Experience Dinosaur Provincial Park
Dinosaur Provincial Park has always been one of my favourite early-season destinations for a spring camping trip. By April or May the weather is usually great as the badlands warm up and dry out for another camping season. We’ve been visiting this park for many years and have always enjoyed spending our days hiking, biking, climbing hills, or playing in the river without ever having to leave camp.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is located north east of Brooks in Southern Alberta and is reached in an easy 2-1/2 hour drive from Calgary. It is important to know that this park is not near Drumheller, which is located 2 hours to the north and west. Visiting both areas is certainly manageable in a weekend, but would require some advanced planning.
This provincial park is recognized internationally for having one of the highest densities of fossils from the late Cretaceous Period anywhere in the world, with over 50 dinosaur species and 150 complete skeletons found in this park. Brad Tucker, formerly Executive Director of the Canadian Badlands, says this unique provincial park gives us a “detailed window into the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs when they dominated the face of the earth.” He goes on to describe how “a visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park is the best chance to see what was actually going on at this time on earth with the history all recorded in the fossils and rocks.”
Exploring the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park
While many Albertans will be more familiar with the badlands in the Drumheller area, Dinosaur Provincial Park gives visitors the rare opportunity to access a vast amount of undisturbed badlands – in its ‘natural’ state. There have been no coal mines or industry built within this provincial park allowing for a very natural badlands experience.
Camping in Dinosaur Provincial Park
The provincial park campground is open year round and offers a rare opportunity to camp in a valley surrounded by badlands. Enjoy self-guided hiking on 5 family-friendly interpretive trails, bike or drive the 4 km Public Loop Road, stop to visit 2 outdoor fossil display buildings, or go exploring in the “free scramble zone” inside the loop road.
Brad Tucker says, “Dinosaur Provincial Park is a great place for children to climb to the top of a ‘mountain’ in 5 minutes, to discover secret caves along with hidden nooks and crannies. There is a new surprise around each corner.”
Other popular activities in the park are canoeing or kayaking on the Red Deer River. Paddlers launch their boats from the Steveville Campground and float back to their Dinosaur camp in a leisurely 14 km trip. At a relaxed pace it takes a few hours and I’ve done the outing on a stand up paddleboard. Besides the guided hikes and bus tours, the park also offers theatrical programs for families and a more serious “Speaker Series” for adults throughout the summer. This programming enables park visitors to learn how the unique badlands environment was formed and why the fossils are here.
Comfort camping is also an option in the park for people who want to enjoy a traditional camping experience but may not have the required gear. Canvas wall tents can be reserved from May to October and allow visitors an easy means of camping without having to haul out a trailer, sleep on the ground, or clean up camping gear at the end of a weekend. The tents come equipped with bedding, a heater and a fridge. The park provides you a chance to enjoy the fun aspects of camping like listening to the coyotes howl, watching the stars and cooking outside over a campfire. There is also a group campground in the park, which can accommodate 10 units (tents or trailers.)
Reservations are recommended for campsites throughout the summer months. Book online at Reserve.AlbertaParks.ca. You can book 90 days in advance. Comfort camping and group campsite reservations begin in February for the whole booking season. Make sure you reserve a campsite in advance if planning on traveling in peak summer season.
The DPP Campground is open all year. It is especially enjoyable in the “off-season” when the deer and other wildlife come around. The temperature is also much more comfortable in spring or fall, and you’ll enjoy camping without any bugs.
Guided Hikes & Interpretive Tours
The best way to explore the unique badland landscape here is through a guided tour. A large part of the provincial park is accessible only with a guide in order to protect the fossil resource. There are a variety of interpretive tours including hiking to a fossil bone bed, fun prospecting tours with an expert to search for fossils, explorer’s bus tours, or even participating in a real dinosaur excavation – one of the few programs of this kind in Alberta. The park’s interpretive programs aid visitors with the goal of seeing real fossils “in the wild”.
Tucker explains “you can’t just look at this landscape without getting expert guidance to tell you where to find a fossil, how to read the landscape, and how to interpret the area.”
Reservations for programs are highly recommended and can be booked at dinosaurpark.ca by clicking on “Guided Hikes and Tours” to see the tour descriptions and season schedule. Guided tours run from the May long weekend through to the October Thanksgiving long weekend.
This year my family participated in a guided quarry hike to a Centrosaurus bone bed where we saw an astonishing number of dinosaur bones and fossils all over the ground at our destination. The hike was interesting and we had a lot of fun scrambling around inside the natural reserve.
For families with younger children or folks not up for a big hike, there are bus tours where you view the beautiful scenery of the natural reserve from the comfort of your bus. Families will also enjoy the guided safari, a short walk to a site where you can learn about fossil finding and identification.
Insider Tip: Programs fill up early in the summer months so book before you arrive at the park. For more information visit albertaparks.ca and navigate to the DPP visitor centre or call
403-378-4342 ext. 235.
Hiking the public trails through the badlands
The park has 5 public trails including the amazing Badlands Trail, our family favourite, the only trail bordering the natural reserve (restricted to visitors with a park guide.) The trail is a 1.3 km loop with interpretive signs along the way. The other trail we love is the Coulee Viewpoint Trail, starting from the visitor centre. This short 0.9 km trail climbs up to an amazing viewpoint over the Little Sandhill Coulee. It’s a great sunrise or sunset hike and kids will have fun scrambling down the end of the steep trail back to the campground.
Insider Tip: Start early, bring lots of water, and avoid the heat of the day if visiting the park in summer. If mornings aren’t your thing, sunset hikes are gorgeous in this park.
Exploring along the public loop road
You can drive, walk or bike the 3.5 km long scenic public loop road around the campground. We love biking the road through the badland landscape, stopping at the fossil display houses along the way.
We also love scrambling on hoodoos, climbing up and down coulees, and running around inside the “random access area” inside the public loop road. This is the one area of the park where hikers are free to explore off-trail. It is illegal to remove fossils from a provincial park so please leave any fossil material where you find it.
Paddling on the Red Deer River
We like to drive up river to the Steveville Campground for a 14 km float back to the DPP. At a relaxed pace, this is a half-day outing that can be enjoyed on those hot summer days when it’s refreshing to be on the water. I like to make the trip on my stand up paddleboard, and my 8-year old used a sit-on-top kids’ kayak this year for his journey down the river. Needless to say, it’s a very mellow float most of the time.
By: Tanya Koob