Dinosaur hunting in Alberta

Wow! What a day Saturday was. I don’t think I’ve ever driven that far in one day before either. The reason we decided to spend more than a day in Calgary was to check out the Dinosaur Provincial Park east of the city. Glen had found it listed on a website last year and declared he wanted to visit it. Fair enough. We were going to go in August but as we were over this way, I thought we may as well knock it off while we had the chance. So glad we did.

We left Calgary about 9 and drove east towards Drumheller. Our first stop for the day was the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Canada’s only museum dedicated solely to palaeontology. When I was telling people on the train across from Toronto to Vancouver that we were going to visit the Dinosaur Provincial Park, they said how awesome the Royal Tyrrell Museum was. And it lived up to expectations.

We arrived at about 11:00 and I bought our tickets from an exceptional front entrance server (smiled, gave great information, provided excellent customer service) and then we entered the first gallery. We were met by a bunch of dinosaur sculptures in a diorama type setup, showing what the Albertan landscape would have looked like back then (swampy).

There was excellent interpretation as soon as you enter and it didn’t stop. Bite-sized chunks of information that explained what you were looking at in an easily digestible and interesting way, as well as telling you what to look for (e.g. the early mammal clinging to the tree above you).

Glen zoomed ahead while I spent more time playing on the interpretative devices (there was a tetris game that helps you learn the names of the eras…or was it eons or ages). Apart from the interactives, there were plenty of fossils in cases to look at, showing highlights of the Tyrrell collection. There was a T-Rex fossil that had been found by kids. Its head was just sticking out of the ground. It’s huge (although it is in fact one of the smallest T-Rex fossils ever found) and displayed beautifully.

After the first couple of rooms, you go through to a darkened room with more fossils on display (most of them complete), including another T-Rex and the first fossil found by Tyrrell. While we had only been through a few rooms, our brains were starting to fill…and then there’s just a whole lot more to discover.

You then go through different ages, including an awesome display with all the different early lifeforms and their diversity which was interpreted using lighting and a storyline detailing what was going on (and who was getting eaten). Then through to a living garden with ferns and then a big room of more dinosaur fossils. Skeletons everywhere!

It ends with mammals like mammoths and giant sloths and then you’re into the gift shop. Both Glen and I would have loved for there to be a cafe about halfway through so you could sit, rest, absorb and then summon the energy to check out the rest. By about halfway through I’d stopped reading all the signs and did feel I was missing out (but “brain full”).

But, if that’s a complaint to have, it’s a good one. I came away so thoroughly impressed by this museum that really is out in the middle of nowhere (yet had lots of people in it and bus loads arriving when we left). I also didn’t know that when the theorised meteor hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, changes in climactic and environmental conditions were already putting stress on plants and animals (dinosaur diversity was diminishing at the end of the Cretaceous Period and T-Rex and Tricerotops were among the last of their kind to evolve). And a similar catastrophic event had happened eons earlier to wipe out a lot of marine life. Fascinating!

We took a short break in the cafe afterwards, then drove back to downtown Drumheller, bought some lunch (consisting of yoghurt, breakfast bars and choc chip cookies) from a Shopper’s Mart, then head out in search of the Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Along the way we drove through some fascinating landscapes and stopped at the hoodoos, wind and rain eroded pillars that stand within the badlands. As far as variability of landscape goes, Alberta wins hands-down (from what I’ve seen). In the west you have snow-capped mountains and forests, in the middle (and most of the east) are grasslands/plains, as well as these hoodoos and stratified places that are hotbeds of dinosaur fossil finds. In the north it’s pretty, from what I’ve seen on the pictures. The only thing is doesn’t have is coastline, but apart from that, wow! Go Alberta!

After our quick stop at the hoodoos, we drove out of the Badlands and across plains that were flatter than anything I’ve ever seen. And they just kept going. Along the way I also saw a (live) coyote beside the road (squeal!) and a gopher/prairie dog/pika thing (also alive), which sprinted off to safety. Yay for wildlife!

We thought we’d missed a turnoff at one point but luckily maps on Glen’s phone still worked and we were on the right road. We turned down an unsealed road at one point to get to the park, but didn’t take it all the way as Glen was getting nervous about it taking so long (and I was hoping we wouldn’t pop a tyre).

We arrived at the Dinosaur Provincial Park at 3:30, stopping at the viewpoint to get an amazing eyeful of the landscape below. It blew me away. So different! So varied! So worth the drive! We then went to the Visitor Centre, fifteen minutes before it closed. A very bored woman was behind the counter. She answered our questions though and was friendly. I say bored because as far as we could see it was just her and us.

We drove the loop through the park. It was where so many dinosaur fossils have been found (and I think continue to be found today). This whole part of Alberta is just rife with fossils (which must really annoy construction and mining companies as you have to be careful and notify Tyrrell Museum every time you find one, which stops work). We walked the loops, discovering the different types of soil and clay and rocks. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any fossils.

We did wonder if we might find a Roman wall and if the place had been gone over with geo-phys (for those Time Team fans).

By about five, I was getting weary so we skipped the last loop and set off back home. Glen drove all the way back, which I was grateful for. I’ve calculated that I drove over 300 km that day, which is doable of course but tiring. I’ve done a lot of driving this trip, which had been good in some ways. Definitely feel a lot more  used to Canadian roads (though the placement of the traffic lights in Alberta is just irritating).

When we got back to the hotel, it was about 7:30. We had dinner downstairs in the restaurant again then had a quiet evening in our room.

If you ever come to Calgary (or Alberta), make the effort to go to the museum and the park. It’s out of this world.

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