Beware of dinosaur snot! This is the first piece of advice we’re given as we strike out on foot through Dinosaur Provincial Park. A unique landscape set in the Canadian Badlands, the park was once stomping ground for over 40 species of dinosaurs dating back 85 million years. When it rains heavily, as it has just done, mudstones comprised of bentonite (a volcanic ash) turn green and become super slick. Fortunately, it’s dried off enough that we don’t slip on the mucous-looking material.
Our family is on a dino hunt, and if there’s one way to get kids interested in fossil foraging it’s
A) combining their favourite creatures with
B) the possibility of stepping on “snot”
Better still, you can lure littles with the opportunity to stand, stomp and romp atop hundreds of skeletons. I’m not talking human remains, but the bones of dinosaurs buried deep within this land.
Exploring the Dinosaur Capital of Canada
That’s what makes Dinosaur Provincial Park so appealing to all ages. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the world’s most significant fossil beds. “Very few places have this number of complete dinosaur skeletons and species,” avows David Terrill, Alberta Parks Interpreter. Best for families, the park offers plenty of opportunities for encounters with T-Rex and his fierce friends.
Back to standing upon skeletons… It’s actually pretty hard to tell the difference between dinosaur bones and the fragments of sandstone they’re embedded in. Cries of “Look what I found!” can be heard all throughout the park. You’d be amazed at how quickly pre-schoolers learn to correctly identify fossils. That’s the beauty of stepping back in time at this true Jurassic park. You never knowing what you’re about to uncover.
Even if you’re not die hard dino fans, the aesthetic value alone demands a visit. Flat prairie suddenly gives way to vast craters in this otherworldly landscape of the Canadian Badlands. Hoodoos – sandstone pillars topped with large flat stones look like something out of the Flintstones and are riddled throughout this riparian habitat. It’s hard to believe this was once a fertile, subtropical climate.
Fossil Tours in Dinosaur Provincial Park
There are several options for families to peel back the layers of this desolate land. Self-guided tours allow kids to roam the grounds, just as these Jurassic giants once did. Head out on foot to hunt for bits of teeth and vertebrae that litter the landscape. If you’re keen to dig deeper into the prehistoric past, families can learn to identify dinosaur bones and explore the park’s backcountry (including several excavated sites ripe with relics) on guided tours. Try your hand at fossil prospecting or traverse over rugged sandstone ridges on the Centrosaurus Quarry hike to reach a bone bed chockfull with the remains of hundreds of horned dinosaurs.
Ideal for young families is the Explorer’s Bus, a hop-on hop-off tour to several excavated sites. Our first order of business on this tour is learning how to identify dinosaur bones, a relatively easy process once you know what you’re looking for. The trick is to spot what appears to be brownish coloured rocks that have the texture of an Aero chocolate bar. “If you’re not certain, go with the lick test,” recommends Terrill. “A wet finger will stick a bit if it’s a bone,” he says.
Our family digs in with the other kids, finding teeth, vertebrae and bits of turtle shell. Because this spot contains one of the highest concentrations of dinosaur bones on the planet, pretty much everywhere you look, you’ll find fragments. Despite visiting mid summer with too many toddlers to count, there are no meltdowns. There’s more than enough fossils to go around.
How Alberta Got on the Dino Map
Hands on learning goes beyond picking through the fossil fields. Everyone gets a shot using the field jack, a tripod that brings fossils out of the ground. Next, you’ll learn how to apply a burlap plaster cast to a skeleton. This mummifying process is how fossils are safely transported from the field to museums around the world. Surprisingly, this process remains unchanged since palaeontologists descended upon the site in droves in the early 20th century.
It wasn’t until a rancher from Drumheller, Alberta went to the American Museum of Natural History in 1910, that this region, riddled with the remains of the giant beasts, got on the map. After his visit, over 300 skeletons were dug up within a decade. Fortunately, the government put the breaks on plundering, and the park is now a dedicated natural preserve. Meaning: you can hunt and admire the fossils, but you can’t take them (or anything else) home with you.
Where to Eat Near Dinosaur Provincial Park
No journey to the Canadian Badlands is complete until you’ve moseyed into the saloon at the Patricia Hotel. Located just a few miles from Dinosaur Provincial Park, the town of Patricia appears to be almost extinct itself, were it not for the bar’s loyal patrons. Beloved by bikers, hunters and families (who are welcome on Sundays), all walks of life converge amid the taxidermy to participate in the prairie tradition of grilling your own hunk of beef (or bison) at the saloon’s steak pit. For approximately $20, you can compliment a New York strip, ribeye or T-bone with soup, salad, garlic toast, plus a baked potato with all the fixings.
Dessert lovers will want to brake for Prairie Cottage Bakeshop in the nearby town of Duchess. This Mennonite bakery is quickly gaining a foodie following, thanks in part to the fantastic glazed donuts served up on Wednesday and Fridays. Pretty much everything is worth the calories and there are several gluten-free items, too. Note: the bakery is closed Saturday to Monday.
Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park
While it’s possible to explore the park as a day trip from Calgary, it’s best experienced over a few days. Dinosaur Campground at Dinosaur Provincial Park has a playground, and offers both serviced and unserviced campsites all year round. From mid-May until mid-October you’ll find a food concession, convenience store and laundry facilities, in addition to showers and flush toilets.
If you’re the sort who likes your creature comforts without the creatures, bed down in the park’s Comfort Camping suites. These massive, safari-like tents are already set up and kitted out with a queen bed, pull-out futon that sleeps two, plus bedding. It’s wired, so you can cool off beside the electric fan or snuggle up in front of an electric fireplace, and most importantly, recharge the i-Pad. Other amenities include cooking implements, mini-fridge, coffee pot and toiletries. Firewood is provided and a gas BBQ makes mealtimes a breeze if your fire starting skills aren’t up to snuff.
Know Before You Go
- Dinosaur Provincial Park is a two hour drive from Calgary.
- Interpretive tours in Dinosaur Provincial Park run mid May until the end of September. Be sure to register prior to your visit, as these interactive programs book up fast.
- Camping reservations often sell out – especially Comfort Camping. Alberta Parks opens their reservation system each April. They have a 72-hour cancellation policy, so continue to check throughout the summer months.
- Visit: albertaparks.ca/dinosaur.
Have you ever gone a dinosaur holiday? I’d love to hear where you went and how your experience was.