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Fancy a change of scenery this weekend? Well instead of heading west to the Rocky Mountains, why not try going north east where, after an hour and a quarter's drive, the flat prairie land gives way to strange, otherworldly rock formations and striped hills. These are the Canadian Badlands, at the heart of which lies the town of Drumheller in the Red Deer Valley.
Home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology
, this is dinosaur country, a hotbed of fossils since the 19th century. Housing one of the world's largest collections of dinosaur skeletons, the Museum, which is located in Midland Provincial Park is one of the area's main attractions but by no means the only place of interest to visit.
One of the area's economic mainstays in the first half of the 20th century was coal mining, started in the town in 1911 by Colonel Samuel Drumheller, who gave the town its name. Testament to this is the Atlas Coal Mine Museum
in East Coulee 23 km south east of Drumheller along Highway 10. This national historic site is considered to be one of the country's most complete historic coal mines and features Canada's last standing wooden coal tipple, used to transport coal by conveyor belt from the mine to railroad cars.
Guided tours are run throughout the day, including a tour of the tipple building and a look inside part of the tunnel system, where you have to don a helmet with a head torch. You can also take a ride in Linda the Mantrip Locomotive. The guides are young and very engaging, telling spooky stories in the darkened tunnels and actively encouraging children to have a go at changing the points on the rail track or to test the weight of the tools used by the miners.
If you find yourself in need of a bite to eat before or after a tour of the coal mine, head for the Willow Tea Room, housed in the East Coulee School Museum
, a few minutes' drive back up the road, where they serve soup, sandwiches and bread pudding in a former classroom.
The school museum tells the history of the hamlet of East Coulee which saw a surge in local population in the 1930s and 1940s to more than 3,500 with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway to service the coal mining industry, followed by a reversal in fortune and population in the early 1950s when the coal mines closed as gas became the fuel of choice. By the 1970s East Coulee was virtually a ghost town and the school closed. It reopened in 1985 as a museum and today the hamlet has a population of 160.
Heading back to Drumheller along Highway 10, don't miss the hoodoos
on the north side of the road, where you can park and spend time looking at some particularly fine examples of these unusual rock formations on this protected site. Created over millions of years, hoodoos are sandstone pillars, which can stand up to 7m tall, resting on a base of shale and capped with a harder stone. They are formed by the different rates of erosion of alternating soft and hard rock, and can be seen scattered throughout the Badlands of Alberta.
If you happen to be near Drumheller in the middle two weeks of July you can go and see The Canadian Badlands Passion Play
with its cast of hundreds, mostly volunteers, recreating the biblical drama of Christ's life, death and resurrection against a spectacular badlands backdrop, which gives this outdoor theatre production an epic feel. Held every evening with some afternoon performances over a two-week period, come rain or shine, the Passion Play uses professional actors in the major roles – of Jesus and John, for example – and has been named one of North America's top events.
If you enjoy a bit of drama but miss out on the Passion Play you can always pop along to a performance at the Rosebud Theatre
in the hamlet of the same name, 35km south west of Drumheller. This professional rural theatre, with its own resident company of artists, runs at least two shows per season and 'stay and play' packages
including accommodation, dining and theatre tickets are available if you want to make a weekend of it.
For those of you more interested in the great outdoors, why not take a trip to Horsethief Canyon
, 17km north west of Drumheller off Highway 838 and Horseshoe Canyon
, 17km west of the town off Highway 9. Both canyons are splendid examples of a typical Alberta badlands landscape - dry terrain comprising sedimentary rock eroded by wind and water into interesting geological forms, including gullies, ravines and hoodoos.
There are fantastic panoramic views across the top of both canyons and if you are feeling adventurous and are wearing a robust pair of walking boots, you can make your way among the rock formations to the valley below.
These are some of the most interesting places to visit and activities to do in and around Drumheller. You need a car to explore the area properly and to make the most of this wonderful region of Alberta, spend a long weekend there. Otherwise you may find yourself going back for repeat visits.
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