Breaking bad in the Badlands

Most of the people we’ve met so far in rural Alberta are just a tad different from their counterparts in B.C.  and I’m quite sure they are proud of that. Once you get out of the big cities and past hyper-touristed Banff, there is more than a touch of the wild west to be found.  In the short few days we have been in this province, we have seen this:

And this, the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, AB, right in the heart of the Badlands.

After a long day of climbing hoodoos we stopped here for a beer and some local colour. Actually, everyone there was from somewhere else. Wayne’s population dwindled down to roughly 40 souls since the decline of coal mining in the 50s and the marketing of the Last Chance Saloon as a haunted hotel and inspired watering hole is their only stab at keeping the hamlet on the map.

We were joined by a couple who appeared to have begun drinking the day before; the man attempting to speak in whole sentences and the woman thinking she was. They invited us to join them at their trailer for perogies and beer, but we declined, thinking we’d never be heard from again.

I asked our server Erin about her tattoo, and was told a quite moving story. Her father passed away four years ago and she asked the funeral director to make a print of his hand on paper, which she then had tattooed on her upper arm. I tried to imagine how it would feel to lose a parent so young; perhaps this is her way of holding on to him.


So back to our campground. It is run by a Harley-riding couple who look far more outlaw than they probably are, but still – I was afraid to ask them for a photo. As I’m writing this, there are about 10 big bikes around the campground – all friends of the owners.

And yet, on May 24 weekend, the campground is quiet, except for the people next door playing badminton. Sites are clean and well-cared-for, bathrooms and showers are spotless, there is even wifi throughout. We asked ahead of time about noise and were told that partiers are “thrown out.”  Adjusting my preconceived notions …

Our first dinner on our first night camping. It is so good to be back – we sleep like babies, wake up at 5:00 am to a cacophony of birdsong and everything tastes good. Love the evening campfire and watching little kids ride around on their bikes.

I don’t want to miss telling you about our drive through the Rockies. It is something everyone should do at least once. The roads are beautifully engineered, even at the highest elevations. There are frequent pullouts for picnics, pit stops and photo ops. The scenery is so beautiful it looks like a painting. Mount Rundle, close to Banff:

Wildlife is plentiful in this area and the highway was so dangerous to both the animals and the drivers that several years ago the province erected fencing and built overpasses (for the animals). It may have been ridiculed at one time, but it seems to have worked like a charm – we did not see so much as a dead squirrel.


We couldn’t resist stopping in Banff. We lived there over 30 years ago and both our boys were born there. No question we have all changed a lot in that time, but Banff is unrecognizable from the rustic alpine town we knew and loved. Amazingly, the duplex we rented has not been torn down, although it is rather dilapidated looking. We lived on the top floor.

Although Banff is in a National Park, there is little about it that speaks to nature. Masses of tourists pack streets that are filled with high-end shopping, souvenir shops and cheek-by-jowl hotels and it makes me sad.  Someone got the planning all wrong.

After leaving Banff, we arrived at our campsite just outside Drumheller around 5:00 pm.

This is the landscape we came for, the stunning slash in the Red Deer River Valley that is made up of box canyons, hoodoos, coulees and sparse vegetation. The badlands are spread out over a wide area – an area that exposed coal seams in the 1900s, as well as the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.


After the coal disappeared, the area fell into decline until the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened and brought dinosaurs (and tourists) to the forefront. This renowned museum showcases one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur skeletons with dynamic, interactive displays intended for all ages. It was fascinating  – we stayed for a few hours. The museum gave me fresh respect for the artistry and planning that is involved in  effective museum curation and display. Dozens of dioramas showed species of dinosaurs with painted backdrops.

We watched a staff member demonstrate how  bones and fossils are prepared and the delicacy required to avoid damaging them.

Off to the hoodoos we went!

If there is anything more surreal than a field of 2-storey capped rock formations set against a Homer Simpson sky, I don’t know what it might be.  The hoodoos are fenced off from visitors, but the rest of the landscape is open. We climbed around the 70-million-years-old layers of sedimentary rock with dozens of excited kids who were zipping and leaping about on the rocks like small mountain goats. We were a little more sedate and after an hour or so we sat to appreciate the vista.

Our view across the Red River.

This creature met us on the way back to our car. At first we thought it was a rattlesnake, but discovered from our campground host that it was a bullsnake – similar in colouring, but not poisonous. It  was still a thrill to see it – about four feet long and menacing enough.


Some more shots of the area – this one taken from Horseshoe Canyon, about 15 minutes outside Drumheller.  We climbed down to a number of the trails along the bottom of the valley. There were a few flowers in bloom, but very little vegetation. Amazingly, we saw several small cactus – how in the world do they survive the bitter cold and snow in the winter, I wonder.

We were grateful to be here this time of year – our days reached about 25 degrees, which was comfortable for hiking. The valley is blistering in the summer – probably even in another month it would be too hot to stay down there for very long.

One last shot of Horseshoe Canyon.


We head out tomorrow in the direction of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. See you again in a few days.

11 thoughts on “Breaking bad in the Badlands

  1. Wish8ng you a great trip though the country.
    The Balkans were incredibe, especially Roumenia and Bulgaria..Dubrovnik and Budapest are overrun, but still interesting to visit off season.
    Best regards


  2. Beautiful pics and commentary Ginny!
    Our kids loved the Tyrrell Museum and once we stayed two whole days in order to take it all in and enjoy the interactive displays ( which were very new in those days!”
    We have spent many many weekends hiking the Badlands with friends living in the area and talking to local paleonthologists, so fascinating!
    As for the cacti, the locals call each other when they are in bloom because they are usually done in a week or two, a spectacular display!
    On another note, it makes me want to camp again ( with or without the bikers!)


    1. Oh Laurence, I feel that we missed so much of the area – but there is only so much you can cover at one time. Even driving from Drumheller to Grasslands, we chose one route, which was very interesting, but wondered what a parallel highway right have been like.

      The cacti were just sprouting tiny red buds – I wonder when they will be in full bloom. What a curiosity to have them in such an unforgiving climate. And very few wildflowers were out – I’m thinking maybe June or early July is the optimum time?

      You should come camping again, with the bike! Bikers are nice people, you know. We are sorely tempted to get a tent trailer or small camp trailer – it would solve the problem of wind (which we have in abundance right now) or rain.


  3. I was taken back in time to when Craig was 5 or 6 and he went with his Dad to Drumheller with a class from Doug’s school. We have a picture not that different than the one you took of Steve surveying the landscape (albeit a little younger!) The area is a must-see, for sure!


  4. I went to the Tyrell shortly after it opened. They had computer interactive displays which were such new technology. But the part that impressed me as well was the way the building fit into it’s surroundings. The striations on the architecture matched the silt layers of the land. Love that you are discovering our home and native land


    1. How interesting Deb – we never noticed the architecture and how it matched the surroundings – very observant.
      So much to see in our home and native land – I keep hearing and reading about points of interest that will have to wait for another time.


  5. Ginny, it is so interesting to travel along with you and see the sights through your eyes. We were in Drumheller last year with our grandkids and I bought Ethan (age 4) a Pterodactyl-headed cape which he was thrilled with. He was the envy of the playground.

    The badlands are magical and you captured that feeling so well.

    Take care on your travels,



    1. Bonnie – how great to hear from you! Aren’t the Badlands incredible? We would love to go back there again at some point – maybe in early fall one year.

      We’re coming to NS in late June (roughly 25th onward) for a couple of weeks – we would dearly love to see you again – maybe with Cheryl?


      1. Ginny, that would be wonderful. I’ll put Cheryl on alert.

        Mike and I are in the middle of a big change; we are retiring and moving to Victoria! We will be leaving here in September and having our own cross-Canada adventure, so any advice you can provide will be gratefully appreciated.



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