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.
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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.
Table of Contents
Visiting Dinosaur Provincial Park
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.
Finding dinosaur bones
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. You’ll be finding dinosaur bones everywhere!
Cries of “Look what I found!” can be heard all throughout the park. And 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.
What is a hoodoo?
If you’ve ever wondered what a hoodoo is, you’ll only need to step foot in this region. Hoodoos – sandstone pillars topped with large flat stones look like something out of the Flintstones. There’re riddled throughout this riparian habitat.
With all the strange looking sandstone rocks, it’s hard to believe this was once a fertile, subtropical climate.
Fossil tours in Alberta
There are several options for families to peel back the layers of this desolate land, and this is one of the best spots to take fossil tours in Alberta.
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.
Digging up dinosaurs
Hands on learning goes beyond picking through the fossil fields. Yes, you’ll be digging up dino bones just like legit palaeontologists do!
First up, 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.
Dinosaur Provincial Park camping
While it’s possible to explore the park as a day trip from Calgary, Dinosaur Provincial Park is best experienced over a few days, which means camping is in order. Dinosaur Campground 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. Camping here is pretty popular, so you’ll want to reserve your campsite well in advance.
Hotels near Dinosaur Provincial Park
If you’re not into roughing it, you can stay at family-friendly hotel. Your best bet for finding hotels near Dinosaur Provincial Park is in the town of Brooks, about a 30-minute drive away.
I’m partial to the Heritage Inn in Brooks. Rooms are large and there’s coin laundry, which is great for families. Of course, kids love the hot tub and indoor pool, and there’s a fitness facility. Oh, free continental breakfast, too!
Another one to consider is the Canalta Brooks hotel. It also has a laundry room and an indoor pool – with a waterslide!
My other recommendation would be Days Inn. It’s pet-friendly with free breakfast, plus an indoor pool.
Where to Eat
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 the 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.
Know Before You Go
- Dinosaur Provincial Park is approximately a two hour drive from Calgary.
- Interpretive tours 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. 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.
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Love this! I want to plan a trip to Alberta now! How many times did your kids do the “Lick test”?
Oh, only about a 100:)
We spent a day here and camped a few nights in the provincial campground nearby about ten years ago on a family road trip. Cannot recommend it enough!! What an amazing park, with so much to learn about dinosaurs and the Badlands.
So glad you enjoyed it. Come back again!
what a great family day out- Canada has so much to offer! we are only familiar with Quebec and Ontario, as they are within driving distances from American North East but hope to explore Calgary and surrounding natural parks one day.
Luckily for you, there are direct flights to Calgary from almost every major US city. Hope you come visit! Unlike Quebec and Ontario, we have no provincial sales tax:)
Looks a lot like North & South Dakota badlands, where we traveled earlier this summer. We came across no dinosaur fossils, though. Dinosaur Provincial Park certainly is a place my whole family would love!
It would be so cool to compare the Badlands from the US and Canada.
You had me at dinosaur snot! What better way to get kids interested in exploring than the promise of dinosaurs?! What an exciting place to explore for everyone and I know my kids would love to play paleontologist for the day.
Hope you make it out here! It’s a bargain for American visitors!
You recently on an aired Marilyn Denis Show mentioned a website to check out travel places for 2017. What was it?
It was this site, actually! You can find the five spots I mentioned on the show on Marilyn’s site. The rest are all in here – and of course, in my book: 25 Places in Canada Every Family Should Visit.
That “snot” is wicked when one lands on one’s bazotski in it! Took 3 washings of those jeans to get it all off 🙂
I absolutely love how you intrigue your kids by cautioning them to the dinosaur snot! this place looks like loads of fun… for us adults too!
It really was!
What a fabulous way to spend the day. The kids would have loved spending the day like that and I feel like adults would love it equally. We were in Calgary last year and didn’t know this place existed. I wish we had. Putting it on the list for next time and great tips on booking camping early.
You’ll just have to come back and visit us again!
The Dinosaur Provincial Park sounds fascinating. Kids, I am sure would love it. Looking at the pictures my imagination runs riot and I can almost hear the stomping of the dinosaurs. But on a serious note the place is indeed an education in itself and there is so much to learn for kids and adults alike. It is nice that there is a hop on and off service that takes you to the excavated sites and you also get to know how to identify dinosaur bones.
Very true. Thank you for taking the time to read my post so thoroughly
Beware of Dinosaur Snot ! I laughed but seriously I love this place. It looks really interesting. The place is also very photogenic and seems like there is a lot to learn
Yes, I keep forgetting that even if you’re not interested in dinosaurs, this spot is well worth the visit for landscape photographers and Instagrammers.
I have done one of the fossil tours at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and it was so much fun. It’s incredible to think that you’re walking in the same place as the dinosaurs and even more incredible to find your own fossils. I highly recommend a visit here!
I don’t know why I’m always so surprised to find out others have visited here, too. Glad you’d recommend it as well!
I loved this place and the kids too would have loved spending time here. Those landscapes and mountains are vast and amazing. Adding it to my bucket list. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!