I had heard tales of Dinosaur Provincial Park – tales of striking beauty, badlands history, and incredible photo opportunities. Yet, it took me about 10 months of living in nearby Medicine Hat before I made the trek out there — the decision to go aided by the fact that my younger brother, Garrett, was coming to visit me for a weekend and we both wanted an adventure.
My brother and I were completely wowed by what we found at Dinosaur Provincial Park, both from a historical and scenic perspective. That said, while we took just a day trip to the park, knowing what I do now I’d definitely plan to camp overnight and have two full days to spend in the area — there’s a lot to see.
I visited a lot of cool places in the year I lived in the Alberta Badlands, but this park was one of my faves. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Dinosaur Provincial Park!
What to Expect at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta
Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This designation is no doubt due to the incredible landscapes found here as well as the fact that the park has the world’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils from the late Cretaceous Period (roughly 75 million years ago).
Back then, the scenery was completely different from the arid, badlands landscape we see today. Due to the subtropical conditions, lush forests covered the scene and wild rivers flowed into an inland sea that was filled with all kinds of marine life. Meanwhile, Dinosaurs roamed the area, dominating the land and sky.
Since then, the conditions of the area have changed, all the while preserving the dinosaur bones. To date, over 150 complete skeletons have been discovered, including over 50 species.
Additionally, the rivers that once flowed have dried up and left sand deposits which have eroded, creating the ethereal moonscape that we see today.
If you head to Dinosaur National Park, you’re probably doing so at least partly for the dino’s, of which there are a few. I really enjoyed the complete fossil exhibits on the Fossil Hunter Trail, but it’s honestly so easy to conjure up images of dinosaurs everywhere you look in this dramatic landscape.
While we didn’t partake on this trip, you can also book tours to get up close and personal with dinosaur fossils. This is the only way to see the fossils in the nature preserve.
There are a few key hiking trails at Dinosaur Provincial Park, namely the Badlands Trail, Cottonwood Flats, Coulee Viewpoint, Prairie Trail, and Trail of the Fossil Hunters and, except for Cottonwood Flats, Garrett and I hiked all of them. We found that despite not being too far from each other, the trails were vastly different and offered totally different vibes and info.
Some of the trails are easily reached by foot, but a few of them are best accessed by driving the loop road and then walking from there.
Right by the park entrance, Prairie trail is a short, flat walk that we found to be a good little introduction to the park. This hike is mostly made up of plaques and signs telling you all about the different prairie plants and animals and is great for getting an initial view of the park before you descend into the coulee.
Badlands Trail (1.3 km)
The first trail on the loop road, you’ll find the trailhead for Badlands just up the road from the campgrounds. We liked this trail as not only was it an easy trek, there was a lot of info on the different rock formations and how the area has changed over time. Not to mention, there were a lot of great views along the way!
This trail is right beside Dinosaur Park’s natural preserve, which you’ll need a tour guide in order to see.
Cottonwood Flats (1.4km)
While we didn’t hike Cottonwood Flats, we did drive beside it for almost it’s entire length. This flat, easily walkable, trail runs along the riverside under towering cottonwood trees and is excellent for birdwatching.
You’ll find the trailhead for this hike near the end of the public loop road.
Coulee Viewpoint (0.9km)
My favorite hike in all of Dinosaur Provincial Park, you’ll find the trailhead for Coulee Viewpoint right beside the interpretive center, where you can grab a trail map and fill up your water bottles. The trail itself is full of incredible hoodoos, streams, and rock formations, and has the best views of the coulee in all the park (in my opinion).
Note that this hike is best done during good weather, as you’ll be hiking on sandstone for much of it and there are stairs to conquer.
Trail of the Fossil Hunters (0.9km)
Trail of the Fossil Hunters was largely a dino-oriented experience, the trailhead for which is on the public loop road. This interpretive out-and-back trail had us learning about various fossil hunters from back in the day, and gave us great visuals about how some of the dinosaurs would have died.
There are also two fossil displays to check out on this trail — so if you’re looking to see some excellent displays of dinosaur bones, pretty much exactly as they were found, then this is the trail to hike.
My slight obsession with Hoodoo’s was only exacerbated by wandering around this park. Hoodoo’s consist of both hard and soft rock that has been eroded by wind and water over time, leaving interestingly-shaped spires protruding from the ground. Dinosaur Provincial Park is full of them.
The Hoodoo’s in Dinosaur Provincial Park are most notably seen on Coulee Viewpoint and Badlands Trail and are partially made up of, and surrounded by, soft sandstone.
Things to Know About Dinosaur Provincial Park
When to Visit Dinosaur Provincial Park
Garrett and I visited Dinosaur National Park in late April and found it to be the perfect time to go. The snow had completely melted, the campgrounds and facilities were open, and yet the summer rush was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say there weren’t other people there, there definitely were, but we mostly had lots of space on the trails to roam at our own pace.
I’d expect early fall to be much the same vibe, with tourism dropping off considerably in the winter, though the trails are open year round.
How to Get To Dinosaur Provincial Park
As mentioned above, the park is a two and a half hour drive from Calgary, two hours from Drumheller, and one and a half hours from Medicine Hat. There are guided tours you can take from Calgary that include round trip transportation, which is definitely a fair option, but it’s just as easy to drive there yourself.
Unfortunately, there is no public bus service that goes from the surrounding area to Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Dinosaur Provincial Park Tours
Taking a tour is the only way to see the park’s nature preserve and to get a full, in-depth explanation of the park via a guide. The park offers tours starting in May running until October, and these include the Explorer’s Bus Tour, the Centrosaurus Quarry Hike, and the Fossil Safari.
If you’re looking to get some unreal shots, there are also photography tours that take you around the park and show you the best views the area has to offer.
Facilities at Dinosaur Provincial Park
The park is home to a visitor center containing exhibits, an information desk, bathrooms, a gift shop, and a movie theatre. Just around the corner from that, there is a concession stand with additional bathrooms and a seating area.
Both facilities are open seasonally.
Wildlife at Dinosaur Provincial Park
Before we started out on the trails, Garrett and I visited the interpretive center, where we learned all about the local creepy crawlies. During the summer months, Dinosaur Provincial Park is home to rattlesnakes, scorpions, and black widow spiders.
Rattlesnakes, which are not aggressive and would rather retreat than strike, may or may not warn you of their presence – so make sure you watch where you’re stepping and stay out of tall grass.
In keeping you safe from scorpions and spiders, look before you leap on the trails, shake out your shoes before you put them on, and don’t stick your fingers in any rock crevices. But generally, your chances of running into these critters are slim.
There have also been bear, cougar, and elk sightings in the park, although they generally don’t go where they know people are. The best course of action for these animals is to make noise as you hike so they know where you are and have time to retreat.
Dinosaur Provincial Park Preservation
Not only is the park a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the fossils are also protected under the Historic Resources act, and it’s illegal to remove or deface them. Additionally, much of the park, including the hoodoo’s and sandstone, is delicate and should be treated carefully. Stay on the trails whenever possible, and remember to pack out.
We found the park to be in fairly pristine condition, with no litter or graffiti in sight, which was awesome!
Dinosaur Provincial Park Camping
Both regular camping sites and glamping sites are available in the park from roughly May through October. The glamping sites are made up of wall tents with wood floors, flush toilets, and potable water sinks, while the 120 regular camping sites have unserviced, powered, and pull-through options. Note that the camping sites tend to fill up in the summer and that the nearest grocery store is in Brooks, 48km away.
There are also day-use spots that are free to use and include picnic tables and fire pits.
Have you ever visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta? Let me know in the comments!