I am really lucky in that I live in an area that is only 1 hour away from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, 1 hour to the prairies and 2 hours to the Alberta Badlands.
I work a compressed work week, which means that I have every other Friday off. In the summer and sometimes in the winter (weather permitting) I like to take a drive around the local area. Last week the forecast for the Friday looked good, so I decided to take a drive up to Drumheller to visit the Badlands and the Hoodoos. We have been to Drumheller a few times, but only ever to visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum (one for the dinosaur fans); although we did stop once (I am talking 15 years ago) to take a look at one of the canyons in the area.
This time around I wanted to make sure I saw everything else the area had to offer. Drumheller is not a very big town, with a population of around 8,000, but it has everything you need to make your visit an enjoyable one. Today I will concentrate on the natural wonders I visited, as I didn’t spent a lot of time in town, apart from visiting the Tim Horton’s (every town has at least one!) for a coffee break.
So, let’s start with Horseshoe Canyon. This is on the way to Drumheller, approaching from the south. Drumheller has two canyons, both easily accessible from the road. This one is the busier of the two, as Highway 9 passes right by it. As the name suggests, this canyon is in the shape of a horseshoe, although I must admit, the shape is not immediately obvious when you stand on the edge of this.
The geological layers of these canyons were laid down some 70 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the region. Dinosaurs are big here, not just in size but the number of skeletons/bones found. The First Nations people, who were the first humans to discover dinosaur fossils, believed them to be the giant ancestors of the bison. The land around Horseshoe Canyon was once within the nomadic domain of the Blackfoot tribe.
This might be a good juncture to explain why this area is called the Badlands. When Francois and Louis Joseph de la Verendrye, French Canadian explorers, first arrived in the area in 1743, they described the landscape of mesas, buttes and coulees as “mauvaise terre” or “badlands”. When the first settlers came into the region they viewed this area as having very limited agricultural value and poor accessibility, so the name “badlands” endured.
Horsethief Canyon is past the Royal Tyrrell Museum on the aptly named North Dinosaur Trail, again, it is easy to access from the road.
Legend has it that during the old west days American horse thieves would use this canyon to hide stolen horses and cattle, re-brand them and then take them down to Montana to sell.
You can hike down both canyons, but be aware that if it has been raining or is raining, it is not a good idea to do so, as the clay infused sandstone turns into a thick quack mire, which is quickly washed away by rushing water. In the summer it gets extremely hot on the canyon floor, so ensure you have plenty of water with you.
Strange to think that this particular canyon is not as popular, despite the fact that it is much larger and more impressive than its smaller cousin in the south.
After visiting Horsethief Canyon I headed back towards Drumheller, then out east on Highway 10 (known as the Hoodoo Trail) to get to the Hoodoos. There are Hoodoos dotted all around the Drumheller valley, but I wanted to see the ones at the official protected site.
So, what are Hoodoos? A Hoodoo is a sandstone pillar which rests on a thick base of shale that is capped by a large stone. Hoodoos take millions of years to form and stand 5 to 7 meters tall and are very fragile and can erode completely if their capstone is dislodged. The Hoodoos are eroding at a rate of one centimeter per year, quicker than virtually any other geological structure.
The name “Hoodoo” comes from the word “voodoo” and was given to these geological formations by the Europeans. In the Blackfoot and Cree traditions, however, the Hoodoos are believed to be petrified giants who come alive at night to hurl rocks at intruders.
The protected site is not very big, but well worth the visit. You can get very close to the Hoodoos from the designated pathway around them and you can also walk around the rock formations at the bottom and take a hike further in. Given that I was on my own, I thought it best to keep to the edges of the rock formations. I felt like I was on a different planet, it was eerily quiet, and the rock formations looked very alien indeed. I would love to come back in the summer during sunrise and sunset, the colours must be amazing during those times of the day.
I am glad I took the opportunity to drive to the Badlands on that day, as a day later we had some snow and today, a week later, we have another snow storm bringing us 10-15cm of snow, blustery winds, icy conditions and temperatures of -23C, including wind-chill. Hard to believe that last week it was nice and warm in the Badlands!