Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Badlands stretch along many river valleys throughout the North American plains, and some of the most spectacular sights are in 7,330-hectare (18,000-acre) Dinosaur Provincial Park, 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Calgary. But the park is best known for being one of the most important dinosaur fossil beds in the world. Thirty-five species of dinosaurs--from every known family of the Cretaceous period--have been unearthed here, along with the skeletal remains of crocodiles, turtles, fish, lizards, frogs, and flying reptiles. Not only is the diversity of specimens great, but so is the sheer volume; more than 300 museum-quality specimens have been removed and are exhibited in museums around the world.

Originally established in 1955 to protect the fossil bonebeds, the park's environment is extremely complex and is unique within the surrounding prairie ecosystem. Stands of cottonwoods, a variety of animal life, and, most important, the extensive bonebeds, were instrumental in UNESCO's designation of the park as a World Heritage Site in 1979. In 1985, the opening of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, 100 kilometers (62 miles) upstream in Drumheller, meant that bones that had previously been shipped to museums throughout the world for scientific analysis and display could now remain within the province. The Royal Tyrrell Museum operates a field station in the park, where many of the bones are cataloged and stored. The displays, films, and interpretive programs offered at the center will best prepare you to begin your visit to the park.


Seventy-five million years ago during Cretaceous times, the area was a low-lying marsh at the mouth of a river flowing into the Bearpaw Sea. The Bearpaw was the last in a succession of vast seas that covered the interior plains for 30 million years. Swamp grasses and reeds grew in the wetlands, whereas on higher ground, giant redwoods and palms towered over a dense forest. Dinosaurs flourished in this subtropical environment. More than millions of years ago, great quantities of silt and mud were flushed downriver, building up a delta at the edge of the sea. In time, this delta hardened, and the countless layers formed sedimentary rock. Soon after, great pressures beneath the earth's surface pushed the crust upward, forming a jagged mountain range that we know today as the Rocky Mountains. This event dramatically changed the climate of the plains region from tropical to temperate, probably killing off the dinosaurs approximately 64 million years ago. From then until one million years ago, the climate changed many times until the first of many sheets of ice covered the plains. As the final sheet receded, approximately 15,000 years ago, millions of liters of sediment-laden meltwater scoured the relatively soft bedrock into an area we know as the badlands. The erosion process continues to this day, no longer by the action of glacial meltwater but by rain and wind. The carving action has created a dramatic landscape of hoodoos, pinnacles, mesas, and gorges in the sandstone here, which is 100 times softer than that of the Rockies. The hills are tiered with layers of rock in browns, reds, grays, and whites. Many are rounded, some are steep, others are ruddy and cracked, but they all have one thing in common--they are laden with dinosaur bones. As the Red Deer River curves through the park, it cuts deeply into the ancient river delta, exposing the layers of sedimentary rock and revealing the once-buried fossil treasures.


Each summer, paleontologists from around the world converge on the park for an intense period of digging that starts in late June and lasts for approximately 10 weeks. The earliest dinosaur hunters simply excavated whole or partial skeletons for museum display. Although the basic excavation methods haven't changed, the types of excavation have. "Bonebeds" of up to one hectare are painstakingly excavated over multiple summers. Access to much of the park is restricted in order to protect the fossil beds. Digging takes place within the restricted areas. Work is often continued from the previous season, or new sites are commenced, but there's never a lack of bones. New finds are often discovered with little digging, having been exposed by wind and rain since the previous season. Excavating the bones is an extremely tedious procedure; therefore, only a few sites are worked on at a time, with preference given to particularly important finds such as a new species. Getting the bones out of the ground is only the beginning of a long process that culminates with their scientific analysis and display by experts at museums around the world.


Much of the park is protected as a Natural Preserve and is off-limits to unguided visitors because current excavations are taking place. The Natural Preserve protects the bonebeds and the valley's fragile environment. It also keeps visitors from becoming disoriented in the uniform landscape and ending up spending the night among the bobcats and rattlesnakes. The area is well marked and should not be entered except on a guided tour. One other important rule: Surface collecting and digging for bones anywhere within the park is prohibited.

Interpretive Programs and Tours

Even though much of the actual digging of bones is done away from public view, the Field Station of the Royal Tyrrell Museum (403/378-4342, July-Aug. daily 8:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sept. to mid-Oct. daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and the rest of the year, weekdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m., adult $3, senior $2.50), organizes enough interesting activities and tours to keep you busy for at least a full day. The Field Station offers many interesting displays, including complete dinosaur skeletons, murals, and models, and is the departure point for tours into the park. The Badlands Bus Tour takes you on a two-hour ride around the public loop road with an interpretive guide who will point out the park's landforms and talk about its prehistoric inhabitants. The Centrosaurus Bone Bed Hike takes visitors on a 2.5-hour guided hike into a restricted area where more than 300 centrosaurus skeletons have been identified. The Camel's End Coulee Hike is an easy 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) guided walk to discover the unique flora and fauna of the badlands. Finally, a tour of the Field Station Laboratory is offered daily at 1:30 p.m. Space on all of these tours is limited. The laboratory tour is $2. Each of the other tours costs $6.50. The tours are very popular, and this is reflected in the procedure for purchasing tickets. Tour tickets go on sale May 1 and must be picked up 30 minutes before the departure time. To reserve a seat, call 403/310-0000 May-Aug. Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Some tickets are reserved for the day of the tour and sold as "rush" tickets (be at the Field Station when it opens at 8:30 a.m. to ensure that you get a ticket). Finally, if seats become available through no-shows, you make snag a seat at the last minute. Documentaries are shown at the Field Station in the evenings, and special events are often staged somewhere in the park. The entire interpretive program operates in summer only, with certain tours offered in late May and September.

On Your Own

You may explore the area bounded by the public loop road and take three short interpretive trails on your own. The loop road passes through part of the area where bones were removed during the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush. By staying within its limits, hikers are prevented from becoming lost, although the classic badlands terrain is still littered with fragments of bones, and the area is large enough to make you feel "lost in time." It's a fantastic place to explore. Of special interest are two dinosaur dig sites excavated earlier this century, one of which contains a still-intact skeleton of a duck-billed hadrosaur. The Badlands Trail is a 1.3-kilometer (0.8-mile) loop that starts just east of the campground and passes into the restricted area. The Coulee Viewpoint Trail, which begins behind the Field Station, climbs steadily for 500 meters (1,650 feet) to a high ridge above Little Sandhill Creek. This one-km (0.6-mile) trail takes 20 minutes. It's easy to ignore the nearby floodplains, but the large stands of cottonwoods you'll see were a contributing factor to the park being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cottonwood Flats Trail starts 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) along the loop road, leading through the trees and into old river channels that lend themselves to good bird-watching. Allow 30 minutes roundtrip.


Accommodations and Camping
The park's campground is in a low-lying area beside Little Sandhill Creek. It has 128 sites, pit toilets, a kitchen shelter, and a few powered sites. Unserviced sites cost $17, powered sites $20. The campground fills up by early afternoon. To book a site, call 403/378-3700. Alternatives are detailed under the Brooks section of this chapter. Aside from the regular motels in Brooks, old-time accommodations are provided at the Patricia Hotel (16 km/10 miles southwest from the park, 403/378-4647). Known for its Western atmosphere, the hotel has basic rooms with shared and private baths from $40 s, $45 d. In the downstairs bar, many of the cattle brands on the walls date back more than 50 years. Choose from buffalo burgers or steaks at the nightly cook-your-own barbecue.
Services and Information
The only commercial facility within the park is the Dinosaur Service Centre (403/378-3777), a fast-food place open limited hours each day. Within the center are laundry facilities and coin showers. No groceries are available in the park.



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