Enjoy this 7-day self-driving road trip through southern Alberta. Learn about the dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and walk through the Canadian Badlands. In this guide, we visit four different UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all in southern Alberta.
Table of Contents
7-Day Road Trip Itinerary
This 1200-km road trip itinerary highlights natural and cultural sites in southern Alberta.
- Day 1. Drumheller
- Day 2. Dinosaur Provincial Park
- Day 3. Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park
- Day 4. Lethbridge
- Day 5. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
- Day 6. Waterton Lakes National Park
- Day 7. Frank Slide and the Crowsnest Pass
If your time permits, we recommend spending more than just one day in Drumheller, Dinosaur Provincial Park and Waterton Lakes National Park to fully appreciate these beautiful places.
Road Trip Map of Southern Alberta
Things To Do in Drumheller
Drumheller is often referred to as the Dinosaur Capital of the World, due to the many dinosaur fossils found in the area’s sedimentary rocks. These rocks are part of the Badlands, an arid region with highly eroded, sedimentary rocks and clay soils. The landscape is very picturesque with steep-sloped ravines, hoodoos and minimal vegetation. The Canadian Badlands, one of Alberta’s best known natural landscapes, stretch from Drumheller, east to Saskatchewan and south to the US border.
This small town, located in the Badlands, has many interesting things to do.
Horseshoe Canyon Viewpoint, 15 kilometres west of town on Highway 9, is a great place to see the Badlands. A hiking trail winds down into the canyon.
Visit the World’s Largest Dinosaur, nicknamed “Tyra”, to get a bird’s eye view of the area. Tyra is 26 metres tall, offering a very unique viewpoint. Climb the 106 steps on the inside of this steel and fiberglass structure. The stairs end at the viewing platform inside Tyra’s mouth. From here the view of the Drumheller’s Red Deer River valley is impressive.
The Drumheller Visitor Information Centre is at Tyra’s base. Drumheller’s famous dinosaur museum is across the river and 6 kilometres northwest of Drumheller on Highway 838 in Midland Provincial Park.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum is one of the best paleontology centres in the world and the only one in Canada. Its Dinosaur Hall has one of the world’s largest displays of full dinosaur skeletons. Additional museum galleries showcase more fossil remains and interactive displays which provide details about the age of the dinosaurs.
After learning about the dinosaurs, their fossil remains and the rocks in which they were found, head behind the museum to the trailhead of the Badlands Interpretive Trail. This easy 1.4 kilometre loop is a great introduction to the Badlands.
For stunning views of the Badlands, the 48-kilometre Dinosaur Trail Scenic Drive is highly recommended.
The Little Church, a long-standing landmark in Drumheller, is about a kilometre west of the museum, on Highway 838. Originally built in 1958, this little church is always open to the public and free to enter for worship and contemplation.
Continuing on Highway 838, Horesethief Canyon has a great viewpoint and walking trails.
To complete the loop back to Drumheller, Highway 838 crosses the Red Deer River on the Bleriot Ferry. This location has been a ferry crossing for over 100 years.
Highway 838 ends at Highway 837. Turn left. The impressive Orkney Viewpoint, with benches to relax on, is nearby. Return to town, on Highways 837 and 575.
Back in Drumheller, for a more hands-on, interactive children’s museum, visit Fossil World Dinosaur Museum. It is geared toward “kid-friendly” activities versus the more “academic” Tyrrell. In addition to its many displays, the kids can go on a fossil dig and take home a real fossil.
The Last Chance Saloon is in the small town of Wayne, just southeast of Drumheller. This vintage saloon is full of antiques from the coal mining era. It’s both a museum and pub, all in one. There is also a hotel and campground associated with the saloon. Grab a burger at the saloon then continue the road trip toward Dinosaur Provincial Park.
If time permits, we recommend spending a second day in Drumheller, to explore the area’s coal mining history.
Start at the trailhead for the Hoodoos Trail, located on Highway 10, 16 kilometres south of downtown. Hoodoos are columns of weathered sandstone with rock caps. This trail has many great examples.
Travel south on Highway 10 for 7 kilometres to the valley’s last operating coal mine.
The Atlas Coal Mine, one of the valley’s 139 mines, operated from 1936 to 1984. This National Historic Site is the location of Canada’s last wooden tipple, a structure used to load the coal into railroad hopper cars. Tours take visitors up 38 metres up into this former coal processing plant. Tour the underground mine on a 75-minute, guided tour. Back on the surface, ride the train pulled by a 90+-year-old locomotive and enjoy fascinating stories about the coal mining era.
Nearby, stroll the hallways and classrooms at the East Coulee School Museum, a restored schoolhouse. Exhibits showcase more about coal mining in the area.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the most important fossil discoveries have been found here. UNESCO highlights that the area has an “exceptional abundance and diversity of dinosaur and other vertebrate fossils”. Palaeontologists have found fossils of over 49 different species of dinosaurs from the Late Cretaceous period (100 to 66 million years ago) in the park. The Dinosaur Extinction occurred 66 million years ago.
Both guided and self-guided options are available to tour the park. They explore different parts of the park.
1. A Guided Tour
A large part of the park is a protected natural preserve with restricted access. The only way to see the restricted regions is on a guided tour. Visit Dinosaur Provincial Park’s Interpretive Tour webpage to make reservations for one of the guided hikes. The Explorer’s Bus Tour is an option if hiking is not practical. Ride into this stunning environment on this guided tour. Visitors leave the bus at various stops where guides show and explain interesting fossils and geologic formations.
2. Self-Guided Hiking
To hike the park, choose from the park’s 5 self-guided interpretive trails. The trails range in length from 0.3 to 1.4 kilometres (15 minutes to 1 hour). Hike the Coulee Viewpoint Trail to a viewpoint on a ridge over the canyon. Hikers must stay on designated trails to avoid harming the protected area.
The Public Scenic Loop Road is a 3-kilometre loop with two outdoor Fossil Display Houses. The buildings hold a re-creation of a palaeontological dig-site, and a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton.
There is one area in Dinosaur Provincial Park where visitors can wander freely. The “scramble zone” is located on “the inside” the Public Scenic Loop Road. Feel free to wander anywhere within the loop. All visitors MUST leave any fossil material where it is found. Take lots of pictures of the finds as they cannot be removed from the park.
While our road trip suggests one day for Dinosaur Provincial Park, we recommend 2 Days to properly see everything the park has to offer. Camping is available on site at the Dinosaur Park Campground. There are several hotels in the town of Brooks, forty-eight kilometres south of the park. Spend the night and then drive south to the Milk River Valley.
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
The park has the most significant collection of First Nations Rock Art in the Great Plains of North America. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its immense cultural and spiritual significance.
The park’s sandstone cliffs have petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) that are believed to be more than 3500 years old.
The park lies within Blackfoot First Nation territory. Áísínai’pi is the Blackfoot name for the area, which means “it is written” or “it is pictured” in the Blackfoot language. The Blackfoot have a long presence in the Milk River Valley. This area is very sacred to them. It is where their people have reached out to the spirit world for millenia.
The engravings and paintings on the sandstone walls depict Blackfoot life, including daily routines and spiritual practices. Today, Blackfoot descendants continue to practice ceremonial activities at Áísínai’pi.
The park has more than 50 rock art sites. The most sensitive sites are in the Archaeological Preserve. To see these sites, a Writing-on-Stone Guided Tour must be taken.
Writing-on-Stone also has 3 self-guided hiking trails. On these trails, hike through the mushroom-shaped, sandstone hoodoos to discover more rock art. Hike to the cliff tops for great viewpoints of the river valley below.
Stay overnight at the Writing on Stone Campground, located in the park. Lethbridge is about an hour to the northwest.
Two places are “must-do’s on a visit to this beautiful prairie city, on the banks of the Oldman River.
Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden
At the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, experience a place of tranquility and harmony. The garden was created to celebrate the Lethbridge citizens of Japanese ancestry and the friendship between Canada and Japan. It was designed with elements that represent the local mountains and the prairies. Take part in a traditional tea ceremony, an age-old ritual. Stroll among the flowing water, bridges and ponds of these beautiful gardens.
For more details, check out our complete article on the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden.
The High Level Bridge area
The High Level Bridge is the world’s highest, 96 metres, and longest, 1.6 kilometres, steel trestle bridge. The 1909 rail bridge provided a reliable route for trains carrying coal from the nearby mines to market.
Today, visitors hike the nature trails in the valley below the bridge. Families can also enjoy the nearby Fort Whoop-Up, a reconstruction of a late 19th century trading post.
For more information about a one-day visit to Lethbridge, check out our full article, Things To Do in Lethbridge.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is less than an hour east of Lethbridge.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most outstanding and well preserved First Nation’s bison jump sites in North America. Archaeological evidence shows 6,000 years of human activity in the area.
The impressive 5-level Interpretive Centre provides detailed information about the Plains People, their culture, ceremonies and family life.
The bison was central to the lives of the early Plains People. Exhibits give information about the bison hunt including the set-up of the hunt, the tools used, and how the slaughtered bison was processed into useful items for the community. The terms buffalo and bison are both used but the proper term for the animals is bison.
The film presentation, in the Centre’s multi-media theatre, illustrates how the Plains People conducted the hunt. With large groups of people working together, they developed the highly efficient method of driving a herd of bison over large cliffs. The bison died at the bottom of the cliff. The community gathered at the kill site to process the meat and animal skins.
Outside the Interpretive Centre, nature trails lead to both the base and the top of the cliff. Each interpretive trail provides insight into the efficiency of the hunt.
For more details on this incredible place, be sure to check out our full article about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
An hour to the southwest is a Canadian National Park and the world’s first International Peace Park.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes is a beautiful park located on the Alberta/Montana border. There are a number of excellent hiking opportunities.
The 17-kilometre Crypt Lake Trail is one of the park’s most highly rated trails. Hike through a mountain forest, past waterfalls and up steep slopes on this strenuous, 6-hour trek. Spectacular views of Crypt Lake reward hikers at the end of the climb.
Enjoy the shops and restaurants in the lovely town of Waterton.
Be sure to take the boat cruise on Upper Waterton Lake aboard the HV International. This boat has been in service since 1927. The HV International travels south crossing the USA/Canada International Border. At the south end of the lake is Goat Haunt Ranger Station, a part of the USA Glacier National Park. Canada and the USA are partners in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Back in Waterton, don’t miss visiting the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel. Built in 1927, the hotel has served afternoon tea and top quality meals ever since. Those lucky enough to stay in this seven-storey hotel, will be rewarded with gorgeous views to the south overlooking Upper Waterton Lake.
For more details on how to visit this amazing park, be sure to check out our complete article, Best Things to do in Waterton Lakes National Park.
Leave the park driving north and make a western detour on Highway 3, the Crowsnest Highway.
The area is known as the Crowsnest Pass. The first trains came through in 1898, opening up the area to development. Many coal mines opened between 1900 and 1919. Unfortunately, a few tragic incidents were associated with the mining operations.
Canada’s deadliest rockslide, the Frank Slide, occurred in April 1903. One hundred ten million metric tonnes of limestone slid down the north slope of Turtle Mountain partially burying the mining town of Frank. More that 90 people were killed. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre tells the story of the slide with interactive exhibits and a film presentation.
In 1914, a massive explosion killed 189 out of 228 miners. The Hillcrest mine disaster was Canada’s worst coal mine disaster. The miners were buried locally in 2 mass graves. See the memorial to the 189 miners at the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Cemetery.
Over time coal use decreased as the use of diesel fuel and diesel engines increased. There are no longer any operating coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass.
Turn around and drive east, making a stop at Lundbreck Falls. Enjoy the view of this beautiful 12-metre waterfall from the observation deck.
After a peaceful break, drive Highway 22 north, back to Calgary.
For more great Alberta Road Trips, be sure to check out our article Best Alberta Road Trips.
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