Alberta Road Trip: Searching for Birds, Badlands & Buffalo Jumps
For an Alberta road trip that doesn’t involve mountains, head east where you can find birds if you’re lucky, badlands and buffalo jumps.
That’s exactly what John and I did just a few weeks ago. We decided it was time to explore some new country and see parts of Alberta that don’t get the attention that the mountains get.
We left Calgary and headed east on the Trans-Canada until we reached Strathmore. We figured since we were in the area that we’d check out Eagle Lake and Namaka Lake – supposedly two birding hotspots. Namaka Lake is reportedly one of the best places near Calgary to see shorebirds and waterfowl but there didn’t seem to be access to the lake despite there being a big sign detailing the commonly sighted birds. And access to Eagle Lake also seems to be restricted. In short order we gave up.
But at least the horses seemed interested in getting their picture taken.
Not much in the way of birds but lots of horses
The ponds around Eagle Lake are devoid of birds but some birds could be seen on Eagle Lake itself
Nice signs but no trail at Namaka Lake
From Namaka Lake we returned via backroads to the Trans-Canada Highway. We decided we’d head to the badlands near Drumheller via a side-trip to Rosebud - a small community known for its’ theater – the largest rural professional theater in Alberta. Rosebud is a pretty place set among rolling hills where haying was in full swing. For a hamlet of roughly 100 people it’s got its fair share of B&B’s as well as a few restaurants and cafes, though on a Sunday none appeared to be open. I’d like to return for a night at the theater.
Haying season in Alberta
A cafe in Rosebud, Alberta
Our next stop was Horseshoe Canyon, located just off Highway 9, about 17 kilometers before you reach Drumheller. It’s a popular spot for the view and the hiking. The trail descends about 60 meters into the canyon and from there a number of visible paths lead you further into the canyon. If it rains they are exceedingly slick.
We’d brought a lunch with us but next time I’d plan to eat in Drumheller at a family run restaurant called Athens located at 71 Bridge Street. I’ve been told by Judy from Canadian Road Stories that their Greek food is very good.
On this road trip we didn’t allow for a stop at the Royal Tyrell Museum - the world’s premier dinosaur museum. We’ll save that trip for a rainy weekend.
Looking down into Horseshoe Canyon
Walking the trails at the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon
It was after 1 pm by the time we left Horseshoe Canyon. My goal for the day included a visit to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, still a 90 minute drive away. We decided to go for it – even though it meant a great deal of driving. Fortunately the backroads are quite pretty, especially when you descend or ascend from the Red Deer River. The roads we took were through places I’d never heard of before – Rumsey, Trochu and Huxley. All offered scenes of big skies, and in some sections the road ran beside ponds filled with birds.
Big skies of Alberta
Grain elevator in the town of Trochu
The approach to Dry Island Buffalo Jump is via 17 kilometers of good gravel road off of Highway 21, just south of Elnora, another hamlet I’d never heard of.
From the overlook the scene below unfolds offering big drama especially in the fall. This buffalo jump is the most northern of the ones around. The most famous one – Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump - a UNESCO site several hours south of Calgary – isn’t nearly as high. Most jumps are in the range of 8-15 meters; this one is huge in comparison at 45 meters.
Dry Island Buffalo Jump was used at least four times between 700 and 2800 years ago. Remnants of tools and pottery have been found at the site.
You can drive down to the Red Deer River from the overlook on a very steep gravel road. It’s not recommended in wet weather and trailers are forbidden. It’s possible to camp by the river but there aren’t any hiking trails per se. It is however a great spot to launch a canoe; in fact we met two women who had paddled all day – actually paddled and walked their canoe since water levels were low – and were spending the night in the park.
Fall colours at Dry Island Buffalo Jump
The Red Deer River flows through the park
Looking over the 45 meter buffalo jump
Unfortunately the drive home on Highway 2 wasn’t nearly as interesting as all the backroads we took. But apart from Highway 2 I think there is a quiet beauty on the prairies and it’s worth taking the time to explore.
Fields of golden hay
For more travel inspiration check out Nancie’s Budget Travelers Sandbox.
Do you have a favourite Alberta road trip?
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