I first heard about the Battle River Badlands via the Alberta Gravel Cycling Facebook group. Back in January, a Battle River-valley resident named Forrest Hagen posted a gravel route near the town of Donalda, south of Camrose. Then in April, Edmonton gravel gurus Greg and Aaron rode that very route and posted a glowing review of the area along with some impressive photos. I was intrigued. Why had I never heard of this area as a gravel-riding destination?
Turns out that Forrest not only lives in that area; he also runs La Prairieaire EcoTourism, which offers guided tours and some unusual accommodation options. So my wife and I ventured down to the Battle River area to check it out. We spent the July 1 long weekend at La Prairieaire, mixing gravel riding with some touristy adventures, eco and otherwise.
Like many Albertans, I hadn’t realized that the Badlands reach as far north as the Battle River. But the landscape in that valley is remarkably similar to what you see around Drumheller–it’s just got more vegetation. The scale may be somewhat smaller, in terms of the size and number of hoodoos, but the Badland vibe is the same. Someone described it as “Drumheller, with trees” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment.
What about dinosaur bones, you ask? The Battle's got those too. We did a splendid guided walking tour with Forrest on part of his vast valley property and he pointed out bones from hadrosaurs, which were once as plentiful as cows in these parts.
|Hadrosaur bone. Just there, sticking out of the ground.|
As for riding, this area has pretty much everything I look for in gravel: Quiet curvy roads, lots of rolling hills, stunning scenery, and wildlife galore (the highlight was two majestic Great Grey owls). Forrest isn’t a cyclist himself, but he seems to get gravel cycling, and to his credit, he’s put together a lovely 82-km loop that shows off some of the best of the Battle River Badlands. It’s all lovely but the most impressive parts of Forrest’s route are the valley areas southeast of Ferry Point, the Red Willow Creek area southeast of Donalda, and the old rail trail between Donalda and Meeting Creek.
|It's a giant lamp, of course!|
The only town on this loop is Donalda, a pretty little well-kept village whose claim to fame is being home to the world’s largest coal oil lamp. (It’s hard to miss, smack dab in the centre of town, though I’m not sure I would have known what it was if not for the many signs.) The museum ($4 entry) boasts an alarming number of old lamps (most of which looked pretty much the same to my amateur lamp-eyes) and some peculiar mouse trap displays. We drove into town for the Canada Day celebrations, which included a terrific steak dinner, complete with entertainment and fireworks. On non-Canada Days, you can visit the cafe (pie alert!) or the more rednecky tavern (the first thing we saw when we walked in was a “Fuck Biden” banner on the bar), which holds a steak night every Friday. (Check the quirky small-town hours on both of these before you count on them.)
Surprisingly, for such a rural area, Donalda isn’t the only option for food and drink. Cherry Lane BnB, northwest of Donalda, has a great little restaurant too. A little further northeast from there, the Double Dam Golf Course has a restaurant and to the east of that the village of Rosalind is home to Detention Brewing, housed in the former high school. We visited Detention one rainy afternoon, and I have to give it a big gold star. The beer is made in what used to be the gym, and the tasting room is an old classroom. Tasting flights come in a lunch box.
|A shaded stretch of the rail trail near Donalda.|
The old rail trail between Donalda and Meeting Creek (about 15 kms) offers some nice variety in the route, though it’s not for everyone. The surface is rough in spots and the vegetation encroaches in others, but the woods that surround the first half, at least, provide shade and protection from the wind. And the views you can glimpse in the occasional openings in the woods are fabulous: vast rolling canola fields to the west and Badlands to the right. The half that’s closer to Meeting Creek is definitely shaggier and more open, and in that part there are six gates that you have to deal with–as in dismounting and wrangling with some barbed wire, which may not be to everyone’s taste. Forrest assured me that the gates are there only to prevent cow movement; it’s not a trespassing issue. This rail trail is, indeed, a public right of way and you won’t get shot at for passing through a gate. (Just make sure you secure it the way you found it.)
|View from the rail trail, through a break in the trees.|
|The trail closer to Meeting Creek.|
|The rail trail will have you hopping on and off your bike for these gates.|
Meeting Creek is a cool spot. Until the trains stopped running through here in the 1980s, this was an actual village. Now, it’s just a cluster of a few houses and businesses with no services. But the train station and two grand old-school grain elevators remain, one of them restored to excellent condition. As I was sitting in the shade of one of the towers eating my lunch, a volunteer from Camrose approached and asked if I’d like a tour of the buildings. I said sure. Walking into both the station and the elevator are like passing through little wormholes in time. The volunteers have decked out the interiors in full period detail–right down to authentic note pads for taking down telegrams and 1950s photos of Queen Elizabeth. I highly recommend taking a tour here if you have the chance. But even just walking around the outside gives you a feel for the rich history.
During our time in Battle country, we stayed in La Prairieaire’s adorable little Granary, which has been refurbished/converted into what is basically a tiny home perched on the bank overlooking the Battle. It’s got limited electricity, no running water, and the toilet is a portable model, like what you might find in an RV. Staying there feels a bit like glamping. The space is cute and cozy, and the views are spectacular. It’s a good base for exploring the area (so long as you don’t mind not being able to shower). There’s also a rustic campground nearby at Ferry Point that looks well maintained but offers even fewer services.
|View from the Granary.|
The Battle River Badlands are less than a 2-hour drive from Edmonton, so totally do-able as a day trip. But there’s enough to see and do in the area to make it an overnight or even a weekend destination, one with some of the best--or should I say baddest?--gravel riding in central Alberta.