Dinosaur Provincial Park is the jewel of Alberta’s Badlands. Sure, the region’s largest city, Drumheller, has its charms: the Royal Tyrell Museum (with its world class collection) and a gigantic tacky T-Rex at the town’s tourist info centre (an essential ironic photo op). But if I had to pick one spot in the Badlands to recommend for sheer beauty and wow factor it’d be DPP, 48 km northeast of Brooks, Alberta. And if you cycle there or bring a bicycle with you, do not miss out on riding the brilliant 3-km gravel-road circuit next to the campground. It’s one of the coolest bike rides in Alberta.
The distinctive hoodoo formations of the Badlands exist in pockets all around the Red Deer River valley, but the ones at DPP are especially expansive, forbidding, and other worldly. Dinosaur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s stood at the viewpoint above the campground and gazed across the river valley. You get a spectacular panorama of these crazy landforms going on for miles and miles into the distance like some Martian outback. The scale and austerity of it all really puts the bad into Badlands.
Incidentally, the campground at DPP is one of the best places to pitch a tent in the Badlands. The peaceful, lightly cottonwooded, riverside sites are far better than anything in Drumheller—not that we actually pitched our tents at all. It had been raining all day when we arrived, and the campground had no shelters of any kind, so we opted for one of the new comfort camping gigs, which, I am embarrassed to admit, was totally awesome. The “camping” part really does need quotation marks; we slept in beds, had a fridge and heater, and cooked supper on a fancy gas bbq. I suspect these units are impossible to get in July-August but in the shoulder seasons, they are worth considering.
We rode through and past lots of hoodoos on our tour of the area but always on paved roads that made us feel slightly detached from the landscape, traversing a thin, asphalt ribbon of civilization. But the scenic loop by the campground feels different. The road is gravel, more like a wide trail really, and somehow this makes a huge difference. You’re in and of the Badlands on this loop, practically embedded with the trilobites and triceratops. In fact, footpaths off this road will take you to two different hands-on fossil displays.
Penn and I went for a spin around the loop under a cleared up dusky June sky. No cars in sight, just a few walkers out for a stroll. Something about the late evening light and the alien landscape made the whole experience kind of surreal. It may not be official, but that night I took it upon myself to declare the Dinosaur Park scenic loop a World Gravel Road Cycling Treasure.