After being quietly humbled at the historical marker in Saskatchewan, our journey westward continued rather uneventful for a day or two, with nights spent at the Wal-Mart Provincial Parks in Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat, Alberta.
On Wednesday, we arrived in Strathmore, Alberta, a small town just outside of Calgary, to spend some time with my cousins, Dawn and Rob. We had originally planned on staying just one night, but Dawn’s friends Gail and Shelly suggested we should take a day trip to Drumheller. I had heard the name before, but knew little else about it.
A little history
Drumheller, it turns out, is located a little over an hour northeast of Calgary nestled into the Red Deer River Valley. It had originally been settled as a mining town, but in the 1880’s, while looking for coal, J.B. Tyrrell found the skull of a dinosaur, now known as the Albertosaurus. There have been so many fossil discoveries in and around the area since then that it is now known as the Dinosaur Capital of the World.
A day trip sounded nice, but Mike was concerned with the weather and wanted to get across the Rockies before the weather turned too cold. Calgary and Edmonton had already had their first taste of snow, and rain can easily turn wintry at the higher elevations in the mountains. But we really were tempted. It all sounded very interesting. And when Shelly mentioned that there were hoodoos in the area as well, that sealed it. We left on the bike for Drumheller the next day.
If you’ve never been to this beautiful place, you really should make the effort. It literally has to be seen to be believed. We had been driving along on flat, unremarkable prairie highways most of the trip, until we finally turned off at the sign indicating Drumheller. Suddenly, we were descending down to the floor of a canyon that had given no indication of it’s existence up until that point. It seem to come right out of nowhere. Rock walls painted with contrasting geological layers rose up above us, and the road twisted and dropped quickly. We came upon the town’s welcome sign, and couldn’t resist playing tourist.
Everything but Fred and Barney
The Dinosaur Capital of the World didn’t disappoint. It also took full advantage of it’s famous inhabitants. At almost every street corner, brightly painted dinosaur statues welcomed visitors. The businesses boasted names such as the Jurassic Inn (featuring the Cretaceous Conference Centre), the Badlands Gallery, the Carbon Cafe, and the Dinosaur Hotel.
In the middle of town was the “World’s Largest Dinosaur,” an 86 foot tall, 151 foot long T-Rex. She’s actually 4.5 times bigger than an actual T-Rex, with a staircase inside that counts 106 steps to the top. She’s so large, 12 people can fit in her mouth at one time and enjoy a high-level view of the town. She took me so by surprise (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), I forgot to take her photo. Click on the link to see and learn more about her.
We followed the signs through town to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. This fascinating place hosts Canada’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils. In fact, it contains over 160,000 fossils, plants and geologic samples, and this collection is growing by over 2000 new finds annually.
Among these, was their star “Black Beauty,” an extraordinary Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, discovered by high school students who were fishing in the Crowsnest Pass.
Manganese present in the soil turned the fossil dark grey, setting it apart as a uniquely-colored specimen. Black Beauty is the most complete T-Rex skeleton yet to be found in Canada, and the actual fossil is on display for all to see in the museum.
Do that hoodoo that you do so well…
After thoroughly enjoying the museum for the afternoon, we headed to the opposite end of town to see the hoodoos.
Hoodoos, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, are free-standing rock formations, carved out by wind and water. While not nearly as large as their more famous cousins in Utah, they were still fascinating and beautiful in the early evening sunlight. We spent more than an hour rock climbing and shooting the formations from almost every possible angle.
When we estimated about an hour of daylight remained, we started back towards home once more. Once we climbed out of the canyon and reached the main highway again, I glanced behind me for a last look. Nothing. Not the tiniest hint or sign of the town. It was like the old movie “Brigadoon,” a magical town that rises out of the Scottish mists for one day every hundred years. However, once that day is done, any sign of the place completely disappears. Kinda spooky, but really cool.
Coming home to a place they’d never been before
Friday morning’s weather showed us a window of opportunity, with no precipitation in the forecast for the next few days. So we were on the road heading west once again. We drove straight through Calgary, opting not to stop but to take advantage of the nice weather and get some miles under us. (Although we did pass right by the ski jumps built for the ‘88 Winter Olympics, which was kind of cool.)
Besides, by this time the Rockies were in full view and moving closer all the time. Living on the East Coast for most of my life, I’m no stranger to mountains. But the mountains I knew belong to the Appalachian Range, which are much older than the Rockies and as a result, are worn much lower and smoother.
But now, this is a whole new mountain view for me. I swear, for the remaining daylight that afternoon, my camera never left my hands and my nose never left the window glass. I’ve never seen anything so magnificent and awe-inspiring in my life.
A lucky rest stop at a scenic overlook found us a place to stay for the night, since Wal-Marts and the like are rather scarce in that neck of the woods. We pulled over for a break, and almost before Mike’s feet hit the ground he had a couple at the door asking about Lonestar. It turns out, Tessa and Greg are full timers as well, and are work-camping on the highway crew doing repairs and improvements on the Banff roads. They currently had a Class A motorhome, but really wanted a smaller toy hauler, and had been thinking about doing a conversion a lot like ours.
We gave them the nickel tour, and they were kind enough to tell us that we could spend the night at the overflow parking for Lake Louise for just $10/night. There were no amenities, but we didn’t need them anyway. The lot was well off the main road and surrounded by wildlife fencing. The last bit was a little disconcerting, this was grizzly bear country after all. But we needn’t have worried. After a quiet night and a restful sleep, we were ready to continue.