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The Hoodoos of Drumheller Valley: Tall Tales of Sandstone Towers

The Hoodoos of Drumheller Valley: Tall Tales of Sandstone Towers


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In the badlands of Alberta, Canada, unusually shaped rock-formations which rise to 20 feet tall, grace the landscape. According to Blackfoot and Cree traditions, these rocks are petrified giants who come alive at night to protect their land by throwing stones at trespassers. A legend of the Paiute Indians, who inhabited the area for hundreds of years before the arrival of European Americans, claims the colorful hoodoos are ancient people who were turned to stone as punishment for bad deeds.

Today we know the rocks were created by erosion, shaped by wind and water. These hoodoos (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney or earth pyramid) have been carved over millions of years into pillar-like shapes. They’re formed from soft sandstone, and most are capped with a harder rock which sits on top like a hat. The cap rock slows the process of complete erosion by keeping them from disintegrating at the same speed as the surrounding sandstone. The sandstone structures will ultimately be worn away and break, and the harder top rock will eventually come crashing down.

Badlands, Drumheller ( Public Domain )

Hoodoos are found mainly in the desert in hot, dry areas and smaller versions of these sandstone giants can be found all over the Badlands. In common usage, the difference between hoodoos and pinnacles (or spires) is that hoodoos have a variable thickness while spires, have a smoother profile or uniform thickness that taper upward from the ground.

Hoodoos Around the World

Hoodoos, not unique to Alberta, Canada or the North American continent, are commonly found on the Colorado Plateau and abundant in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Hoodoos are also prominent a few hundred miles away at Goblin Valley State Park on the eastern side of the San Rafael Swell as well as other parts of the world.

Several are found in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France and one of the most famous examples is the formation called ‘ Demoiselles Coiffées de Pontis ’ since hoodoos in French are called ‘ladies with hairdos’ ( demoiselles coiffées) or cheminées de fees which translates to ‘fairy chimneys’.

Hoodoos ( peribacası) houses have been carved into the formations found in the Cappadocia region of Turkey and were depicted on the reverse of a Turkish banknote.

Serbia has about 200 formations described as earth pyramids or towers by local inhabitants. The site is called Đavolja Varoš (Devil's Town) and since 1959 has been protected by the state and nominated in the New Seven Wonders of Nature campaign.

Devil's Town, near Kuršumlija, Serbia ( Nikolic / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The hoodoo stones on the northern coast of Taiwan are unusual for their coastal setting. The stones formed as the seabed rose rapidly out of the ocean during the Miocene period.

Red Deer River Valley Is Rich in Fossils

The Drumheller portion of the Red Deer River Valley in the badlands of Alberta is approximately 1.2 miles (2 km) wide and 17 miles (27.3 km) long. The area is often referred to as Dinosaur Valley because of the abundance of fossils found in the area, beginning in the late 1800s.

In 1884, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, found the skull of a meat-eating dinosaur and named the dinosaur in honor of the newly founded Canadian Province: Albertosaurus sarcophagus .

Albertosaurus Skull Cast Geological Museum in Copenhagen (Michael BH / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Over the years thousands of fossils have been collected and 101 years after Albertosaurus was discovered, the Tyrrell Museum opened. It is now one of the leading dinosaur museums in the world.

  • The Badlands Guardian and Other Uncanny Products of Pareidolia
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  • Ancient Stones of Australia: A Mysterious Series of Rock Arrangements and Placements that Defy Conventional Historical Accounts

The semi-desert badlands surrounding the museum are very different to the lush forests where dinosaurs once roamed. Each year the sediments of the Red Deer River Valley are eroded by nature a little more, revealing more fossils at sites such as Dinosaur Provincial Park, and Hoodoo. Alberta is such a rich fossil province, the museum has multiple specimens for many of the species, enabling them to exhibit a wide collection.

Stiff Fines And Jail Time Await Vandals

Hoodoos take millions of years to form and are so incredibly fragile that the site is protected under the Historical Resources Act. Visitors convicted of defacing or removing property from the site could face a fine of up to $50,000 and/or a year in prison, and yet, some feel the need to leave their mark.

Recently, a Drumheller woman was appalled to see a man scratching into the formations, defacing the hoodoos with a small rock. The man had carved out the word ‘ METTEN’, the name of a town in Germany, and the lady sent a video recording to the police as evidence. Locals are rightly proud of the area.

By contrast, two ladies hiking near the popular tourist attraction found what appeared to be a dinosaur fossil, the leg bone of a hadrosaur, or duck billed dinosaur, and immediately contacted the museum. The rule for fossil collecting in Alberta is that anything still buried in the rock belongs to the government, which is the case with these remains.


Hoodoo (geology)

A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney, or earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland. Hoodoos typically consist of relatively soft rock topped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from the elements. They generally form within sedimentary rock and volcanic rock formations.

Hoodoos are found mainly in the desert in dry, hot areas. In common usage, the difference between hoodoos and pinnacles (or spires) is that hoodoos have a variable thickness often described as having a "totem pole-shaped body". A spire, however, has a smoother profile or uniform thickness that tapers from the ground upward.

Hoodoos range in size from the height of an average human to heights exceeding a 10-story building. Hoodoo shapes are affected by the erosional patterns of alternating hard and softer rock layers. Minerals deposited within different rock types cause hoodoos to have different colors throughout their height.


Contents

Hoodoos are commonly found in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains (both in North America). While hoodoos are scattered throughout these areas, nowhere in the world are they as abundant as in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park, located in the U.S. state of Utah (see geology of the Bryce Canyon area). They are also very prominent a few hundred miles away at Goblin Valley State Park on the eastern side of the San Rafael Swell.

Hoodoos are a tourist attraction in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, where houses have been carved from these formations. These rock formations were depicted on the reverse of the Turkish 50 new lira banknote of 2005–2009. [1]

In French, they are called demoiselles coiffées ("ladies with hairdos") or cheminées de fées ("fairy chimneys") and a number of them are found in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence one of the best-known examples is the formation called Demoiselles Coiffées de Pontis. [2] [3]

Đavolja Varoš (Devil's Town) hoodoos in Serbia feature 202 exotic formations described as earth pyramids or "towers", as the locals refer to them. Since 1959, Đavolja Varoš has been protected by the state. It was also a nominee in the New Seven Wonders of Nature campaign. [4]

The hoodoo stones on the northern coast of Taiwan are unusual for their coastal setting. The stones formed as the seabed rose rapidly out of the ocean during the Miocene epoch. [5] Efforts have been made to slow the erosion in the case of iconic specimens in Wanli.

Hoodoos in Drumheller, Alberta, are a distinctive feature that continues to attract thousands of visitors each year. The sediments comprising these hoodoos formed between 70 and 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period as clay and sand sediments from the Horseshoe Canyon Formation were deposited. These hoodoos are able to maintain a unique mushroom-like appearance as the underlying base erodes at a faster rate compared to the capstones, a rate of nearly one centimeter per year, faster than most geologic structures. [6]


The Power of the Hoodoos

I like to think of Bryce Canyon as an artist. One who would sit happily between Mark Rothko and Roger Broders. With its surreal shades of vermilion and striking architectural formations, this national park in southwestern Utah ignites my imagination every time I go for a visit. Whether I am leisurely overlooking its malformed geologic features, known as hoodoos, or hiking among its evergreen forests, Bryce captures all the emotion of long forgotten, hair raising fairy tales I read as a child. Walking through this park always makes me wonder: am I seeing creatures from a folktale come to life, or have I entered another planet?

The Paiute tribe was one of the first people to inhabit this bizarre land of twisted shapes and deformed rock towers. In their legend, Bryce Canyon is the habitat of the “Red Painted People.” According to the story, powerful animal-people enjoyed the abundance of this region long ago. They grew greedy of the plentiful resources and desecrated the land. In anger at their behavior, the Coyote God finally turned them into stone. Ever since then, Bryce Canyon has been filled with these “Red Painted People,” the hoodoos, watching silently over the amphitheater. They remain a warning to future generations to revere the landscape and preserve the natural resources.

Ever since hearing about the Paiute legend from one of the park’s nature guides, I tread lightly through the dark and twisting trails. I take the tale’s warning seriously, making sure that my footprint is small as I enjoy the mystery of Bryce. I certainly don’t want to be turned into one of the hoodoos for my thoughtless behavior! Yet, for me, the Paiute legend is more than an ecological warning. Their folklore is as colorfully eerie as the headless forms that rise like giants above me as I hike the Fairyland Loop. Regardless of the season, in the stillness, every rustling makes me feel that the rock people are coming back to life again. Walking through Bryce I feel I have entered a world I read about in my youth.

My favorite way to spend time at Bryce, is to trek on the Rim Trail. This five mile trail isn’t strenuous, but allows me to admire the sandstone spires from along the edge of the plateau. At this altitude, I pretend that Bryce is a mythical citadel, filled with thousands of petrified towers and fortified turrets.

What sort of magical creatures people these ancient cities?

Your guess is as good as mine. Sometimes, they turn out to be alien beings from another planet, other times this is the land of spritely pixies and slumbering beauties waiting for the right moment to reawaken.

Along the Queen’s Garden trail, the hoodoos start off broad like tree trunks at the base and thin themselves into fins that slice into the cyan colored southwestern sky. Clustered closely together, these configurations appear like siege castles. Other hoodoos form natural tunnels and bridges which seem to lead to windowless minarets. In the park, the voices of fellow hikers echo along the rust colored walls then get lost around corners. The words are indistinct, making it sound as if the natural keeps held their citizens prisoner. I feel that if I only knew the right magic words to speak aloud, I could release the unseen creatures.

Painting the FairyTale

I mentioned that I always think of Bryce as an artist. Part of its supernatural allure, to me, is the vibrant palette to be found around every corner and on every trail. Hoodoos change in shade from vermillion to ochre and flaxen gold. As the sun changes course and the seasons turn, Bryce’s display of colors grows to include steel walls and jade pathways. Offsetting its brilliant tones is the ever expanding Utah horizon, bathed in hues of cyan, cobalt, and sapphire. The subtle transformations of pigment remind me of the stylized illustrations which attracted me to tales of Red Riding Hood, Firebird, and Goblins. The exquisite mix of tints that Bryce produces, along with its otherworldly geologic formations, spurs my imagination.

Even though I have walked through the trails at Bryce Canyon National Park many times, both day and night, during different seasons, I still love how I am able to metamorphose this landscape into my personal folk lore. Whether peopling the canyon with imaginary creatures or constructing supernatural metropolises, Bryce allows my imagination to run free in the midst of a sandstone wonderland. I always ponder what fabulous stories I will create on my next tour of a terrain so wildly incomprehensible.

TRAVEL NOTE:

The hoodoo formations at Bryce Canyon continue to stimulate the imagination of travelers. The result of geologic motion and erosion, Bryce’s landscape is natural art and architecture at its most bizarrely beautiful. The amphitheater’s stone spires and distorted configurations have evolved into tall tales and epic lore while fascinating the world.

Join us on the winding trails of Bryce Canyon National Park in our “Bespoke Traveler Journal: On Garden Paths.”


The Hoodoos of Drumheller Valley: Tall Tales of Sandstone Towers - History

DINOSAUR HUNTING BY RV
By Lauren Kramer
For Travel Writers' Tales

"I can't believe I'm doing this."

My husband is grimacing as he tries to empty the sewage, known in RV terminology as 'black water,' into a dumping station at an Albertan RV camp. I'm marveling at the fact that he's hardly complained, even after driving our rented RV for hours along Alberta's highways, a process he likens to pushing a bathtub uphill.

But try squeezing six people into a space not much larger than an average bathroom and you're bound to feel a little claustrophobic. Now add bad directions that accumulate unwanted hours on a long journey and a torrential downpour once you reach your destination, and what you get easily approaches the definition of a vacation gone wrong.

Still, we were in a pretty unique spot, camping in a park that protects the remains of 75 million year old dinosaur bones, and boasts 38 different dinosaur species, making it one of the largest collections of fossilized dinosaur remains in the world. Out on tour with park rangers, it was clear that with every step we were treading on history, an ancient world carved into the majestic Badlands.

Today the land is a semi-arid desert, but back in the dinosaur heyday it was a beach on the cusp of the Bearpaw Sea, a lush landscape that was a clear favorite among Hadrosaurids, or duck-billed dinosaurs, whose fossils are now found here in abundance.

"This one was the size of our bus," our guide says as she points to the virtually intact fossil of one. Excavated in the late 1960s, this Hadrosaurid is curled up in an embryonic pose, leading scientists to hypothesize that it drowned by falling in a river, its remains quickly protected by the layers of sandstone and mudstone that accumulated on top of it. Dinosaur Provincial Park is a veritable bone-bed, an 80-square-kilometer stretch of remote Albertan soil that's richer in dino bone than anywhere else in the world.

There are the recreated figures of the dinosaurs that testify to their immensity, and the opportunity to peek into the laboratories of technicians who are patiently chipping away at rock surrounding newly found fossils. Hands-on displays help kids understand concepts like continental drift and how fossils form. And a movie to introduces visitors to the museum's scientists, who describe their passion for the work and its relevance today.

Tucked away in an RV park a few minutes from the town of Drumheller, we sit around a camp fire roasting marshmallows while the kids find instant playmates in the community of RVers around us. It's one of those rare moments of family beauty, when the whining has stopped and everyone is happily engaged. Yes, this is a far cry from a luxury cruise. But sometimes the road less traveled yields unexpected adventure. This RV road trip is one of those times.

* The Royal Tyrrell Museum is Canada's only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of palaeontology. In addition to housing one of the world's largest displays of dinosaurs, the Museum offers a wide variety of creative, fun, and educational programs that bring the prehistoric past to life. 1-888-440-4240 www.travelalberta.com
1.800.ALBERTA (252.3782)

* dinosaur provincial park
www.dinosaurpark.ca (403) 378-4342

1. Image 0757: At Horsethief Canyon, on the outskirts of Drumheller, the magnificence of the badlands is laid bare from a high precipice. In this windswept landscape you can truly appreciate the beauty of the rock formations and colour stratifications.

2. Image 0763: This Tyrannosaurus Rex looms high above the Drumheller Information Centre, informing all who come here that they have arrived in Dinosaur country.

3. Image 0860: The sandstone pillars known as hoodoos are scattered all over the Drumheller Valley. Standing up to seven metres tall, they take millions of years to form.

4. Image 6109: Against the blue prairie sky, these larger-than-life dinosaurs tower over the town of Drumheller.


Get a little badass on two wheels in Alberta’s Badlands

Sometimes you just need to hightail it out of the city to a place that makes you feel free.

By Lisa Monforton
and Doug Firby

Sometimes you just need to hightail it out of the city to a place that makes you feel free. For us, that’s Alberta’s Badlands and our exit strategy is on a 600 cc Yamaha motorcycle.

Escaping the daily grind cubicle, we exit Calgary within minutes. By Kilometre 100, we’re grinning. OK, it’s really more like an audible giggle, but no one can hear as the wind envelops us from helmet to boot.

The long and arching road as you enter the Red Deer River valley near Bleriot Ferry. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Wheat fields and Alberta’s endless sky unravel like a blanket beyond the windscreen. We’re heading north and east to one of our favourite hideaways – Alberta’s Badlands.

The quiet highways here have enough bends to keep the ride interesting. The otherworldly scenery, colourful steeped-in-history landmarks, the curving Red Deer River, and sites around every corner offer perfect excuses to get off the bike and stretch your legs.

Around Kilometre 120, we’re entering a parallel universe. On Highway 9 near Drumheller, we gear down and let the engine hold us steady at 70 km/h as we descend the undulating road into Dinosaur Valley. All at once, the prairie flats are in the rearview mirror and we’re surrounded by weather-worn hills battered by millennia of rain, wind and snow.

It inspires awe to think we’re cruising through this ancient land where massive and toothsome T-Rex and horned triceratops once trod. This is, after all, one of the world’s largest caches of remnants from the prehistoric age.

A few kilometres west of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, we pause to take in the valley’s scenery. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Drumheller Valley is a popular destination for all kinds of motorcyclists, including sport bikers and cruisers on big Harleys. Out here, your city persona can be a secret. “You can effectively disappear from the corporate world for the weekend and just get away from the city,” says Paul Salvatore, with the Town of Drumheller.

At the edge of town, we stop at one of a few gas stations to fill the tank. We’ve got everything we need – leathers, gloves and helmet for protection, a full tank of fuel, and some snacks.

Two main riding loops can be found in the Valley: The Dinosaur Trail and the Hoodoo Trail. You can cover both in a day if you leave Calgary early enough. You can easily make it a whole weekend escape here because there are just so many ways to get lost in the landscape.

Hidden-in-plain-view Horseshoe Canyon

Just outside of Drumheller, drop your kickstand at Horseshoe Canyon. A few hundred metres from Highway 9, hiding in plain view, is a moonscape of desert-hills and gullies. Take a hike if you have the time.

Climb the 106 stairs to the top of the world’s largest dinosaur – a T Rex – for a spectacular view of the valley. Photo: Lisa Monforton

World’s largest dinosaur

Never one to negate its prehistoric beginnings, Drumheller, aka, Dinosaur Capital of the World, revels in its Cretaceous-ness and Jurassic-ness. “A good business does not go extinct,” declares The Fossil Shop, one of the town’s many businesses leveraging the camp of it all. Take a stroll down Tyrannosaurus Drive and Albertosaurus Street downtown, and don’t miss the photo opp atop the 106 stairs in the mouth of the 25-metre-tall T-Rex.

Steal some solitude at Horsethief Canyon

Kicking the bike into third gear, we cruise gently up Highway 838 (North Dinosaur Trail) northwest of town, passing Midland Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which is worth a day’s visit in itself. Rising above the valley, a montage of classic Badlands emblems is in your view: sunny canola fields edge up alongside waving wheat fields, pastoral backdrops to the non-stop pumpjacks bending on bald-prairie knolls. We pull into Horsethief Canyon, named for the old-time horse-stealers who came here to hide from the authorities, and pull some snacks out of our backpack. Pure solitude like this can’t be found in the city.

You gotta stop here for gourmet burgers

If you don’t feel like packing a lunch, head to Bernie & The Boys Bistro. It’s smart to avoid the noon-hour rush because the word is out on this place featured on the popular Food Network program You Gotta Eat Here! Gargantuan gourmet burgers and poutine are their stock in trade.

Take the two-minute ferry across the Red Deer River on the Bleriot Ferry, linking the two sections of the North Dinosaur Trail. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Short but sweet Bleriot Ferry ride

At the northwest tip of the route, we drop into neutral and let the bike roll to the Bleriot Ferry, waiting to convey us and a few cars across the Red Deer River. This ferry is famous for two reasons: It’s the only cable-operated ferry in Alberta and the shortest ferry-crossing in western Canada. It’s free, can fit about 15 vehicles during the summer crush and takes all of two minutes. We fire up the bike, and cruise back to Drumheller on Highway 575.

The Badlands famous hoodoos, created by millennia of wind and rain. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Deep history along Hoodoo Trail

Back in town, the sun is warm, the roads are smooth and light on traffic, so we decide to take the Hoodoo Trail loop along the winding Highway 10. The bike sneaks up to 100 km/h until we come across the first hamlet – Rosedale. We trace the lazy Red Deer River, leaning into curves as we carry on through Lehigh en route to East Coulee. As we draw near, rows of petrified sand dunes and outlandish geologic mushroom-like formations appear on the north side of the highway. We’ll come back to these hoodoos, but first we head to some Alberta mining history.

The Atlas Coal Mine is a National Historic Site and offers a glimpse of Drumheller’s past when coal was king. Photo: Doug Firby

Just past East Coulee, the eerie looking Atlas Coal Mine, a National Historic Site, comes into view. Canada’s last remaining wooden tipple towers over the site where coal mining was the region’s economic engine, and a time when boys and men went to work in the “beast of the belly.” If you have time, take one of the tours, like the Unmentionables Tour, which delves into the gritty history of Drumheller Valley’s mining past.

The Last Chance Saloon is the perfect spot to stop for a cold one. It is open 11-9 most days. Photo: Doug Firby

Gear down at the Last Chance Saloon

After a quick stop to appreciate the sandstone hoodoos with some pictures, we head back to Rosedale, drop it into second and head towards one of my favourite roads of the trip – the nine bridges that take you to the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne. Up and down the gears, we accelerate then brake hard as we approach the wood-tracked bridges that take us to the town entrance, which declares: Population: “Then 2,490, Now 82.” The wood-frame Last Chance, built in 1913, has motorcycle-only designated parking spots out front, a nod to the establishment’s annual Motorcycle Madness event in July. In summer, day-trippers and weekenders can easily quadruple the population. You can camp here or stay at one the vintage hotel rooms before heading back to your reality.

More routes and events:

  • In July, the Last Chance Saloon holds its annual Motorcycle Madness Rally, a weekend of events, including a poker run and a show-and-shine.
  • East Coulee SpringFest: An annual music festival held in early May. It features a lineup of rock, blues, country, folk and alternative musicians from across western Canada, who play for free. Proceeds go to support East Coulee School Museum.
  • Dinosaur Valley Half Marathon (with options for 5 K and 10 K) is held annually in September. It’s a gentle and fairly flat course with a couple of small hills.
  • Canalta Hotel in Drumheller and other locations around Alberta offer a motorcyclist’s program that includes designated parking, a wash station with complimentary soap and sponge, kickstand pads and detailed route maps with attractions. Free breakfast and wi-fi also included in stays.

Lisa Monforton is Editor of Travel Like This and Doug Firby is Publisher of Troy Media. The married couple are also travel partners.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Get a little badass on two wheels in Alberta’s Badlands added by Lisa Monforton on Jun 20, 2019
View all posts by Lisa Monforton &rarr


The Royal Tyrrell Museum stands on the southwest corner of the 280-hectare Midland Provincial Park. A trailhead a few hundred meters east of the museum marks a 1.4 km interpretative walk. Signs show how the glacial forces sculpted the badlands from 70 million year old layers of sedimentary rock. Further east of this path is another self guided tour that goes past the remains of old coal mining sites. This was once the town of Midlandvale, it was home to several hundred residents and four major coal mines. Six hundred acres of the coal mine land was donated to the province to form the Midland Provincial Park.

McMullen Island Park shares the same park grounds as the museum making up part of the Midland Provincial Park. It is a day use picnic area situated on the banks of the Red Deer River with lush green areas and trees. It’s quite a contrast to the mostly dry and barren badlands.


Tips for Visiting Bryce Canyon

► Go Early&mdashor Stay Late

Bryce Canyon’s colors are most dynamic during the early morning and late afternoon hours, when the sun illuminates them and causes them to look even more vibrant than they do at high noon. Time your visit with sunrise or sunset to enjoy some of the most majestic sights nature has to offer. Morning is the park’s most popular time, so set your alarm a little earlier than usual to experience the best it has to offer.
Driving into Bryce Canyon National Park

► Prepare for Crowds

Bryce Canyon has been a popular destination for close to 100 years, and that’s doubly true during the summer months when most people have vacation days to spend and outdoor activities are more desirable. The park has a shuttle service that connects visitors to park highlights, and if your visit is during a peak tourist week it’s a great idea to leave your car behind and make use of the park’s transportation system. Crowds also mean longer waits for prime viewing spots, so patience is key&mdashbut worth it. You might spend longer than you intended, but there is plenty of nature for everyone to enjoy. If you are hoping to avoid the crowds but still want good weather, September and October are often good months to consider.

► Check the Weather

Bryce Canyon is at a high elevation, which means it can be much colder than you might expect. In addition to taking sunscreen and a hat, consider wearing layers that you can take off or put on depending on changing weather conditions. It may be warm and sunny at midday, but if you arrive at sunrise you could be shivering in shorts and a t-shirt!


Fisher Towers

Red rocks dominate most of the landscapes around Moab away from the well-known Arches and Canyonlands national parks are many other scenic areas, centered on the Colorado River. West of town, the 15 mile Potash Road passes arches, side canyons, and lengthy stretches of sheer cliffs, while to the east, the longer Hwy 128 follows a wide valley containing larger expanses of sandstone formations. These include Castle Valley, lined by isolated buttes and spires, somewhat reminiscent of Monument Valley, and also the Fisher Towers, a group of unusual vertical cliffs and pinnacles, which are eroded into jagged shapes on the top and grooved down the sides.

The cliff faces are partly covered by dried red mud, creating a strange texture similar to that found in some other Southwest locations like Cathedral Gorge State Park in Nevada. Below the towers stretches an uneven landscape of hoodoos, terraces and narrow ravines, all colored rich red, formed of two sedimentary layers, the Cutler Formation and the overlying, and more resistant Moenkopi Formation.

The towers are a renowned rock climbing location but most visitors explore only on foot, via a maintained, 2.2 mile trail which winds around the base of the cliffs then tracks south to a fine viewpoint at the end of a narrow ridge, looking down on a deep ravine below. Camping (not free) is also available at the trailhead a very scenic location with views of the towers directly above, and across several miles of flattish desert towards high red cliffs on the far side of the Colorado River.


Get a little badass on two wheels in Alberta’s Badlands

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Stealing a little solitude at the otherworldly Horsethief Canyon. Photo: Doug Firby

By Lisa Monforton
Travel Editor
Travel Like This
and Doug Firby
Publisher
Troy Media

Sometimes you just need to hightail it out of the city to a place that makes you feel free. For us, that’s Alberta’s Badlands and our exit strategy is on a 600 cc Yamaha motorcycle.

Escaping the daily grind cubicle, we exit Calgary within minutes. By Kilometre 100, we’re grinning. OK, it’s really more like an audible giggle, but no one can hear as the wind envelops us from helmet to boot.

The long and arching road as you enter the Red Deer River valley near Bleriot Ferry. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Wheat fields and Alberta’s endless sky unravel like a blanket beyond the windscreen. We’re heading north and east to one of our favourite hideaways – Alberta’s Badlands.

The quiet highways here have enough bends to keep the ride interesting. The otherworldly scenery, colourful steeped-in-history landmarks, the curving Red Deer River, and sites around every corner offer perfect excuses to get off the bike and stretch your legs.

Around Kilometre 120, we’re entering a parallel universe. On Highway 9 near Drumheller, we gear down and let the engine hold us steady at 70 km/h as we descend the undulating road into Dinosaur Valley. All at once, the prairie flats are in the rearview mirror and we’re surrounded by weather-worn hills battered by millennia of rain, wind and snow.

It inspires awe to think we’re cruising through this ancient land where massive and toothsome T-Rex and horned triceratops once trod. This is, after all, one of the world’s largest caches of remnants from the prehistoric age.

A few kilometres west of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, we pause to take in the valley’s scenery. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Drumheller Valley is a popular destination for all kinds of motorcyclists, including sport bikers and cruisers on big Harleys. Out here, your city persona can be a secret. “You can effectively disappear from the corporate world for the weekend and just get away from the city,” says Paul Salvatore, with the Town of Drumheller.

At the edge of town, we stop at one of a few gas stations to fill the tank. We’ve got everything we need – leathers, gloves and helmet for protection, a full tank of fuel, and some snacks.

Two main riding loops can be found in the Valley: The Dinosaur Trail and the Hoodoo Trail. You can cover both in a day if you leave Calgary early enough. You can easily make it a whole weekend escape here because there are just so many ways to get lost in the landscape.

Hidden-in-plain-view Horseshoe Canyon

Just outside of Drumheller, drop your kickstand at Horseshoe Canyon. A few hundred metres from Highway 9, hiding in plain view, is a moonscape of desert-hills and gullies. Take a hike if you have the time.

Climb the 106 stairs to the top of the world’s largest dinosaur – a T Rex – for a spectacular view of the valley. Photo: Lisa Monforton

World’s largest dinosaur

Never one to negate its prehistoric beginnings, Drumheller, aka, Dinosaur Capital of the World, revels in its Cretaceous-ness and Jurassic-ness. “A good business does not go extinct,” declares The Fossil Shop, one of the town’s many businesses leveraging the camp of it all. Take a stroll down Tyrannosaurus Drive and Albertosaurus Street downtown, and don’t miss the photo opp atop the 106 stairs in the mouth of the 25-metre-tall T-Rex.

Steal some solitude at Horsethief Canyon

Kicking the bike into third gear, we cruise gently up Highway 838 (North Dinosaur Trail) northwest of town, passing Midland Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which is worth a day’s visit in itself. Rising above the valley, a montage of classic Badlands emblems is in your view: sunny canola fields edge up alongside waving wheat fields, pastoral backdrops to the non-stop pumpjacks bending on bald-prairie knolls. We pull into Horsethief Canyon, named for the old-time horse-stealers who came here to hide from the authorities, and pull some snacks out of our backpack. Pure solitude like this can’t be found in the city.

You gotta stop here for gourmet burgers

If you don’t feel like packing a lunch, head to Bernie & The Boys Bistro. It’s smart to avoid the noon-hour rush because the word is out on this place featured on the popular Food Network program You Gotta Eat Here! Gargantuan gourmet burgers and poutine are their stock in trade.

Take the two-minute ferry across the Red Deer River on the Bleriot Ferry, linking the two sections of the North Dinosaur Trail. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Short but sweet Bleriot Ferry ride

At the northwest tip of the route, we drop into neutral and let the bike roll to the Bleriot Ferry, waiting to convey us and a few cars across the Red Deer River. This ferry is famous for two reasons: It’s the only cable-operated ferry in Alberta and the shortest ferry-crossing in western Canada. It’s free, can fit about 15 vehicles during the summer crush and takes all of two minutes. We fire up the bike, and cruise back to Drumheller on Highway 575.

The Badlands famous hoodoos, created by millennia of wind and rain. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Deep history along Hoodoo Trail

Back in town, the sun is warm, the roads are smooth and light on traffic, so we decide to take the Hoodoo Trail loop along the winding Highway 10. The bike sneaks up to 100 km/h until we come across the first hamlet – Rosedale. We trace the lazy Red Deer River, leaning into curves as we carry on through Lehigh en route to East Coulee. As we draw near, rows of petrified sand dunes and outlandish geologic mushroom-like formations appear on the north side of the highway. We’ll come back to these hoodoos, but first we head to some Alberta mining history.

The Atlas Coal Mine is a National Historic Site and offers a glimpse of Drumheller’s past when coal was king. Photo: Doug Firby

Just past East Coulee, the eerie looking Atlas Coal Mine, a National Historic Site, comes into view. Canada’s last remaining wooden tipple towers over the site where coal mining was the region’s economic engine, and a time when boys and men went to work in the “beast of the belly.” If you have time, take one of the tours, like the Unmentionables Tour, which delves into the gritty history of Drumheller Valley’s mining past.

The Last Chance Saloon is the perfect spot to stop for a cold one. It is open 11-9 most days. Photo: Doug Firby

Gear down at the Last Chance Saloon

After a quick stop to appreciate the sandstone hoodoos with some pictures, we head back to Rosedale, drop it into second and head towards one of my favourite roads of the trip – the nine bridges that take you to the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne. Up and down the gears, we accelerate then brake hard as we approach the wood-tracked bridges that take us to the town entrance, which declares: Population: “Then 2,490, Now 82.” The wood-frame Last Chance, built in 1913, has motorcycle-only designated parking spots out front, a nod to the establishment’s annual Motorcycle Madness event in July. In summer, day-trippers and weekenders can easily quadruple the population. You can camp here or stay at one the vintage hotel rooms before heading back to your reality.

More routes and events:

  • In July, the Last Chance Saloon holds its annual Motorcycle Madness Rally, a weekend of events, including a poker run and a show-and-shine.
  • East Coulee SpringFest: An annual music festival held in early May. It features a lineup of rock, blues, country, folk and alternative musicians from across western Canada, who play for free. Proceeds go to support East Coulee School Museum.
  • Dinosaur Valley Half Marathon (with options for 5 K and 10 K) is held annually in September. It’s a gentle and fairly flat course with a couple of small hills.
  • Canalta Hotel in Drumheller and other locations around Alberta offer a motorcyclist’s program that includes designated parking, a wash station with complimentary soap and sponge, kickstand pads and detailed route maps with attractions. Free breakfast and wi-fi also included in stays.

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Watch the video: Town of Drumheller -Regular Council meeting - September 7, 2021 (May 2022).