Jurassic Badlands!

Visitor's Centre at Dinosaur Provincial Park
Readers of this blog know that many of my travels include and are inspired by my eight-year-old grandson. You also know that camping is one of his new favorite things to do. What else do eight-year-old boys like? Rocks, dirt and dinosaurs! This makes Dinosaur Provincial Park a perfect spot for a mini staycation.

This park is not located near Drumheller, Alberta as some folks assume, that is where you will find the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, another fantastic place to visit in southern Alberta. Dinosaur Provincial Park is located north of Brooks, Alberta, about a two and a half hour drive from Drumheller. I think part of the confusion comes from the Royal Tyrrell Field Station being located at Dinosaur Park. In fact, the park’s visitor centre is built around the field station and can be visited during certain registered programs. Imagine the excitement of working at a bench right next to a group of paleontologists! Not something you get to do every day (unless you are a paleontologist yourself I suppose).

Step one for camping at Dinosaur Park during the summer is to check their availability calendar. This park accepts online reservations from Victoria Day through Thanksgiving (check to be sure as these dates are subject to change) and I strongly suggest you do so to ensure a spot. The $12.00 registration fee is more than worth it as we saw a number of potential campers disappointed and turned away because the campground was full. I would hate to be the parent who has to tell their child they won’t be “sleeping with the dinosaurs” because we forgot to make a reservation. Not a recipe for happiness.

View from our campsite
Another benefit of making a reservation is choosing your preferred site. Most are nicely shaded by the centuries old Cottonwood stand that grows in the riparian habitat of the Red Deer River but there are some that back up to the hills and feature a wooden pergola for shade. Personal preference and camping equipment will influence your choice and booking early will help ensure that you get the site that works best for you.

We were camping in tents so looked for a grassy, shady spot that was not too far from drinking water and bathrooms (vault toilets). We were able to find a site that worked for us a little over two weeks ahead of our visit but we could have had more shade if we had booked earlier. We also considered booking one of their “comfort camping” tents for the night all of the girls would be at the park but found these are booked well in advance. They look quite nice and are great for the person who doesn’t want to have the hassle of setting up a tent for a night or two.

One you have your site booked, the next step is to decide whether or not you plan to participate in one (or more) of the many interpretive programs at the park. There are a number of family and children’s programs plus some that are targeted to teens and adults. As with the campsites, these programs book up quickly so we like to make our plans early. The Alberta Parks website provides good descriptions and an online booking system.

Handling real fossils
Since this was our staycation we decided to book a number of activities. These included indoor fossil casting and outdoor bus tours into the preserve. Although we made our choices to focus on what would be fun for the boy, we found the adults enjoyed them as well. Having the opportunity to handle real fossils is very cool whatever your age and the bus tours take you into areas where the vistas are
breathtaking. It struck me during one of the walks how fortunate we are to live so close to this world treasure and yet many of us take it for granted or don’t ever visit.

During our visit to Dinosaur we had a few very rainy days that seriously dampened (pardon the pun) our fun. Unfortunately, it caused the cancellation of the sunset photography tour that I had really been looking forward to as the roads and pathways become dangerously slippery. There was also an indoor alternate program to replace the Fossil Safari. We were all disappointed to miss this hands-on opportunity to discover the Park’s wealth of fossils and learn more about how to find fossils and identify their origins. We were able to find a few fossils that we photographed on our Explorer’s Bus Tour so that made up for the missed trip a bit. It does give us a reason for another visit soon.

There are free programs offered at the park as well. On the Friday evening during our stay there was a bat talk given in the visitor centre and on Saturday night we enjoyed a live “Broadway in the Badlands” performance in the amphitheatre. This was a great one-hour family show that mixed entertainment with education and some curious characters. These shows run every Saturday night during July and August. There are also Family Theatre programs in the Visitor Centre during the summer months that are included with admission.

On sunny days the playground is a lot of fun.
Another feature of Dinosaur Provincial Park is the Cretaceous Café. This busy little diner offers reasonably priced meals and features hand scooped ice cream cones. This is a definite plus on the typically hot days of southern Alberta summers. It was a great place to gather on our rain day as well. It just isn’t any fun to try to cook a meal in the pouring rain when you are tenting, especially when the wind picks up and your screen tent decides to pick up with it. The children’s menu offers dino buddies that were a big hit with the boy as we adults enjoyed a clubhouse sandwiches.

The café is housed in the same building as the showers and laundry and has wifi. As I’m sure you can appreciate, mud and a young boy make for a number of Tide challenges so being able to enjoy a coffee while catching up on emails as I waited for the rinse cycle was great. There is also a grassy area with picnic tables behind the building where you can access the wifi while your kids enjoy the well maintained playground nearby.

We’re already looking forward to our next visit!

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