized trees in the picture  (it also looked a lot like Horsethief Canyon, minus the snow)

The direction we took was northeast out of the city, our sights set on the Drumheller, Alberta, area.  The roads coming out of Calgary were slick but eventually the slushy mess gave way to a clear Hwy 9 as we barreled on.  The landscape turned fairly flat, with farm fields as far as the eye could see.  And then, 17km west of Drumheller, there it was:  Horseshoe Canyon.  We pulled into the lot to view where, in the midst of this vast prairie, the bottom dropped out.  As Jim said, “It’s just so freakin’ random.”  It was also a brisk 1C (34F) and very windy, so there would be no hiking down into it today.

We motored on to the town of Drumheller, where the road just outside town took us downhill into a valley with canyons on all sides.  Our first stop was to the Visitor’s Center for two reasons:  one, we wanted a more detailed map than what we had, and two, this was the very spot of the World’s Largest Dinosaur.  And at 82 ft tall and 151 ft long, he’s a beaut.  The Visitor’s Center was open and we were met by a nice-as-pie staff member who loaded us up with a dinosaur-sized map and pointed out the highlights.

Looks like it's walking across cars

Looks like it’s walking across cars

The route we wanted started with going north along Road 838, which went astride a canyon, stopping at Horsethief Canyon.  The placard indicated this was a big horse ranching area back in the day, and rumor had it horses used to disappear down into the canyon and come up the other side with a different brand.  Jim had to explain all of that info to me later because as soon as we got out of the car I was side-tracked by a gopher and had no time to read stinkin’ informational placards.

The canyon was steep, vast, and deep, and it was difficult to imagine horses going in and out of it.  It was also very cold and windy and I almost lost my fingers to frostbite waiting for the gopher to pop back up from its hole.

Moving along the 838 we came to the cable-operated Bleriot Ferry, the only way to cross the Red Deer River at this point and connects with Road 837.  The ferry operator hopped out of his truck, motioned for us to drive on, and then asked if we’d like to get out of the car to take some pictures.  You didn’t need to ask me twice.  The ride across the river was short as the cables pulled us over, and we learned from the operator we were his first customers of the day.  It was noon.  He had been open for business since 7am.  He was a jolly sort and seemed thrilled to have someone to chat with so we all sat and visited like old friends for several minutes after the ferry had landed on the other side.

If you're in the area, stop and take the ferry. He needs the business.

If you’re in the area, stop and take the ferry. He needs the company.

After several goodbyes and handshakes we continued down Road 837 on the other side of the river to the southeast side of town and then headed down Hwy 10 to view Drumheller’s hoodoos.  This town sure had a little bit of everything.  Along the way we made a brief stop at a pedestrian suspension bridge that coal miners used to use in the early 1900s.  I’d have more intel for you but it was 3C (37F) outside and the wind was howling on the bridge.  It was too cold to read.

Hoodoo Cluster

Hoodoo Cluster

The hoodoo stop was likewise brief.  They were all in a cluster with viewing platforms, so we took one spin up and around them before bee-lining back to the car.  We’ve seen a pile of hoodoos before, as recently as 3 days go, and really, as the old saying goes, once you’ve seen one hoodoo…

Today’s sightseeing has been at a bit of a more accelerated pace than normal (even for us) because the forecast was calling for more snow – potentially a lot of it – and we wanted to squeeze in Dinosaur Provincial Park near Patricia, Alberta.  It was originally slated for tomorrow’s business but this snow had us hoppin’.  The 1.5 hour drive to Patricia took us out of the valley and back to miles of pasture land.

Dinosaur Provincial Park is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it has contained the remains of 49 species of dinosaur from 75 million years ago (give or take) and is one of the richest Cretaceous-era fossil sites in the world.  This, my friends, is dinosaur ground zero.

Heading down in it

Heading down in it

Much of the park is considered to be Badlands, which I believe is Native American for Bad Land.  It’s inhospitable, with little vegetation or places to hide from predators or the elements.  Plus, it’s inhabited by poisonous snakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders.

We started at the Visitor’s Center, which had posted hours until 4pm and it was well before that time, but a sign on the door said sorry, we’re closed due to “unforeseen circumstances.”  Both of us agreed those “unforeseen circumstances” were likely because no one was there, it was cold and blustery, and the staff wanted to be home to get a jump start on Thanksgiving Day preparations.  They were kind enough to put out maps, however, so we appropriated one and went on our merry little way.

There is a scenic loop drive through the park with marked stops, so we started off with the 1.3km Badlands Trail interpretive walk that took us up close and into the badlands landscape.  The land just looks mean, with sandstone mounds everywhere that were formed from a lot of years of geological events.  It was also pointed out that the land today looks nothing like it did 75 million years ago.  Listen, I don’t look nearly as fresh as I did this morning, so no need to explain.

Looks inviting, doesn't it?

Looks inviting, doesn’t it?

Next up was to a Fossil House, where we saw the excavated remains of a Hadrosaur.  What happened in this area was the animals died, were buried quickly in silt before other animals could eat them, fossilized, covered up with more stuff, then the glaciers came through and razed the area, followed by man and some shovels.  Voila.

Stop #3 was to another Fossil House, where they depicted a typical dig site, and then we took the 0.9km interpretive Trail of Fossil Hunters walk.  We learned that unearthing bones is hard work and many of the skeletons have been shipped out to museums worldwide.

This park was very interesting and we are glad to have gotten here in case the weathers turns tomorrow.  After leaving, we drove the 35 minutes to the Tel Star Motor Inn in Brooks, Alberta, where we were able to once again drive right up to our room door.  A quick bite to eat was had and we settled in to get ready for whatever the next day would bring.

Patience pays off

Patience pays off

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