With the largest deposit of dinosaur bones on earth, the Canadian Badlands of Alberta, house countless prehistoric treasures. Water, wind and glaciers have produced the otherworldly landscape that is the Alberta Badlands.
Misshapen hoodoos and flat topped mesas, tower above meandering rivers in valleys below. Over 90,000 square kilometres (35,000 square miles) make up the Badlands in Alberta. Spanning the southeast corner of the province, 75 million years ago, dinosaurs thrived in the area.
Canadian Badlands tourism draws large numbers of visitors to the world renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, in Drumheller Alberta. With over 130,000 fossils, it houses one of the largest displays of fossils in the world.
Many of the specimens on display, were discovered at the UNESCO World Heritage site Dinosaur Provincial Park, two hours east of Calgary.
However, as we look for more space and less people, the Badlands of Canada provide opportunity for endless and quiet exploration. Below are five lesser known destinations easily accessed from Calgary in the Alberta Badlands.
5 Hidden Gems of the Alberta Badlands
Don’t have time to read the Badlands article now? Click on our video below.
Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park – Canada Badlands and buffalo hunts
Standing where once the First Nations Plains Cree hunted buffalo, the immensity of nature and history is profound. Less famous than Alberta’s UNESCO Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, this cliff drop is far higher, at 45 metres (148 feet).
On this late fall day we find ourselves completely alone at this Alberta Badlands provincial park, save for the occasional songbird. The gravel road leading from the look out, to the Red Deer River below, is closed to vehicles when there are wet conditions.
Leaving our SUV behind, we walk the carless road. Evidence of the vigorous erosion of soft rock has wondering if we might spy an ancient fossil awaiting discovery.
Although such relics are not as commonly found here as Dinosaur Provincial Park, this location is famous for uncovering the remains of the Albertasaurus.
Nonetheless we keep our eyes peeled for prehistoric gems as the wind sings through the dried grass of autumn.
Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provinical Park is 180 km from Calgary. Follow Highway 2 and 27 to Trochu. Heading north from Trochu watch for signs for the park to turn east. See the Alberta Badlands map at the end of the post for reference.
Sweetgrass Cafe – Trochu’s sweet and savory gem
Feeling as though we have wandered into an old friend’s home, rather than a small town cafe, it is the genuine welcome that warms us on this brisk autumn day.
As the mouth watering aroma of sun dried tomato soup wafts from the kitchen (we find out the secret is the coconut milk and basil), we settle into one of the well-spaced tables.
Two women smile at us across the restaurant.
“Have you come to town to go to the shoe store?”
Our puzzled looks give away our lack of local shopping knowledge.
“Oh you must go to Henry’s! It’s just two doors down here on main street. Folks come from Edmonton and Calgary just for that.”
Deciding between Lavender Lemonade and the Canadian Maple latte, from the freshly sanitized menu, I agree with our new town guides. We must see the shoes.
The Sweetgrass Cafe makes our list of Alberta Badlands hidden gems, as it is a spot one could easily miss. Who would know that in this wee town, with the world’s largest golf tee near the highway, that such scrumptious made-from-scratch meals and desserts await?
On the outside of my menu, Janis Joplin’s words ring true to me. “The more you live the less you die.” Next time I am definitely ordering the warm brownie sundae.
The Sweetgrass Cafe is located at 221 Main Street Trochu. Closed Sunday and Monday.
St. Ann Ranch and Historical Village – The beginnings of Badlands settlement
When French explorers adventuring westward in Canada reach the challenging topography of this area, they declare these are ‘bad lands to cross’. The name Canadian Badlands sticks.
Armand Trochu, one of these early adventurers, was in search of settling in a protected valley where fresh water could be easily accessed year round.
With the help of a First Nations guide, Trochu found the perfect site in a coulee, below the present day town site of, you guessed it, Trochu.
Joined by several French cavalrymen, the St. Ann Ranch Trading Company became a thriving community. In 1910, Ernest Frere, the great grandfather of the current owner of today’s country inn, settled in the community as well.
Now, the focal point of this Alberta Canada Badlands gem, is the more than century old, three story mansion. With multiple guest rooms, most having large private baths, the bed and breakfast is furnished with antiques, while equipped with modern amenities.
On the expansive property are seven museums and an interpretive centre. Brimming with memorabilia and photographs, the original buildings of Trochu’s settlement include a cabin, chapel, hospital, post office and school.
St Ann Country Inn, with its expansive rooms and grounds, specializes in family gatherings, weddings and retreats, although single bookings are also welcome.
On this crisp, fall day, we sit by the roaring fire on the first floor, marveling at the preservation of history of the Alberta Badlands.
The Heritage Village is open 9am-9pm seven days a week. You do not need to be a guest of the Inn to visit. A $5.00 donation is suggested and is collected on an honour system. Directions to the property on the east side of Trochu can be found here.
Carbon Farmers’ Exchange – An Alberta Badlands Unsolved Mystery
The ‘Village in the Valley’ refers to picturesque Carbon, Alberta. Built in the early 20th century, coal mining (hence the name), ranching and farming drew settlers to the area.
On a road trip through the Canadian Badlands, one could easily gaze away for a moment and miss this gem.
However once driving through Carbon, the Farmers’ Exchange two-story brick building is hard to miss. Its vibrant black and white sign, offers groceries, dry goods and crockery.
Well at least those items were offered decades ago.
Today, walking through the doors of the once central community hub, is a pleasantly surprising experience. Where one might expect dusty nic nacs, that are common to small town heritage buildings, this is a spacious, beautifully displayed museum and art gallery.
Full day pottery classes are available in a large, well lit workshop. With such inexpensive rates one expects city potters will caravan to Carbon.
The best gem of all is on the second floor. Here an audio-guided, light-synchronized story tells of the unsolved murders of Carbon in the 1920’s.
I admit I thought it would be hokey. After all, how could a little village pull off such a show?
Yet there we stood, mesmerized, as mannequin characters, in settings of the time, told their murderous tales. The mystery of John Coward’s shocking death in Carbon, remains unsolved to this day.
The Carbon Farmers’ Exchange at 414 Caradoc Avenue, is open Thursday-Saturday 12 pm – 4pm from the May long weekend to the September long weekend. As well, visits are available by appointment by calling 403-572-2331 and leaving a message.
Horseshoe Canyon – A gem hiding in the Drumheller Badlands
It may have been the cars veering off the road. At one time, Highway 9, 17 kilometres (10.5 miles) east of Drumheller provided eye-popping views of Horseshoe Canyon.
Here prairie fields give way suddenly to a shockingly beautiful, two-pronged gorge. The canyon provides some of the most stunning Alberta Badlands scenery available.
The new highway provides no inkling of the Badlands wonder nearby. My guess is the road is far safer without irresistible gawking by drivers at the Badlands gem.
However, if you follow the signs for Horseshoe Canyon leading off from the highway, viewing platforms, some which are wheelchair accessible, bring the gem out of hiding.
Should you want more of an adventure, there are stairs to lower platforms and the canyon floor. Once there each arm of the canyon provides 5 kilometres (3 miles) of hiking and exploration.
Canadian Badlands map
Have you explored any Badlands?
How were the Alberta Badlands formed? You can learn more about the in our article The Canadian Badlands – A Time Travel Dinosaur Adventure.
With thanks to Canadian Badlands Tourism for hosting our stay and making this article possible. All opinions are our own.