“Good morning!” A cheery voice comes from the other end of the line at the hotel front desk. “We’re going to have a surprise visitor in the lobby in five minutes, if you want to bring the kids.”
It’s 8 a.m. in Drumheller, Alta., and we’re staying at the Canalta Jurassic Inn. Since arriving the night before, we’d already been in the mouth of the World’s Largest Dinosaur and visited a dino-themed splash pad. So the chances of this “visitor” having a scaly tail and serrated teeth are pretty good.
Sure enough, a dancing Albertosaurus — a type of tyrannosaur — and his human trainer have popped into the hotel to greet bleary-eyed guests en route to the breakfast room. My husband attempts to lure our terrified sons, 5 and 3, out of the corner for a photo op with the all-too-accurately costumed carnivore. Not happening. But not to worry: Drumheller still has many surprises in store for us today.
Nestled in the Canadian badlands 135 kilometres northeast of Calgary, Drumheller has a varied history that runs deep — literally, as it’s best known for coal mining and fossilized dinosaur remains. But the friendly town of 8,000 and its surrounding area are equally intriguing above the surface. Its otherworldly terrain — peculiar rock formations, steep canyons and terracotta-hued coulees — looks like something straight out of an episode of Star Trek. Or perhaps The Flintstones. It’s no wonder why the area has been the setting for numerous film and TV productions, including The X-Files and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
It’s also a prime location for families in search of a vacation spot that’s educational and full of unexpected twists.
Horseshoe Canyon — Canada’s answer to the Grand Canyon [Chris Bruneau]A good example of the latter happens to be our first stop of the day. Less than 18 km southwest of town, the road to Horseshoe Canyon looks like any other prairie highway — cows, hay bales, tractors, repeat. And then, one turnoff later, you’re overlooking Canada’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It’s on a smaller scale, of course, but a far cry from farm land. A trail takes you into the canyon so you can explore the sandy landscape up close. But since gravel inclines and three-year-olds don’t mix, we soak in the sun-lit morning view from the overlook and head to our day’s major destination: The Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Named after geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell (who discovered a dinosaur skull nearby in 1884), the museum has racked up accolades galore in the paleontology world since it opened its doors in 1985 as a solution to the area’s economical woes after its once-hot coal industry collapsed in the late-1940s. It’s a stone’s throw from the town in Midland Provincial Park, which looks and feels like a desert on this particularly dry August day.
“If it gets too hot, I have air conditioning,” our spray bottle-toting tour guide Seija quips as we embark on the museum’s Seven Wonders of the Badlands hike. A lot of our questions about the rocky past of this mysterious area once roamed by dinos are answered on the one-hour trek, best taken at the start of the day if you’re going in the hot summer months. We have to keep a close watch on the boys, since there are hilly spots and small cactus plants on the trail (“Don’t poke the tiny cactus … still pokey,” Seija warns our curious three-year-old). It’s a good primer — and energy-burner — before we toss back a brown bag lunch and head indoors to the museum galleries.
Dinosaur Hall. The Royal Tyrrell Museum houses about a dozen elaborate exhibits at a time [Chris Bruneau]The Royal Tyrrell houses about a dozen elaborate exhibits at a time, so visitors can spend hours soaking in prehistoric knowledge — from the origins of a Regaliceratops skull resembling Hellboy in the Fossils in Focus exhibit to a tutorial on fossil prep at the lab. But since we’re on toddler time, a Coles Notes version will have to suffice.
Bizarre sea creatures, a massive woolly mammoth skeleton and plenty of interactive displays (it’s all about the buttons and touch screens) keep the kids’ short attention spans at bay until we reach the main attraction: Dinosaur Hall. Its world-renowned reconstructions of authentic and handcrafted dinosaur remains is the stuff our little boys’ prehistoric dreams are made of. To them, it’s like being at a Hollywood red carpet event: “Look, Mom, there’s the Stegosaurus! And the Triceratops!” Commanding the biggest spotlight, of course, is the towering T. Rex. I’m instantly certain no plastic dollar-store version of the Jurassic era’s biggest celeb will ever match up again.
We keep the kids’ enthusiasm going by taking them to the Dinosaur Adventure Hour, where lively instructor Maggie guides them through a craft, lets them hold fossils and puts them to work on an indoor dig. It’s one of numerous classes you can enrol your kids in (others include fossil casting, fossil digs and raptor assembly) to get the most out of their visit. They’re $20 or less, and many are even free. It’s best to book online in advance.
After six solid hours at the museum, we drive back toward town and stop at Fossil World’s gift shop (the popular stop also houses 10 animatronic dinos) for souvenirs in the form of polished rocks before following our grumbling guts southeast of Drumheller to the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, Alta.
Kids dig Dinosaur Adventure Hour at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. [Royal Tyrrell Museum]“Are we really taking the kids to a biker bar?” I ask my hubby en route. He nods with enthusiasm as we turn off the highway and drive the six-kilometre stretch to Wayne — which holds the Guinness World Record for most amount of bridges (11) within the shortest distance.
Yes, there are Harleys lining the entrance, but this “biker bar” has a kids menu. It’s located inside a 104-year-old building that also houses a vintage hotel — and it has the most eclectic, extensive array of nostalgic decor we’ve ever seen outside of an American Pickers episode.
Taxidermied animal heads, ancient cookware, old photos, clown figurines, dollar bills from around the globe, retro beverage signs — you name it, it’s on the walls. Perhaps the Last Chance’s most prized possession, though, is a 1940s band box our server tells us is the only one left in the world. And it still works.
We almost forget we came here to eat. My sauerkraut perogies don’t fit the setting but they are tangy and tasty. The boys devour hotdogs and homemade fries, while their dad goes big with the Saloon’s Evolution Burger — a prime rib patty topped with the usual fixings plus onion rings. That and a couple of lagers from local brewery Big Rock (for the parents, not the kids; we aren’t that badass) and we’re off to our day’s final attraction: The hoodoos.
Hoodoos. The quirky rock formations formed by wind, water and sand are so fragile, you could pick the mushroom cap-style top right off and break it. [Chris Bruneau]Again just a short drive from town, the Badlands’ signature hoodoos look just as unique as they sound. The quirky rock formations formed by wind, water and sand are so fragile, you could pick the mushroom cap-style top right off and break it. In other words, we keep the boys at a safe distance while taking in the stunning sedimentary stacks at sunset before heading back to our Canalta headquarters.
After a day so full of surreal surprises — and famous dinosaur sightings — they were the ones dancing in the hotel lobby this time.
Drumheller by the numbers
75,000,000 — Years since the Late Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs roamed the area
130,000 (and counting) — Fossils at the Royal Tyrrell Museum
$50,000 — Fines you could face for removing fossils from the area (or one year in jail)
1973, 1979, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2014 — Years residents have reported UFO sightings in the area
139 — Coal mines dotting the region during the rush of the early-1900s
106 — Stairs it takes to get into the mouth of the World’s Largest Dinosaur — a 25-metre T. Rex at the centre of town
11 — Bridges you cross en route to the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, Alta.
10 feet — Length of an Albertosaurus
5 — Dig sites in Midland Provincial Park, near the museum
On the web:
Source : http://o.canada.com/travel/surprises-abound-in-albertas-drumheller-region