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A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

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If you’re looking for an easy, family-friendly summer adventure in Alberta try canoeing or kayaking the Red Deer River. Although it has a good rate of flow, there are very few, if any rapids to deal with. Your biggest problem will likely be running aground on a gravel bar or slipping on a muddy bank getting out of the canoe.

There are lots of paddling options on the Red Deer River from a one day to a week plus paddle. If you choose the latter you can paddle all the way from Red Deer through to Dinosaur Provincial Park. We just did a weekend trip which was the perfect length as it was about 30°C and there isn’t a lot of shade for long stretches on the river. And any shade you find might have to be shared with cows. Our trip started at Tolman Bridge and ended at Newcastle Park in Drumheller.

Tolman Bridge to Morin Bridge – 22 kilometres

This year Red Deer River Adventures out of Drumheller is offering a shuttle service which makes a weekend trip far easier to organize. John and I along with two friends we talked into joining us left Calgary at 8 AM to arrive in Drumheller for a 9:30 AM shuttle. Our shuttle driver and owner of Red Deer River Adventures, Eric Neumann then filled us in on the area as we drove north for an hour through beautiful canola and flax dotted fields to our launch site near the Tolman Bridge in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park.

Eric, a long-time resident of Drumheller tells our group on the shuttle to the launch site “that you won’t find badlands scenery like this anywhere else in Alberta – and its best appreciated from the water.” He also says the “Red Deer River is a huge ecosystem and we can expect to see loads of bird life including white pelicans, bald eagles, blue herons and red tailed hawks.” He says “bears aren’t really an issue on the river but we’re told if we’re lucky we’ll see mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorns (the fastest terrestrial mammal in North America) and beaver and muskrat.”

We launch our canoes about 11 AM under clear skies. The first few hours of paddling are extremely peaceful, with no signs of anyone else or even civilization. The only thing we have to watch for are rocks. The river is quite shallow and in the first hour there seem to be more large rocks to avoid than at any other time over the two days.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

We start out 2 day canoe trip at Tolman Bridge

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

The morning paddle is lovely – no one around and clear skies

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Gorgeous badlands scenery along the Red Deer River

Eventually we see cows – a recurring sight along the river. We also saw a lone large bull who cried and cried for the females across the river. Poor guy.

You really need to plan ahead if you want a good spot to pull over as there aren’t a lot, especially ones with trees. After a few hours of steady paddling we noticed a large clump of cottonwoods on river right with a wide gravely area to pull in. It was a great place and with lots of shade, it was the perfect place to have a catnap after lunch. We woke to smoky skies that never completely left us.

Suggestion: If you’re paddling a canoe take a full but collapsible stand-up chair for comfort. We had two which we fought over for the entire trip. Also bring a cushion for the rental canoes as the seats will give you a case of numb bum.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

You see a lot of cows along the Red Deer River

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Our lunch spot on the Red Deer River

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Lovely paddling late in the afternoon

By about 5 PM we start to think about finding a campsite. We didn’t really want to camp at the campground at Morrin Bridge though it is an option – and if you haven’t brought drinking water, your only option. Just before the Morrin Campsite are the only rapids of the day; they are minor ones that spit us out a stone’s throw away from the campsite but there are too many people around for our taste so we continue for another 25 minutes until we just about lose sight of the Morrin Bridge. On river left we spot a large flat area with big trees and after investigating, pull over for the night. It turns out to be a great choice as there is lots of flat, grassy ground for the tents and some delightful trails for an evening walk. There is also shade.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

We find a grassy camping area past the campground at Morrin Bridge

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Great hiking behind our campsite provides this overview of our campsite

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Evening light over the Red Deer River

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Some of the dramatic scenery behind our campsite

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

These grasses are alive with birds; on the shrubs at the edge of the grasses look for the prolific Eastern kingbird

Morrin Bridge area to Newcastle Beach in Drumheller – 31 kilometres

After a good night’s sleep (which started off with listening to the coyotes howl) we started the day lazily with multiple cups of coffee, pancakes and a few hours of watching the Red Deer River flow by. When we finally hit the river at 11 AM it was still glassy calm and we had the river to ourselves. In fact we never did see another canoe over the two days though we did see a number of people floating sections of the river.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Morning coffee by the river

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Lovely calm water at the start of the day

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Canoeing in the reflection

We reached the Bleriot Ferry about 90 minutes into the morning paddle. It’s a free ferry that takes trucks, cars, bikes, motorcycles and walk-ons across the river on Highway 838. It takes about two minutes so you don’t have to wait long for it to stop. You’re not supposed to paddle by it if its moving.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

The Bleriot Ferry off in the distance – which uses a a cable system- needs to be stopped before you can paddle by

From there it was a hot paddle until we finally found what looked like a reasonable lunch stop. This time we didn’t have any shade but before starting out again we made sure we and the dogs were wet.

Suggestion: Take a wide brim hat, lots of water and sunscreen. Keep high energy snacks handy in your personal flotation device.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

It can tricky finding a place to pull over for lunch as there is a lot of super slippery mud

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Dogs and humans both need to cool off before hopping back in the canoe

Shortly after the Bleriot Ferry you paddle through Horsethief Canyon – a pretty section that is all too short. Then its many more kilometres of easy paddling though I didn’t find it quite as pretty as earlier sections. Once you reach the train bridge in Drumheller it’s about a 20 minute paddle to Newcastle Beach – located on river right across from the hospital.

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Paddling through the tail end of Horsethief Canyon

A Weekend Canoe Trip on the Red Deer River

Getting a pickup in Drumheller at the end of the trip

Organizing your Red Deer River adventure

  • Red Deer River Adventures out of Drumheller offers canoe and kayak rentals (it includes paddles, personal flotation devices…) as well as a shuttle service. Book the shuttle well in advance. They also offer day trips on the Red Deer River if you’re not interested in camping.
  • The shuttle is $100 plus tax from Drumheller to Tolman Bridge.
  • By law you can camp anywhere below the high water mark, including on islands.
  • Other canoeing options include paddling from Burbank Park in Red Deer to Joffre Bridge – 19 kilometres; Joffre Bridge to Content Bridge – 49 kilometres; Content Bridge to Trenville Park – 19 kilometres; Trenville Park to Tolman Bridge – 36 kilometres.
  • If you live in Calgary purchase a map (but call ahead for availability) from MEC, Undercurrents or Map Town.

Post trip head for burgers in Drumheller at Bernie and the Boys or for a fresh cooked Japanese meal at The Roll.

Thank you to Travel Alberta for making this trip possible and to Eric for providing me with a canoe.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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