We spent two nights in the town of Drumheller, home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Then, having filled our heads with knowledge, we headed to another spot in the Red Deer River valley, this time to where most of the dinosaur fossils are actually found. Along the way, we stopped at this amazing display of art made by nature.
These things are called “hoodoos.” The land making this striated valley is sandstone and bentonite clay, a soft rock which absorbs lots of water and washes away very easily. In some places, erosion washed around a portion of clay protected by a sandstone cap, resulting in these bizarre rock formations. At this random spot outside Drumheller, not inside any particular park, we could get up close and personal with the hoodoos.
The area with the finest formations was protected, but we could climb all around them, straight up the hills with their rills. Thankfully it was a dry day; we learned later that this stuff becomes incredibly slippery when wet, and you can do a lot of extra damage by erosion when you climb on it in that state. In addition to potentially damaging yourself with a nasty slip.
The kids loved climbing in this spot. In the parks themselves, there aren’t a ton of obvious places where kids can just climb on stuff, so this was pure joyous exploration. Sisko wanted to shoot straight up the hills to – he’s quite the climber – but he’s also a little more sociable than most people want to deal with, so we kept him on leash.
I have since learned, thanks to the visitors’ center at Dinosaur Provincial Park, that some of the sandstone looks red because of its high iron content. There’s granite in those hills as well, the black lines containing iron, and white deposits of volcanic ash. I cannot tell you how much I want to take a geology extension course right now.
This landscape also changes very quickly. Every year, snowmelt washes more of the hills away. Eventually, so much of a hoodoo washes away that the cap falls off, then it shrinks much faster.
To get from Drumheller to Dinosaur, you emerge back onto the prairie, and drive on flat bits for an hour or two. You’re driving through an unassuming bit of farm when suddenly the road dips down, and you find yourself again in this land carved right out from under the grass.
One of the big takeaways from this view is that rock is under the entire prairie. I guess I’m used to seeing mountains eroded down, from up high, but this was eroded from the ground down. We drove for hours and hours across flat farmland, but under it all, fossils are hiding in layers of rock. That is, of course, where the “fossil fuels” come from which fund so much of this part of the country.
There were some cool desert plants in here too. The kids had to watch out for cacti when digging in the dust:
There weren’t many flowers, but I saw a couple of stunners:
We camped right in the middle of all this. Just by scrambling to the top of a mesa right next to our camp, we got to a trail that led through the best of the badlands.
Again, we were too early in the season for interpretive programs, which was too bad. I was jonesing to see some digs in process. We did, however, hike a little interpretive trail which explained some of the history of dinosaur hunting in the area. And there were a couple of sort of enclosed kiosks with displays of bones as they would have been found in situ.
Hiking to the end of that trail, I did see two spots where teams of paleontologists marked their finds early in the twentieth century. My favorite story from the period was when an early paleontologist, at the time just a surveyor mapping the river for a Canadian geological survey, was nearly scared out of his boat when he rounded a bend to see a partially-exposed Albertosaurus skull staring at him from a valley wall.
As in all the parks, there were plenty of trails, some longer than others. I took a couple of hours in the afternoon to hike the cottonwoods trail with Sisko.
I had a real curiosity about cottonwoods after reading Tree in the Trail by Holling C. Holling with Stringbean during our year of homeschool together. These trees can survive in quite arid environments as long as their roots reach the water table.
Some of these specimens are over two hundred years old. Some of them are already dead, like the one below, while others hang on. The many signs along the trail explained how this landscape is changing. As snowmelt continues to wash the clay down from the surrounding hills, the flats build up around the river, and the forest is slowly being supplanted by scrubby bushes that do better with less water.
This is an amazing corner of Canada that we did not even know existed before we saw it. It was hard to leave. Maybe one day we’ll be back, and help find dinosaurs for ourselves!