Canada’s Baddest Badland: Horseshoe Canyon in Alberta
The Horseshoe Canyon in Drumheller, Alberta, is one of Canada’s baddest Badlands. In 1743, French Canadian explorers François and Louis Joseph de la Verendrye coined the term ‘Badlands’ (‘les mauvaises terres‘ in french), when they first encountered it on their travels through the Prairies in Central Alberta, Canada. Today, this Badland area, Horsethief Canyon and the Horseshoe Canyon in Drumheller, offers curious visitors stunning vistas and numerous scenic hiking trails. Although it is only a small patch in comparison to the rest of Canada’s lush landscape, the Canadian Badlands has its own selling point —it is an area steeped in history.
Much different from the rest of Canada, the Badlands contains a mixture of prairies, grasslands, ghost towns, buttes, canyons, hoodoo rock formations, coulees and ravines. The early French settlers found the area too arid to be suitable for farming, thus the term ‘les mauvaises terres’, or ‘bad lands.’ This so-called badlands extend along the Red Deer River Valley, east-southwards from the city of Red Deer, Alberta, through the small city of Drumheller, and all the way to the Saskatchewan border. However, much to their surprise, they soon discovered the terrain was rich in coal and fossils.
The First Nations people were the first to discover these animal fossils. In fact, they believed the fossils were vestiges of gigantic ancestors of the Bison, and that the Badlands was one giant graveyard for these animals. And that the unusual Hoodoos formations, were the protectors of the bison’s and ancient animals’ spirits.
Looking at the Badlands now, it’s hard to imagine that the dinosaurs and enormous animals once roam the lands. Parts of the landscape look like another planet or the face of the moon, yet this is not the kind of ‘world’ the dinosaurs inhabited. When they reigned around 230 million to 65 million years ago, this area was covered in jungles, with areas of deltas, and rivers that extended into the shallow sea.
The Badland we see now was created over 10,000 years ago as a result of flash floods which carved out valleys progressively over a long period of time, creating the Red Deer Valley. Interestingly, the Drumheller Badlands is one of the few areas in the world where sedimentary layers have been scraped off by natural processes, thus exposing complete dinosaur skeletons, proving itself to be a vast terrain of fossil discovery. If you are a lover of history and geology, this beautiful scenery should be a must visit when travelling through Alberta.
Exploring the Horseshoe Canyon Hike
Most people that drive through Drumheller never go past the viewpoint at the parking area because even from inside your car, you are rewarded with a pleasing vista of the ancient canyon. However, for those adventurous souls (who aren’t afraid of rattlesnakes), they are rewarded with many nooks, crannies and hoodoos to explore. With the right footwear, you can scramble down and explore the whole area —if you have a lot of time on hand, as it is pretty vast.
If you do choose to explore, you will find many unique rock formations, plants and interesting wildlife you won’t be able to see anywhere else in Canada. Many people who have travelled to Horseshoe Canyon as a child are always surprise when they revisit the area again. There are always new paths to explore and new spots to see. This area is always evolving, though from afar it seems to remain the same.
Horseshoe Canyon is awe-inspiring with a multitude of hiking possibilities. But if hiking isn’t your cup of tea, there’s an option to take in the sights of Drumheller in a helicopter ride. This is available on site by Mountain View Helicopters. In my opinion, it is well worth the money to take the ride as you are able to see the canyon and its surrounding area from a whole new perspective.
Horseshoe Canyon received its name from the two 5 km arms that were formed into a horseshoe shape when it was carved by the glacier. It is a beautiful area to explore in the autumn, or early and late spring, but in the summer, be aware that temperatures can go to 40 degree Celsius. Also, it is not recommended to hike into the canyon during the rain, or if it had previously rained that day. The particular type of clay and mud on the canyon floor is as slick as oil when it’s wet. There wouldn’t be any warning signs around to tell you this because according to the Alberta government, we’re smart enough to know this little fact.
Before you head out of Drumheller, make to the west side and take a quick stop at the Orkney Viewpoint that overlooks the Red Deer River Valley. Orkney Lookout is a quiet, easily accessed and somewhat private natural lookout point situated on the high red rock cliffs above the Red Deer River with views consists of rolling coulees, hoodoos, grasslands, birds and the Bleriot Ferry crossing. All of which are best viewed with a set of binoculars. The great this about his viewpoint is that there’s no fence barring you from exploration —to enjoy its view completely. However, if you’re travelling with kids, be sure to hold them close as there are some steep drops (along with no fence).
How to get to Horseshoe Canyon
At the Horseshoe Canyon recreation area on Highway 9, 17 km SW of Drumheller. From the parking area, you can find several options to descend into the canyon and its many trail system