It seemed as if we had been driving for hours along the edge of the broad rolling prairies when suddenly we passed into a strange lunar landscape filled with hoodoos, pinnacles, mesas, gorges and scruffy hills lined with colourful layers of exposed rock.
You never forget the first time you lay eyes on the ethereal landscapes of the Canadian Badlands and there is no better way to explore this region of the province than from the comfort of a vehicle.
Summer is the ideal time for road trips and Central Albertans don’t have to go far to experience some of the world’s most amazing drives. So pack up your gear, load the kids in the vehicle, and hit the open road.
Here are three epic road trips that have so much to offer scenically they might even be able to prevent the backseat chorus from chiming: “Are we there yet?”
Located in southeastern Alberta, the Canadian Badlands are as mysterious and compelling as their name implies.
Each hill and rock formation is unique and some have retained the names originally bestowed by First Nations.
It isn’t hard to imagine dinosaurs roaming this otherworldly moonscape and fittingly, the badlands contain one of the richest deposits of dinosaur fossils in the world, protected in a provincial park that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
One of the world’s premiere museums of paleontology is also located in the region, making this a dinosaur aficionado’s dream vacation.
Top sites to consider exploring on a badlands road trip include the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology (tyrrellmuseum.com), the World’s Largest Dinosaur, Atlas Coal Mine (atlascoalmine.ab.ca) and Dinosaur Provincial Park (albertaparks.ca/dinosaur.aspx).
Consider booking a ranger-led hike at Dinosaur Provincial Park. Or for an epic adventure for older teens and adults, book a dinosaur day dig.
Driving distance from Red Deer to Drumheller is about two hours.
For more info on this region, visit www.canadianbadlands.com.
Listed in National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime, the Icefields Parkway is arguably one of the most beautiful highways on the planet. The 232-km stretch of roadway between Lake Louise and Jasper passes more than 100 glaciers, snow-capped mountain peaks, powerful waterfalls, aquamarine lakes and abundant wildlife.
People come from around the world to experience this amazing drive, which is virtually in our backyard.
Top sites to consider exploring on this road trip include Lake Louise, the Columbia Icefield Interpretive Centre, the new cliff-edge walkway known as Glacier Skywalk (www.brewster.ca), Peyto Lake Viewpoint (the highest point on the drive), Athabasca Falls, and the many hiking trails and viewpoints that punctuate the highway.
From Red Deer, you can make a driving loop that passes through Banff and Lake Louise before reaching the Icefields Parkway. The route ends in Jasper where you can travel home via Edmonton or Drayton Valley. The entire loop is about 1,050 km round-trip and there are many campgrounds along the way.
For more information on this drive, visit www.icefieldsparkway.ca or www.pc.gc.ca.
(Note: due to wildfires in Banff National Park, the Bank-Jasper Hwy is currently closed.)
The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park is an 85-km narrow strip of pavement that winds its way along the Continental Divide hugging the mountainsides with tight curves, sheer drop-offs and spectacular views. This engineering marvel was completed in 1932 and is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and a U.S. Historic Civil Engineering Landmark that is also one of the top road trips on the continent.
The road is quite narrow and winding, but the views of waterfalls, glaciers and mountains are spectacular. Be sure to stop at the continental divide and go inside the Logan Pass Visitor Centre. There is a paved trail behind the visitor centre that leads to a nice viewpoint.
It’s about 750-km from Red Deer to Kalispell, Mont., via the Going-to-the-Sun Road. You can stop in Waterton Lakes National Park and take the Chief Mountain border crossing into Montana and Glacier National Park.
Highlights of this journey include Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (history.alberta.ca/headsmashedin), Waterton Lakes National Park (pc.gc.ca), Glacier National Park (nps.gov/glac) and the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
There are plenty of great hikes and campgrounds in both national parks and the shopping is good in Kalispell.
Be aware that there are length restrictions on RVs and trailers for the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Surviving summer road trips with kids
• Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to pull over and make unplanned stops. If you do your road trip right, your children will remember the car ride as much as they do the attraction at the end of the road. Unscheduled bathroom stops are also a reality with children, so you might as well plan from the outset to take longer to get to your final destination.
• Family fun. Games like “the license plate game” or “I spy” can be great fun to play as you travel along together. It’s also a good idea to pack some new colouring books, sticker books, crayons, markers and dollar store games to bring out when boredom strikes. Car songs can also be a fun way to pass the time and the acoustics inside a vehicle could rival any shower stall. Pop in a CD and sing along or enjoy classics such as The Ants Go Marching, On Top of Spaghetti, If You’re Happy and You Know it or You are my Sunshine. Be sure to place limits on singing time to spare the sanity of non-singers or others in the vehicle who may not appreciate your musical stylings.
• High-tech helpers. DVD players, CD players, handheld electronic games and personal music devices can really save the day when children are complaining of boredom, but you may want to consider putting limits on the amount of high-tech time kids get each day. It’s important that they also take some time to enjoy the amazing scenery right outside the car windows.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.