Winning Your Heart with Mountains and Hoodoos
The magnificence of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains is world-renowned. Less revered is the prairie landscape yet it offers an austere beauty much on display in southern and eastern Alberta. In theory it’s possible in the course of a day to celebrate both landscapes but in the ideal world you should allow at least four days to enjoy the region.
The three must-see areas that capture both badlands and mountain landscapes are all within a three to five hour drive of each other. Included are Dinosaur Provincial Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. It makes sense to start your trip in either Waterton or Dinosaur as the location of Writing-on-Stone is about halfway between the two.
Waterton Lakes National Park shares a border with Montana’s Glacier National Park in southern Alberta – right where the prairie meets the Rocky Mountains. Though the mountains aren’t as big as in the parks to the north, the hiking experiences rival any you’ll have in Canada.
The Crypt Lake hike regularly gets included in top 10 lists of hikes in Canada – not because it’s the most beautiful hike in the park but on account of the range of experiences you’ll have over its 17.4 kilometre length. Starting with a scenic boat ride, the hike includes an adrenalin filled crossing of a narrow scree slope, an eight foot ladder, a 20 metre tunnel and to cap it all off a narrow rocky trail where a steel cable handhold will give you the allusion of safety. Reach a beautiful turquoise coloured lake before retracing your steps.
There are several other highly worthwhile hikes – the best of which I think is the 20 kilometre one-way Carthew-Anderson trail. With a shuttle you can hike from Cameron Lake past mountains, glaciers, through flower filled meadows and high alpine lakes to arrive back at the Waterton townsite, all in about six hours.
If you’re not into long hikes, take any of the short hikes off either the Akamina Parkway or the Red Rock Parkway.
Located in the magnificent Milk River Valley in an area of prairie grasslands and eroded sandstone formations - Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to the highest concentration of petroglyphs and pictographs on the North American Plains. To get the most from a visit it’s best to combine an expertly guided rock art tour with a hike on the fabulous Hoodoo Trail.
On the rock art tour, history comes alive in a way it never did at school. As you learn the stories about the past 500 – 1000 years and the meaning of the symbols, you’ll undoubtedly understand why the area has had and continues to hold such spiritual significance for the native people.
Don’t miss the easy hike on the 3.5 kilometre Hoodoo Trail. As it follows the Milk River – named for its milky blue colour - through a land of sculpted rock called hoodoos you can have a lot of fun climbing or scrambling on the rocks and checking out the views up and down the river from several vantage points. It’s an otherworldly landscape that just might leave you speechless.
Finish your tour in Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO site because of the sheer number and variety of dinosaur specimens. Not to be confused with Drumheller, home to the Royal Tyrell Museum and two hours away, it’s an area that deserves a visit for its impressive badlands scenery alone. And even if you’re not that interested in dinosaurs (and chances are you will be after a tour) there is plenty to explore for a day or even two if you avail yourself of several of the guided tours. Sign up in advance so you can access areas that are otherwise off-limits. Even better, spend a night and try the comfort camping so you can sleep in a tent with a good mattress, a refrigerator and a cooling fan - something you’ll be thankful for when the temperatures climb into the high 30’s.
Tours get you into the backcountry. They provide a fabulous opportunity for hiking among wildly eroded buttes and hills that beg to be explored and photographed. Colours are mind-blowing especially at sunset. And on the Great Badlands hike, once you know what to look for, you’ll feel like a real archeologist finding dinosaur bones, turtle shells and crocodile skeletons.
Approximately six kilometres of front-country hiking is also possible. Some of the trails get you into the badlands while others take you along the river amongst giant cottonwood trees with stories to tell.
From Waterton Lakes National Park to Dinosaur Provincial Park, southern Alberta offers the visitor an array of interesting landscapes that will win your heart.