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Alberta Road Trip: Searching For Birds, Badlands & Buffalo Jumps

Alberta Road Trip: Searching for Birds, Badlands & Buffalo Jumps

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.

"Not much in the way of birds but lots of horses"

Not much in the way of birds but lots of horses

"The ponds around Eagle Lake"

The ponds around Eagle Lake are devoid of birds but some birds could be seen on Eagle Lake itself

"Nice signs but no trail at Namaka Lake"

Nice signs but no trail at Namaka Lake

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.

"Haying season in Alberta"

Haying season in Alberta

"A cafe in Rosebud, Alberta"

A cafe in Rosebud, Alberta

Horseshoe Canyon

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.

"Looking down into Horseshoe Canyon"

Looking down into Horseshoe Canyon

"Walking the trails at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon"

Walking the trails at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon

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.

"Big skies of Alberta"

Big skies of Alberta

"Grain elevator in the town of Trochu"

Grain elevator in the town of Trochu

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.

"Fall colours at Dry Island Buffalo Jump"

Fall colours at Dry Island Buffalo Jump

"The Red Deer River flows through the park"

The Red Deer River flows through the park

"Looking over the 45 meter buffalo jump"

Looking over the 45 meter buffalo jump

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.

"Fields of golden hay "

Fields of golden hay

Do you have a favourite Alberta road trip?

Leigh McAdam



Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 32 Comments
  1. You really captured the season in these shots. My favourite place for an Alberta road trip is heading South of Calgary on the Cowboy Trail – HWY 22. I take it almost all the way down to Waterton National Park.

  2. What an awesome part of the world Leigh, and the different seasons must be wonderful, particularly I would imagine Fall. I love the picture of the hay fields, and also the horses – their eager expressions, the symmetry and composition all work together so well.

  3. It is a good thing you kept going because the Buffalo Jump Park is the prettiest. Not the most sensational scenery compared to mountains but the farm fields and prairies have a comforting affect.

  4. I know most visitors come to Alberta to go to the Rocky Mountains, and granted they’re pretty spectacular, but I really enjoy visiting the badlands area of the province. For me it’s the big skies, wide open spaces, and lonely stretches of highway that I love best about Alberta.

  5. I keep hearing great things about Alberta. I’m hoping to visit in the summer of next year, but these pictures closer to fall look beautiful!

  6. Wonderful images. I dream of going to Canada one day, and your tour has certainly increased my desire to visit.
    We have been away ourselves travelling for 6 weeks It’s good to be back catching up with Travel Photo Thursday. Have a wonderful week.

  7. I enjoyed this little peek at fall in your part of the world. The contrast between the rock layers and the colorful autumn foliage of Horseshoe Canyon is my favorite. I had never heard the term “buffalo jump.” Once I looked it up, it made perfect sense to call it that.

  8. Just gorgeous, Leigh! Love the wide open spaces and all that color and texture. Even the grain elevator is beautiful. I’m ready for a trip to the badlands of Alberta.

  9. Lovely photos! I love all your pictures especially your picture with a caption of “walking the trails at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon” I love the colors!

  10. We loved Dry Island Buffalo Jump and when we were there in late June, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Nearby TL Bar Ranch rents canoes and will deliver your canoe and pick it up from the park. It has a cabin, rustic cabin and camping. We’ve also stayed in Trochu at St. Ann Country Inn. Great spot. Your pix are terrific, Leigh. They really do justice to one of our favourite Canadian places.

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