Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Trip Date: July 2015



I had never been to Dinosaur Provincial Park, until earlier this month.  At first glance you might think the park is located in the Drumheller area, but that's not the case and is a common mistake made by many tourists.  The park is actually 170km southeast of Drumheller and approximately 220km east of Calgary, situated along the Red Deer River.

If you're interested in additional information, I've highlighted the Drumheller area in both a previous blog post, titled Drumheller, and a Calgary Guardian story, called Breaking Bad(lands), but this is my first story about Dinosaur Provincial Park.

A map of Dinosaur Provincial Park
In 1979 the park was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site designation as it contains the largest and most comprehensive collection of fossils from the late Cretaceous period in the world.  Over forty different dinosaur species have been unearthed in the park and more than 500 specimens have been removed and showcased in museums around the world.

The entrance to Dinosaur Provincial Park
My trip was planned for two days with one night of camping inbetween.  Christine was working, so I was on my own for this one.  I left Calgary early Friday morning and headed east through the prairies.  A couple of hours later I arrived at the park's entrance and stopped at the viewpoint above the valley.  Here they have one of the five self-guided interpretive trails in the park; Prairie Trail.  This short 300m loop explores the open prairie ecosystem that covers the outer edge of the park's land base.

Prickly Pear Cactus
Along Prairie Trail is an ancient glyphstone with etchings carved by First Nation People.  The boulder was originally found west of Dinosaur Provincial Park, but was relocated to the park in 1958 by local residents who wanted the stone to be protected, yet still accessible to everyone.  It is unclear what the petroglyphs mean, but two common theories are landmarks for travel or sacred offerings before and/or after a buffalo hunt.  

The ancient glyphstone protected within the park
Here you can see the etchings on the surface of the boulder
You can read more about the petroglyph sites I have visited by visiting my Western Canadian Rock Art section on the Bradshaw Foundation's webpage.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque sits on the edge of the valley overlooking the badlands below
Panoramic view of the badlands
Although difficult to see, the photograph below depicts a circle of stones slowly being covered by grass and soil.  These stones would have anchored a bison hide tipi of a First Nation family that stopped to rest at this location.  Additional sites, like the one below, have been found all along the the edge of the Red Deer River Valley.

Anchor stones from a tipi
From there I made my way into the park and towards the Cretaceous Cafe to check into my campsite, which was a seamless process.  Afterwards I did the short walk up to the Visitor's Centre where I was given additional information about the park and due to my role as an Albert Parks Ambassador was granted free access inside.  I spent the next hour thoroughly exploring the Visitor Centre and their in-depth displays before finding my way to my campsite, settling in, and having lunch.  

This bench can be found just outside the Visitor's Centre...but watch your head!
The Visitor Centre also acts as a Field Station for the Royal Tyrrell Museum
This large skeleton greets everyone as they enter the Visitor Centre
This is a skeleton of a Daspletosaurus that was collected in 1985.  It's in the classic death pose, which is an indication of nervous system trauma at time of death, possibly related to drowning.
In this reenactment a pack of small Dromaeosaurs attack the larger duck-billed Lambeosaurus
A complete skeleton of a Chasmosaurus
Once my stomach was full it was time to get out and explore the park on foot.  Most of Dinosaur Provincial Park is a protected Natural Preserve, meaning it's off limits to the general public without a guide.  However, there are five self-guided trails within the park that allow guests the opportunity to explore the rugged landscape.  I had already completed Prairie Trail, so next up was the Badlands Trail.  This 1.3km trail walks visitors through the landscape unique to the area and discusses how it was formed.  

Hoodoos are common sites within the park
Badlands as far as you can see
A time lapse video I created using my GoPro camera

There's no shortage of interesting rock formations to look at!
Despite the dry, rugged landscape vegetation can still be found, like these wildflowers
A badlands selfie!
The park is home to two Fossil Houses, which are enclosed shelters that showcase dinosaur bones in the ground.  The first features a Hadrosaur exactly as it was discovered by Roy Fowler, the park's first ranger, back in 1959.  The second is a depiction of a Centrosaurus bone bed, which are prevalent in the park...more on that in a bit!  The second Fossil House is also the trailhead for the 0.9km Trail of the Fossil Hunters, which leads to a historic quarry that was used in the early 1900's, during the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush.

Roy Fowler's headless Hadrosaur skeleton
The recreation of a Centrosaurus bone bed
Hiking along the Trail of the Fossil Hunters
This is a steel marker, used to identify different quarries.  The sandstone in the background was where Barnum Brown and his team excavated Euoplocephalus and Albertosaurus.
On my way to the next interpretive trail I stopped at the John Ware Cabin, that was scheduled to be open for a short time.  John Ware was a freed slave from the southern United States that worked his way to Canada and became one of the most famous ranchers and cowboys around.  His funeral was the largest attended funeral, at that time, to ever be held in Calgary; a fitting tribute to the legendary rancher.  

John Ware's historic cabin has been restored and relocated numerous times in order to preserve and protect it
John Ware's Cabin
Next up was the Coulee Viewpoint Trail, a 0.9km loop that started at the Visitor Centre and worked its way to ridge tops offering some fantastic viewpoints.  From up there the badlands seemed to go on forever!

Interesting rock formations
Hiking the Coulee Viewpoint Trail
Viewpoint selfie!
The park's second species of cactus is the Pincushion Cactus
Wonderful scenery on this trail
While I was hiking I created another time lapse video with my GoPro

After some relaxation and a quick bite to eat I headed back out to hike the 1.4km Cottonwood Flats Trail around dusk.  The trail borders the banks of the Red Deer River and winds its way through lush vegetation, which is a stark contrast from the barren badlands nearby.  Lois at the Visitor Centre recommended this trail as the best option to see wildlife and since they're most active early and late in the day I thought I would give myself the best shot and wait until the sun started to set.  Although I didn't see any of the resident Mule Deer or the Moose that was reportedly hanging around, I wasn't disappointed.

This made my heart stop for just a second!  As I was walking along, not looking at the ground, I heard the unmistakable rattling sound and froze in my tracks.  When I looked down I saw this Prairie Rattlesnake slithering into the bushes.  Only when I was a safe distance away did I snap this photo!
Even though I was on high alert the rest of the evening I still managed to enjoy the rest of the hike along the Red Deer River
Dusk in the Red Deer River Valley
A brightly coloured American Goldfinch
Immediately after my hike I climbed up to one of the highest accessible points in the park and watched the sunset.  It was a great spot to watch the sun sink behind the horizon and see the badlands washed in late-day sunshine.  By the time I packed up my gear and walked back to the truck it was almost dark, which meant a bonfire was in my immediate future.  After a couple of cold beverages and a roasted hot dog my eyelids started getting really heavy.  Sleep came very quickly after a full day spent outside in the hot sunshine.  

Panoramic shot of the badlands as the sun's going down
The badlands washed in sunlight
A great spot to finish the day!
The sun setting over Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Red Deer River
I was up early the next morning, partly because the rising sun heated my tent unexpectedly fast and partly because I was excited for the day's events.  The  main reason I was in Dinosaur Provincial Park was for the Centrosaurus Quarry Hike; a 2.0km guided hike to one of the twenty Centrosaurus bone beds that have been discovered throughout the park.  Lead by our tour guide Andrea, we loaded a bus at the Visitor Centre and entered the Natural Preserve area of the park.  A short drive later we were outside, walking through the beautiful badland scenery enroute to the quarry.  Along the way Andrea entertained us with information about the formation of the badlands, how the area looked millions of years ago, and what caused massive dinosaur deaths, which ultimately lead to the creation of these bone beds.  

Hiking through the Natural Preserve
This whole area is off-limits unless you're on a guided tour
The Centrosaurs bone bed sits below this iconic formation known as The Citadel
Beautiful badlands
This is the site of the bone bed.  There's a protective covering over a collection of bones, to protect them from the elements, but there are countless bones and bone fragments scattered throughout the area.
This is what it looks like when the cover is rolled away
An artist's rendition of what a Centrosaurus may have looked like.  Paleontologists theorize that these massive bone beds were the result of natural disasters, such as flash floods, that resulted in hundreds or thousands of dinosaur deaths in a short amount of time.
This particular bone bed is the size of two Canadian football fields and contains thousands of bones.  This is a Centrosaurus horn that's been pieced back together.
This is part of a frill still stuck in the ground
The guided hike was awesome and being able to search for fossils after the presentation was pretty neat.  It is against the law in Alberta to remove fossils, so we could only look and touch using the one-finger approach!  My time in Dinosaur Provincial Park was incredible, but way too short.  I am already looking forward to my next adventure in a few weeks; the one-day Guided Excavation where I actually get to dig for fossils!

You can read more about Dinosaur Provincial Park in my story Jurassic Province that I wrote for the Calgary Guardian. In addition you can read about Canada's first and largest dinosaur nesting site by visiting my post called Devil's Coulee.

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