“But it’s a dry heat.”
In my estimation, these words are worthy of a thorough flogging with a filled, 2L water bottle. I’ve lived in both humid climates and arid climates and I can assure you hot is hot. That glowing yellow ball of fusion in the sky doesn’t care how moist the atmosphere is in any particular location, it just relentlessly beats down on the nearly-hairless apes cavorting below. In fact, what really makes a difference when it comes to comfort in the heat is trees. Give me a towering maple to snooze under and I don’t care how muggy it gets. But take that glorious shade away and you might as well stick me in an oven and set it on broil. Which all but begs the question, how the hell did we end up on a treeless site at Dinosaur Provincial Park?
I put much effort into site selection, when possible, to obtain not only a premium location for proximity to campground facilities and amenities and avoidance of external noises but also shelter from the sun. This is a must when camping on the Prairies where trees can be sparse and the sun can be harsh. The area around Brooks, Alberta checks both those criteria emphatically, and the riverside campground within Dinosaur Provincial Park, part of the Red Deer River badlands, is a rare oasis with its towering cottonwood trees shielding most of the campsites. Most, but not all. Ours was decidedly barren of anything taller than a stunted shrub and for the life of me I don’t know why I picked it when confirming our reservation three months prior. I do know I will never make that mistake again!
My god was it hot. For most of a day, anyway. It was early June, only a month since the last of the snow left us from our prolonged winter, and the sun was blazing full blast, warming up the air to a toasty 31 degrees Celsius. Even the wind was moisture-suckingly warm, revealing zero relation to the refreshingly cool breezes coming in from the mountains we typically get in Calgary. This is my absolute least favourite type of weather; hot, sunny and windy.
Thankfully, hot and sunny on the Prairies often leads to one of my favourite types of weather and our first camping weekend of 2018 was no exception as a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in and dropped a welcome deluge of relief on Dinosaur Provincial Park. It was a fairly mild storm, as far as noise and light show goes, but the wind was pretty wicked for a short while. This was followed by a brief pause before milder but persistent showers settled in for a few hours. Not exactly the best camping weather, but considering we were taking our brand new Geo Pro camper out for its maiden voyage, it allowed us a quick test of structural soundness for both leaks and the ability to stay upright in strong winds. It passed on both accounts and I have to admit it was a damn sight better than continuing to sit under the sun on our wasteland of a campsite.
There was also this absolutely amazing reward afterwards:
Of course, weather is hardly under the control of any given campground so forgive me if I’m starting this review in a negative light. Dinosaur Provincial Park, located 200 km east of Calgary, is both a gem of the Alberta provincial parks system and a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a testament to the beauty of bleakness that Nature sculpts from rock with only water and wind as tools. You just need to bring lots of sunscreen. And a hat. And sunglasses. And a water bottle.
We had long wanted to camp at Dinosaur, hearing great things from friends for years. A sort of southern twin to Royal Tyrrell Museum, the lure of thunder lizards is an easy sell to kids and kids-at-heart. Finally we took the plunge and while Dinosaur lived up to its sterling reputation, we probably should have visited earlier in our camping career. Going a short two months after our astonishing March break adventures in Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon, I have to be honest and say that the Alberta badlands comprising this splendid park felt a tad underwhelming. Had we gone to Dinosaur any time prior to March 2018, I would have been bowled over with excitement at the geology surrounding us. Instead I felt a little unimpressed, memories of our trip still fairly fresh in my mind. This is wholly unfair and akin to judging my sex appeal a few weeks after hooking up with Chris Hemsworth, but alas I can’t change the past woe though I would if I could.
Nonetheless, we enjoyed our weekend at Dinosaur Provincial Park and will definitely make a return trip in the future. As mentioned above, the campground itself is nestled in the heart of the park amongst the hoodoos, alongside the Red Deer River. Sites are variable in size but few are what I would describe as small. There isn’t much privacy, per se, but they aren’t crammed together either, which is nice. Most sites are either treed or partially-treed by giant Cottonwoods giving plenty of shade and cover from the sun. But again, not all sites share this needed shelter.
There are a handful of sites that have no cover whatsoever and somehow I ended up with one of these. For the life of me I don’t know how. A subset of these unsheltered sites have trellises built over the picnic tables providing a partial shade effect or enabling campers to affix a tarp for additional cover. Personally, I would still try to avoid these sites but they were better than the one we had with nothing but clear skies overhead.
Dinosaur has 93 powered sites and 29 un-serviced sites, none of which have water or sewer. Fresh water is available at faucets located around the campground, typically near the pit toilets. The dump station also has fresh water for filling up your RV tanks. The dump station is free to use and there are two outlets. We had no wait upon our exit Sunday. Pit toilets were clean and relatively benign, but it was only June.
For those who prefer a more modern bathroom experience, or simply want to wash off all the sunscreen and bug spray you applied during the day, a large shower house with flush toilets and sinks is located near the entrance, attached to the check-in office and café. These facilities are accessible 24 hours from the outside but also from the inside during the day time. Showers are $1 for 2 minutes worth of water. A small laundromat can also be found here for those staying longer than a weekend and needing to refresh their clothes. This is most welcome considering the amount of sweat you are likely to produce while hiking in the heat.
For those without camping gear or not wanting too rustic an experience, Dinosaur Provincial park also has a handful of comfort camping tent-cabins for rent. I’ve never used these but they always seem to be filled wherever we camp. They strike me as a nice compromise for those wishing to get out into nature but without the desire to invest much in RV equipment.
If you are camping with friends, you might prefer the single group site available at Dinosaur. It’s immediately adjacent to the south end of the campground. It’s private but not isolated and comes with a cook shelter, pit toilets, and room for several campers in a fairly nice treed area.
The Cretaceous Café is a handy little convenience store and restaurant that doubles as the check-in office for campers. They have typical sandwiches, burgers and fries type fare along with hard ice cream which is a damned delight on a hot afternoon. There is an indoor food court style eating area that is air conditioned as well as an outdoor picnic area. Pop and a few candy items along with minimal camping necessities like green propane bottles and such can also be purchased here.
A good-sized, metal playground is located near the café also beneath the comforting protection of those towering Cottonwoods allowing the kids a great place to play in the shade. My kids, sadly, felt that the playground wasn’t up to their standards which struck me as surprising since it looked like the type they usually adore. I don’t think this is a failing of the playground but rather a reflection of their shifting tastes as they age. There were always many youngsters enjoying themselves on the playground whenever we passed by so it obviously appeals to less-finicky kids.
A short walk towards the river from the playground brings you to a lovely day use area that includes picnic facilities, an amphitheatre, and a hand launch into the river. The picnic areas are quaint. I have no idea what the amphitheatre is used for, if anything, as I found no information posted during my brief look-around. The hand launch is pretty much a sloped, muddy drop into the river. This is definitely not viable for real boats or anything requiring a tow. Canoes, kayaks, and dinghies are pretty much all you’ll want to attempt launching here and really, I don’t know why you’d try anything else in this part of the Red Deer River anyway.
Fishing along the river bank or wading out to fly fish are also appealing activities, I assume. The water was flowing quite swiftly this time of year and is fairly muddy so we didn’t see anyone doing this. Maybe they don’t? I’m not a fisherman so I’m just speculating. I guess the bigger point here is that powerboating and swimming aren’t what you do for water sports at Dinosaur.
If paddling isn’t of interest, then you likely came for the hiking. Trails abound, both official, tended trails and rough, jaywalker paths. They circumnavigate the campground and spider out into the surrounding badlands offering multiple pathways up onto the hills and hoodoos surrounding the campground as well as longer, adventures into the greater park area. When the weather is nice you will see plenty of campers scrambling upwards for spectacular views of the park and badlands.
Hiking is enjoyable on its own, of course, but you can’t help but be drawn in by the lure of finding dinosaur bones. This isn’t a provincial park and UNESCO world heritage site for nothing. With a little guidance on what to look for, you will soon find yourself picking up fossilized bone fragments all over the place as the hoodoos continue to erode. We found a few shards in the hills between the campsites and the café. You can’t keep these and these trails are so well traveled I imagine the odds of finding a major find are quite slim, but venture outwards and away from the core activity area of the campground and paleontological wonders potentially await.
It should be noted that Dinosaur Provincial Park is an active research facility tied to the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. There is a small compound of portable buildings where researchers live during work season. There are also restricted areas of the park where you are unable to explore without a guide or as part of a paid excursion. My wife, a geologist, was lucky enough to partake in a work-sponsored field trip in the days prior to our arriving for camping and she had access to these restricted areas and came away with many cool pictures of dinosaur fossils exposed in all their ancient glory. The kids and I were plenty jealous!
Thankfully, the park does offer a couple ways for you too, to witness the reason for the park’s very existence. If money is tight, a free, 3km, self-guided driving loop accessed from the campground takes you on a short tour of the badlands. There are a couple trailheads on the loop as well as two fossil sites to stop and gaze at. The two fossil sites are pretty cool. The first is a hadrosaur find and the second is a centrasaurus bone bed (recreation). Both are housed in shelters and you can view the in situ finds through glass walls while also getting out of the sun. It’s not quite the same as finding a never before seen dinosaur fossil but it’s also an interesting change from the typical posed skeletons in museums. I think everyone wishes to see a dinosaur in its natural discovery environment and this is a close, free approximation of just that.
However, if you absolutely need the real deal, there are paid options available to you at Dinosaur PP. These range from a two hour bus tour to a short, guided hike into a restricted zone to multi-day excavation packages where you partake in an authentic dinosaur dig. We didn’t do any of these so I can’t speak to any of them specifically, but they strike me as spectacular opportunities. We will surely be returning to enjoy some of them in the future, hopefully when the weather is forecast to be cloudy and comfortable. Prices range from $15 per person to a couple hundred for the elaborate excavation packages. Keep in mind that when the weather turns wet, as it did on the Sunday, some of these trips get cancelled or changed due to difficulty navigating the slickened slopes.
These tours can all be purchased and begin at the Visitor Centre, a small museum located just up the road from the Café. Along with information about the park and a Gift Shop, the Visitor Centre houses a small dinosaur museum. It’s a mini-Tyrrell with several dinosaur displays and cost a total of $15 for the four of us to enter. There is also a theatre that runs a continual loop of park related films, ranging in length from about a minute to thirty or so. There is no real schedule to these vignettes. They just run in a continuous loop, the entirety of which is over 3 hours in duration. I guess it’s an interesting way to escape the sun for awhile but with no time schedule I’m not sure how you are to make plans to watch any specific show. The ones running when I peaked in the door didn’t even have narration. They looked pretty but really weren’t a draw. Not surprisingly the theatre was empty but for me and an older couple.
As you might imagine, all this hiking and paddling rather than boating and beaches lends to a slightly different type of camper at Dinosaur Provincial Park. We readily noticed a greater concentration of tenters and smaller trailers than is typical in Alberta, not to mention a younger crowd as well. It wasn’t a rowdy crowd, so don’t worry that this is a party spot. It was just nice to see young people out camping together and enjoying nature that weren’t begrudgingly present as part of families. And, yeah, it’s always nice when we aren’t the only people camping in a small trailer that doesn’t require a giant pick-up truck to tow.
Despite the hot, dry location we were still able to have a bonfire, or we would have had the rain not arrived in the evening. Firewood can be purchased at the café/check-in building or, apparently, at a self-serve, credit card operated wood dispensing device within the campground. I have never seen one of these before. I did not try it so I have no idea how much wood you actually get for $9 but it’s an interesting machine.
They also water the campground. In-ground and mobile watering infrastructure was visible everywhere along with tell-tale puddles indicating that they make an effort to keep this treed oasis green all summer. This too I’ve never seen at a provincial park before and it surprised me a bit though I imagine in the dead of summer, the green grass is a welcome change from the hardened rock all around.
There is free Wi-Fi emanating from the café and the visitor centre. Neither signal made it to our site at the far south end of the campground but those situated closer might pick it up. If not, you have a perfect excuse to go for a short walk to catch up on social and if you’re lucky you will stumble into an amazing sunset like I did. Cell coverage is also spotty, depending on your provider. If you go up to the top of the hills it comes back but in the valley … good luck.
So, what’s my final verdict? That’s a little tricky on account of my personal quirks. Dinosaur Provincial Park deserves a solid 4.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I recommend it for families, couples, and singles alike. The geology and paleontology are terrific, not to mention the hiking. You have all the facilities available for a comfortable weekend of camping and the trees give the campground a wonderful oasis-like feel in an otherwise stark landscape. But, man, that heat! Come, but come prepared. And do whatever possible to avoid an non-treed campsite.