For an Alberta road trip that doesn’t involve mountains, head east where you can find birds if you’re lucky, badlands and buffalo jumps.
That’s exactly what John and I did just a few weeks ago. We decided it was time to explore some new country and see parts of Alberta that don’t get the attention that the mountains get.
We left Calgary and headed east on the Trans-Canada until we reached Strathmore. We figured since we were in the area that we’d check out Eagle Lake and Namaka Lake – supposedly two birding hotspots. Namaka Lake is reportedly one of the best places near Calgary to see shorebirds and waterfowl but there didn’t seem to be access to the lake despite there being a big sign detailing the commonly sighted birds. And access to Eagle Lake also seems to be restricted. In short order we gave up.
But at least the horses seemed interested in getting their picture taken.
The road to Rosebud
From Namaka Lake we returned via backroads to the Trans-Canada Highway. We decided we’d head to the badlands near Drumheller via a side-trip to Rosebud – a small community known for its’ theater – the largest rural professional theater in Alberta. Rosebud is a pretty place set among rolling hills where haying was in full swing. For a hamlet of roughly 100 people it’s got its fair share of B&B’s as well as a few restaurants and cafes, though on a Sunday none appeared to be open. I’d like to return for a night at the theater.
Our next stop was Horseshoe Canyon, located just off Highway 9, about 17 kilometers before you reach Drumheller. It’s a popular spot for the view and the hiking. The trail descends about 60 meters into the canyon and from there a number of visible paths lead you further into the canyon. If it rains they are exceedingly slick.
We’d brought a lunch with us but next time I’d plan to eat in Drumheller at a family run restaurant called Athens located at 71 Bridge Street. I’ve been told by Judy from Canadian Road Stories that their Greek food is very good.
On this road trip we didn’t allow for a stop at the Royal Tyrell Museum – the world’s premier dinosaur museum. We’ll save that trip for a rainy weekend.
Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
It was after 1 pm by the time we left Horseshoe Canyon. My goal for the day included a visit to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, still a 90 minute drive away. We decided to go for it – even though it meant a great deal of driving. Fortunately the backroads are quite pretty, especially when you descend or ascend from the Red Deer River. The roads we took were through places I’d never heard of before – Rumsey, Trochu and Huxley. All offered scenes of big skies, and in some sections the road ran beside ponds filled with birds.
The approach to Dry Island Buffalo Jump is via 17 kilometres of good gravel road off of Highway 21, just south of Elnora, another hamlet I’d never heard of.
From the overlook the scene below unfolds offering big drama especially in the fall. This buffalo jump is the most northern of the ones around. The most famous one – Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump – a UNESCO site several hours south of Calgary – isn’t nearly as high. Most jumps are in the range of 8-15 metres; this one is huge in comparison at 45 metres.
Dry Island Buffalo Jump was used at least four times between 700 and 2,800 years ago. Remnants of tools and pottery have been found at the site.
You can drive down to the Red Deer River from the overlook on a very steep gravel road. It’s not recommended in wet weather and trailers are forbidden. It’s possible to camp by the river but there aren’t any hiking trails per se. It is however a great spot to launch a canoe; in fact we met two women who had paddled all day – actually paddled and walked their canoe since water levels were low – and were spending the night in the park.
Unfortunately the drive home on Highway 2 wasn’t nearly as interesting as all the backroads we took. But apart from Highway 2 I think there is a quiet beauty on the prairies and it’s worth taking the time to explore.
Do you have a favourite Alberta road trip?