Dinosaur Country - Alberta's Badlands

by Robert Berdan
July 30, 2010

Dinosaur provincial park, Alberta near Brooks Alberta at sunrise by Robert Berdan ©

Overlooking Dinosaur Provincial park at sunrise - the park is located near Books, Alberta

The Badlands conjures up a place one should stay away from. On the contrary, Alberta's badlands are one of the most unusual and photogenic places to visit. The word Badlands comes from the translation of the French phrase, les mauvaises terres a traverser, meaning - bad lands hard to cross. The Badlands follows the Red Deer river for much of Southern Alberta and are accessible at Drumheller, Dinosaur Provincial Park and Dry Island Buffalo Jump. These areas have in common the alternating coloured bands of sediment with little vegetation except sagebrush, cacti and a few grasses. The river banks are lined with old cottonwood trees that provide shelter to over a 150 species of birds. White tailed deer, mule deer, coyotes, rabbits and badgers are found here. Temperatures in the valley can reach over 40° C in summer and then drop below freezing at night.

Digging for dinosaur bones, Badlands, Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Paleontologists excavating dinosaur bones which they protect in plaster casts.

Most visitors to Alberta head to the mountains and if they have time also head over to Drumheller to visit the world class Royal Tyrell Museum which features and extensive display of dinosaur bones and fossils. If you have kids then this is a must see destination. Occasionally the museum offers bus trips out into the badlands to visit the paleontologists working in the field.

Tyranosauraus Rex model Robert Berdan ©

It's hard not to think about Dinosaurs when you visit the Badlands and when you drive down into the valley you are
literally going back in time.

Badlands Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Badlands of Alberta

The badlands topography is largely the result of rapid erosion by water that occurred following the last ice age. Today the Red Deer River continues to carve its way through the valley. The rate of erosion is estimated to be 4 mm\year, an incredibly fast rate in geological terms. The rapid rate of erosion is one of the reasons new dinosaur bones and fossils are uncovered each year. The other reason is that 75 million years ago Alberta had lush coastal forests, swamps and flood plains with a complex array of inhabitants including over 30 species of dinosaur. It's believed that major storms would scour and submerge the landscape from time to time drowning its inhabitants in a soggy graveyard of mud that later become fossils.

Royal Tyrell Museum is visible in the distance, you are allowed to take photographs inside the museum but you can
not set up a tripod. Set you camera to a high ISO speed to capture pictures inside the museum.

Sunrise over Dinosaur provincial Park near Brooks, Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Sunrise over Dinosaur provincial Park near Brooks, AB - this summer morning the mosquitoes were eating me alive!

Dinosaur provincial park by Robert Berdan ©

Rills in the landscape Dinosaur provincial Park, AB

Evening light Dinosaur Provincail Park Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Evening light enhances the appearance of the rills which remind me of the surface of a mamalian brain.

Hoodoo along side the highway 10 south of Drumheller - there is a road sign and parking lot across from the hooodoos.

Badlands south of Drumheller by Robert Berdan ©

Typical topography along highway 10 south of Drumheller - note the harder cap rocks.

If you travel about 6 Km south of Drumheller along highway 10 you will find an interesting group of Hoodoos beside the road. There is a parking lot,a trail and a sign to guide you. Hoodoos are tall columns of rock and earth standing up to 12 feet high with flat rock hats and are found throughout the valley. In most of the Red Deer Valley erosion occurs so quickly that only a few plants are able to take hold notably sage brush and prickly pear cactus. In some places rills in the soil form larger pipes and tunnels. The river valley also contains bentonite, a volcanic ash mixed with clay that forms a gel-like gumbo when wet and it is extremely slippery and difficult to walk in. Reddish brown rocks with a high content of iron oxide are scattered throughout the landscape.

Prickly pear cactus by Robert Berdan ©

Prickly Pear Cactus Flower

Further south of Drumheller near Brooks, Alberta is Dinosaur Provincial Park which offers a campground, visitor center and store with fast food outlet. Guided tours are offered in summer and if you take on of them be sure to bring a hat, water and mosquito repellent. The campground gets quite busy and noisy in summer. There are trails you can explore, but unfortunately most of the park is closed and only accessible if you have a permit - trying to get a permit or hire a park person to take you in the out of bounds area is like pulling teeth from a dinosaur requiring payment upfront and a $2 million dollar liability insurance policy. And did I mention the permit is only good for one day so if the weather is not good you need to apply again. The main reason for this is to prevent the removal and destruction of fossils.

Nuttall's cottontail rabbit by Robert Berdan ©

Nuttall's Cottontail is the smallest rabbit-eared animal in Alberta and they are common in Dinosaur provincial park

Mule deer are common in the valley as are cone Flowers and flowering cacti. No surprise the best time to photograph is around sunrise and sunset when the light is low and accentuates the texture of the badlands. It is possible to visit the park in winter which is when I like to go there as there are no people and mule deer are easy to approach.

Mule deer in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Mule deer resting on hill side in Dinosaur provincial park in February

Mule Deer in winter Dinosaur provincial park Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Mule deer in dinosaur park - in winter the animals are easier to approach. 300 mm F2.8 lens and Nikon D2X camera.

Dinosaur provincial park in Black and white by Robert Berdan

Dinosaur provincial park taken in the accessible area that hikers can explore.

Abandoned Church in Dorthy, Alberta by Robert Berdan ©

Abandoned church in Dorthy, Alberta which has become a popular spot for photographers. Dorthy is located abou
t about 25 Km south of Drumheller on highway 10.

Photographing in the badlands does not require any special equipment almost any camera will do though you will get better sharper pictures if you use a tripod. The most useful lens is a wide angle zoom lens for landscapes. Some photographers have photographed at night using lights to paint light on the rocks light up the insides of old abandoned buildings. One of my friends was even lucky enough to photograph the Aurora over the hoodoos one summer. The land and old buildings also lends itself to shooting in black and white or sepia.. In Autumn the cotton woods and populars in the river valley turn yellow and in winter the landscape takes on an even more surreal appearance. If you visit Alberta, just remember there is more to see in the province then the Rocky mountains.

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