Photograph by Ron Erwin, All Canada Photos
In the Tom Cochrane video for "Life Is a Highway," the backdrop is a mix of towering, misshapen, ochre-colored rock (hoodoos) and endless grassy fields. The setting is the 35,000-square-mile region often referred to as the Canadian Badlands. The discovery of both coal and dinosaur bones in the late 1800s proved transformational. Nowhere on Earth is as rich in quantity and quality of the prehistoric creatures' remains as the Badlands' arid Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where digs are still under way.
Visitors come for the dino attractions anchored by the town of Drumheller in Alberta, but locals hope travelers look up as well. "People should come for the skies," says Linda Miller, whose family has been in the area since 1909. "The sunsets are just gorgeous. The stars and the sky at night are so full and vast."
When to Go: In early June there's a high risk of rain but it's a must for those interested in the annual Dinofest celebration in Drumheller. Late June to early September promise sunny days and good access to all area attractions but reservations for children's programming and Dinosaur Provincial Park tours should be made much earlier. Professional bullfighting and homemade corn dogs reign at the Oyen Bull-a-Rama on the third Wednesday of every July.
Where to Stay: Families who want to maximize their prehistoric exposure should consider camping out in Dinosaur Provincial Park, where paleontological digs continue. If you're after more of a Wild West vacation, you can find ranch vacation options from deluxe to rustic and from city slicker to hard core across the region. Elkwater Lake Lodge has pet-friendly suites.
How to Get Around: Plan to drive but fill up your tank every chance you get since gas stations are few and far between. Popular routes include one that will take you on the trail of dinosaurs, including the must-see Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Where to Eat or Drink: Patricia Water Hole's cook-your-own-steak tradition is popular. Beer is sold in quart sealers (think of a large mason jar) and the walls still have bullet holes at Rosedeer Hotel's Last Chance Saloon. When you're ready to come back to the present, consider upscale Sublime Food & Wine, which serves up old favorites like baked brie and prime rib with tasty sides like cheddar mashed potatoes, plus seasonal desserts that change so frequently they're not listed on the menu.
What to Buy: Contemporary ceramic pieces from Medalta Potteries in Medicine Hat's Historic Clay District or artwork that pays tribute to the area's rich Blackfoot First Nations culture are worth the care needed to transport them home.
What to Read Before You Go: Dinosaur Provincial Park: A Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed by Phillip J. Currie and Eva B. Kopelhus (Indiana University Press, 2005). This scientific overview of the park's major fossil excavations, flora and fauna, and history includes illustrations of the park's animals by some of the world's finest paleoartists.
Fun Fact: The world's largest dinosaur stands 86 feet tall and "lives" in the middle of Drumheller. Take the stairs up its middle and peer out at the city from between dino teeth.
Heather Greenwood Davis is an award-winning travel writer for the Toronto Star, Canadian Family, Parents Canada, and O, The Oprah Magazine.
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