A Recommended Calgary Day Trip: Visit The Heart of Dinosaur Country, Drumheller

I visited Calgary in early October and it was surprisingly cold. How cold you asked? It was snowing the morning we woke up and the entire city center was covered in snow.

Something about Calgary

Calgary is the most populous city in Alberta and it rose to fame with the energy business, financial services, transportation and logistics, technology, and even aerospace. the urban development in the city’s downtown is home to Canada’s second-highest number of corporate head offices among the country’s 800 largest corporations. It was also the first Canadian city to host the Winter Olympic Games.

Some popular shopping and dining areas in the city center include the Stephen Avenue Walk, the Chinatown in Centre Street S / 2nd and 4th Avenue, the Kensington Shops, and the 17th Avenue Retail and Entertainment District. These areas are located close to each other; in fact, the +15 Walkway system is the world’s most extensive skyway network with a total length of 16 kilometers of 62 bridges. The entire skyway connects most of the major buildings in the city’s downtown, it’s a series of shopping centers and department stores. The idea of this system is for pedestrians to increase human traffic by allowing them to move around downtown without going outdoors in the cold.

To have a better view of the city, go up to the Calgary Tower, a 190-meter tall landmark with a revolving restaurant that gives customers a scenic view of downtown Calgary. Other popular tourist attractions include the Calgary Zoo and Prehistoric Park, Heritage Park Historical Village, Winsport: Canada Olympic Park, Prince’s Island Park, Studio Bell (Home of the National Music Centre), Devonian Gardens, and more!

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Many visitors head to Banff (which I will introduce in later posts) once they landed in Calgary. In fact, Alberta’s majestic landscape goes further than Banff. To go off the beaten track, there are some beautiful locations in the south of Alberta worth exploring. For example, the Waterton Lakes or the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Moreover, Drumheller is an enigmatic outpost of time in the dinosaur country of the Red Deer River around 140 kilometers northeast of Calgary. Covered with rugged red rocks in American badland, it is a major excavation site of dinosaurs. Everything in the town, practically, speaks of the area’s dinosaur legacy.

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 The T-Rex also features a viewing area in the mouth. It was a cloudy day and we had somewhere else to go, we didn’t climb to the top.

How to get around

Hoe-to-get-Around2 Drumheller - Horseshoe Canyon 4It was a pretty easy drive from Calgary to Drumheller (it’s only about 2 hours away and except for the snow) We didn’t plan much getting around Drumheller, but you know, It doesn’t matter. We just grabbed a guide map and it has already highlighted a list of major points of interest in Drumheller. And since the entire development is built along the Red Deer River, it’s impossible to get lost driving along the major highways and check out these checkpoints from one to another. The Drumheller Valley has two scenic loops – Loop 1 covers the north part of Drumheller that includes North Dinosaur Trail – Bleriot Ferry – South Dinosaur Trail; and Loop 2 covers (duh~) the south part in the Helmet of Wayne that includes highway 10X – Secondary Highway 569 – Highway 10. We only spent a day there and we planned to return to Calgary in the afternoon – we only stopped by a few key sites in Drumheller (including the Royal Tyrrell Museum, of course.).

Drumheller’s must-see-&-dos


  1. Horseshoe Canyon and Horsethief Canyon for the badland’s lunar landscapes
  2. Dinosaur Trail drive and explore the points of interests
  3. Royal Tyrrell Museum for the dinosaur specimens
  4. Hoodoo Trail drive and explore the unique rock formation
  5. Coal Mines Tours and learn about its mining past

World’s Largest Dinosaur 

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There are dinosaurs in town!

The landmark is a fiberglass and steel Tyrannosaurus rex that is 26-meter tall. Apparently, there is no better choice than having a giant T-Rex to grab visitors’ attention. The Dinosaur is located in the town center and it is an important checkpoint because this is where the Drumheller Valley Tourist Information Center is. This is the first location we visited for the map and some coffee.

The T-Rex also features a viewing area in the mouth. It was a cloudy day and we had somewhere else to go, we didn’t climb to the top. Off we go!

Atlas Coal Mine

While Drumheller is a famous site of paleontology, it is, therefore, rich in fossil fuel.

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Atlas Coal Mine

In 1884, that hunt for fuel in the nation began in earnest. That year, the Geological Survey of Canada sent Joseph Tyrrell to explore the area’s mineral resources, specifically coal deposits. On his historic sojourn, not only did Tyrrell’s discoveries launch the dinosaur fossil boom, but his discovery of the largest coal deposits in North America soon ignited the Great Drumheller Coal Boom. After the first coal mine in the Drumheller Valley opened in 1911, thousands of men flocked to the new boomtowns of Newcastle, Drumheller, Nacmine, Ariel, Wayne, Rosedale, Cambria, Willow Creek, Arcadia, and East Coulee seeking work and adventure. There are coal mines in the area and they have now ceased operations. The Atlas Coal Mine was among the earliest and most successful ventures in the Drumheller Valley. The coal mine is not far away from the Hoodoos. The Atlas Coal Mine was known for its innovation, mechanization, and clever marketing. At its peak, the Atlas Coal Mine employed over 300 people. The Patrick family-owned mines extracted nearly 8 million tons of coal – more than any other company, and nearly 20% of the Drumheller Valley’s entire production total.

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The Atlas Coal Mine national historic site is the most complete historic coal mine in Canada and is home to the nation’s last wooden tipple. We didn’t enter the mines due to time limitations (and my fear of tight spaces and tunnels – yeah, what do you expect from a coal mine, folks), yet we could still see the coal belts, buildings, and structures from the entrance and got a hint of how it worked back in the 20s. In fact, the entire coal mine looks like an abandoned ruin, especially in the cold, and a little bit freaky.

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Star Mine

The Star Mine is another major Coal Mine in Drumheller. Star Mine CollierStar was purchased by mining tycoon J.N. Murray in 1913 and used a rather dangerous and back-breaking mining method by handpicking the coal. Until the late 1920s, coal was hauled across the river by aerial cable, to a tipple located on the town side of the Red Deer River. The coal was then sorted by a steam-powered belt-driven shaker screen, sized, and loaded into boxcars destined for Calgary and Saskatoon. The Star Mine’s capacity was 200 tons in 8 hours, all extracted by hand.

3 Drumheller - Star Mine 4During the mid-1930s the CPR extended its line from Cambria to the mine entrance, thus eliminating the need for the aerial tramway. The aerial was then converted into a swinging bridge for the miners to cross to work. The Star Mine was one of the Valley’s longest-running mines, operating at the same location for 44 years evolving from dangerous pick & shovel mining to locomotives and mechanized mining. After the Star Mine was closed and abandoned in 1957, the miner’s pedestrian bridge became a popular tourist attraction.

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The Drumheller Hoodoos

The Drumheller Hoodoos are geological wonders that have stood watch at the mouth of Willow Creek Coulee for thousands of years, bearing witness to the people and events that shaped the Red Deer River valley, and Alberta.

Culturally, the word “Hoodoo” originates from the Hausa language of West Africa, meaning “to arouse resentment, produce retribution.” Hoodoo was a distinct magic practice introduced to North America in the 18th century, although different in nature than the more familiar voodoo. Aborigines used “hoodoo” to refer to evil, supernatural forces. Some believed hoodoos were giants turned to stone by the Great Spirit due to their evil deeds.

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Scientifically, Hoodoos are eroded pillars of soft sandstone rock, topped with a resilient cap. The cap protects the softer rock underneath from eroding as quickly as the surrounding rock. Once the cap deteriorates, the pillar is more vulnerable to the elements and subjected to rapid deterioration.

We visited the Hoodoos Trail during the low season (I believe), and so we basically had the entire site to ourselves. It was wonderful to explore the area, take pictures, and appreciate the beauty of Hoodoos with some peace and quiet. Sadly, the natural wonders, like many others, are getting smaller and smaller due to human traffic, graffiti, and vandalism that have shortened the lifespan of these geologic wonders. The Hoodoos have profound meaning and values to the natives culturally and to nature geologically. It is important for visitors to respect the natural wonders and stay out of the protected area. Watch out for jagged rocks, cacti, and thorny plants while walking on the pathways throughout the site.

The Little Church

2 Drumheller - Little Church 1We dropped by the Little Church before the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

It is a small “house” that is basically the size of a movable toilet stand at the corner on the road in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, I was not aware of this church before my trip – yet I found this attraction quite meaningful.

The church is rebuilt in 1991 and is truly a “little” church with only six chairs, but the purpose of building this church is sincere.

It aims to offer the faithful a place to pray and think. It has some beautiful details, too; The glass windows, and the writing on the walls. At the front of the church, it says “Peace to All Who Enter”, and on the back of the front door, it says “Grace be with you…”

Horsethief and Horseshoe Canyon 

While there are some more places to see like the Dinosaur Trail, Orkney Viewpoint, Bleriot Ferry, and Dinosaur Provincial Park in the north, we only had time to drive around the area after our trip to the museum. The Horsethief Canyon, though, looks quite different when it’s covered in snow. Stories have told that there were thousands of horses kept along with the mountain range along the Red Deer River in old times, and horses always went missing when they ran to the Horsethief Canyon. That’s how the place got its name from early settlers

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Both Horsethief and Horseshoe Canyon are typical “badland” landscapes in North America – steep slopes, dry land, minimal vegetation, and a lack of substantial regolith. Such features serve as a perfect backdrop for the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

Royal Tyrrell Museum 

5 Drumheller - Royal Tyrrell Museum 1The Royal Tyrrell Museum displays one of the world’s largest gatherings of complete dinosaur skeletons with some 50 in the collection and nearly 100,000 specimens of various types and sizes. In fact, this is the only museum of paleontology and dinosaur fossils. It all began after the discovery of an Albertosaurus by Joseph Tyrrell in the year of 1884. After that, more and more dinosaur fossils were unearthed, making Alberta one of the most important regions in the world for ancient reptiles. Established in 1985, the museum displayed more than 35 types of dinosaur fossils and attracted millions of visitors annually.

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Original skull from T-Rex skeleton: I am not a dinosaur fan, but I am an alien fan… (I see some resemblance there)
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Billion-dollar rock: The first major oil discovery in Alberta occurred in Devonian-aged rocks deep underground near Leduc in 1947. The liquefied remains of billions of ancient marine organisms were trapped in porous rocks like this, after being buried by many layers of sediments, for millions of years.

After a nice lunch in the Museum Cafeteria, we began our walk in the museum and it was much bigger than I expected. The exhibition began with an introduction to the environment of Alberta 69 million years ago (the Cretaceous Alberta), where only theropods existed and moved across river channels.  Fossils of these fascinating creatures were later unearthed in the area and gave evidence of the ancient history of lives before humans.

We learned how dinosaurs lived and interacted based on their bone structure, tooth marks, and healed fractures – indicating the never-ending circle of life – a battle for food, dominance, and territory.

As mentioned, Albertosaurus was the first discovered and they shared this rugged landscape with a variety of different kinds of dinosaurs, including small theropods, horned and armored dinosaurs, and duck-billed dinosaurs. Later, many well-known species like Pachyrhinosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Triceratops stalked North America over 65 million years ago. Many of the reptiles are named after places in Alberta, like the Albertosaurus and Edmontosaurus (a hadrosaur).

I am not exactly a huge dinosaur fan, and I do not know much about dinosaurs, yet I find the exhibits extremely interesting. Look closely, the dinosaurs (some are cast and original, some are just cast mounts) are so life-like and I couldn’t believe that the dinosaurs have been buried underground for millions of years! It’s an educational place for everyone to get a taste of paleontology right where it all happened millions of years ago.

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Borealopelta: These are the remains of the best-preserved armored dinosaur in the world. It is also the oldest known dinosaur ever found in Alberta – at least 35 million years old than any of the hundreds of dinosaur fossils known from southern Alberta.

5 Drumheller - Royal Tyrrell Museum 13Regaliceratops peterhewsi:

Original display of this chasmosaurine ceratopsian.

Its distinctive features include small horns over the eyes, a large horn on the nose, and large, triangular bony projections extending from the frill.

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“Fish-within-a-fish”: One of the most impressive specimens that stoked me was the Xiphactinus and Gillicus. Gillicus Arcuatus was a medium-sized fish, reaching lengths of 1.8 meters (6 feet) (huh! A grown man!). It had a single row of microscopic teeth in each jaw indicating it fed on small prey, including zooplankton (tiny marine animals). Xiphactinus was a fast, powerful swimmer and was one of the most ferocious predators of the Late Cretaceous seas. Complete well-preserved specimens are only found in the United States, but fragmentary remains are common finds in Alberta. It grew up to 6 meters (20 feet) in length and had more than 100 vertebrae along its backbone. Its large, fang-like teeth and mobile jaws allowed it to capture and swallow large prey whole.  This Xiphactinus specimen is impressive not only in its completeness but also because its last meal is preserved. A fish called Gillicus Arcuatus can be seen within its rib cage.
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Hypacrosaurus: Original and cast – this young dinosaur is a duck-billed dinosaur, that has a small hollow crest on its head that would have enlarged as the animal matured. The first of its kind was discovered in the Drumheller area in 1910.

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