Fuelly Badge


Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Badlands

Not all of southern Alberta's scenery and tourism lies to the west; head east from Calgary through about an hour and a half of open prairie and you will reach "the Badlands". There is plenty to see and do here, and it is much more peaceful than the mountains to the west, which while they are beautiful, can often be overrun like giant ant hills with tourists, campers, climbers, hikers, bikers and hippies.

A wide column stretching up from the US border to around Hanna, the Badlands area covers Milk River, Lethbridge, Brooks and Drumheller, as well as several small villages and ghost towns and thousands of tiny lakes. Millions of years ago, this area was a low-lying tropical swamp, rich with prehistoric flora and fauna... especially dinosaurs. Over millions of years the area became sort of a depression in the prairie, and the Red Deer River carved out a spectacular valley and series of coulees through the soft soil. What remains today is a breathtaking landscape of unique geographical formations. The layers of Earth are clearly visible in the steep valley walls, and otherworldly hoodoos stand guard like ancient stone sentinels.

All those prehistoric plants and animals left behind a wealth of bones and fossils, making this a World-leading destination for paleontologists, many of whom are based out of the Royal Tyrrell Museum near Drumheller. (or Helldrummer as I like to call it... sounds way cooler that way)

The dino remains which weren't preserved left behind another valuable resource: rich, horizontal (easy to mine) seams of semi-bituminous coal. This sparked a "coal boom" in the late 19th and early 20th, which had the area bustling with early settlers looking to make a good living. 139 coal mines were dug in the area and and much of the infrastructure and artifacts have been preserved. When oil was struck a few hours to the north in 1947, it replaced coal as the fossil fuel du-jour of the 20th and the area was largely deserted, leaving little ghost towns scattered about.

All of the valleys and coulees in the badlands have neccessitated some curvy, hilly roads, which make the area all that much more interesting on a motorcycle... especially a big fast fighter-bomber motorcycle. Before I left yesterday morning I sketched out a route on Google Maps which would take me on what looked like the most exciting roads. I would take Country Hills Blvd out of the north of the city, which would become hwy 564. I would follow that right to the "T" at the end, head north 6 or 7 Kms and turn on to 848, which would drop me down into the valley, across an old wood-decked bridge and into the ghost town of Dorothy.  I would head up the 570, which becomes highway 10 leading into Helldrummer for lunch. From there I would ride on the North Dinosaur Trail which curves and climbs out of the valley, then drops back in to cross the Red Deer River at the Bleriot Ferry and becomes the South Dinosaur Trail, leading back into Helldrummer. After that I would leave my options open and figure out a way home.

While I certainly chose an interesting route, I didn't realize that 564 ran out of pavement at the "T", and that 848 wasn't paved either. By the time I got there, my fuel light had started to flash, meaning I had only 1 gallon left to get me 40 miles to the nearest gas station in Drumheller. Interesting indeed. I should have left the house with a full tank, but my last fill-up was in Canmore last week so I started the trip with 100Kms already on the trip counter. It was too late to turn around so I had to ride about 20Kms of gravel road. This is definitely not what the VFR (and its high-performance Dunlop rubber) was meant for but I was interested to see how it would cope. As long as I kept my speed above 30 and kept my body and arms loose to let the bike move around, it was actually pretty easy. It also gave me a chance to test out the ABS. This is my first ABS-equipped motorcycle, and so far in the ~3500Kms I've put on it, I've never engaged the anti-lock. So I practiced spiking the brake lever on the gravel to get a feel for it. I was amazed... the lever just gives a gentle vibe (not unlike my Blackberry on silent mode) and the bike quickly comes to a calm drama-free stop. It's good to probe the limits of the machine... this technology may save my life some day.

Marooned on a gravel road... can`t turn back:

I made my way to Helldrummer and put 16.8 litres of premium in my tank with 286Kms on the trip counter. That's as empty as I've ever had it. A billboard outside of the town told me that if I wanted good food I should go to Bernie and the Boys Bistro.... and who was I to disobey. Bernie's was exactly the type of place I want to find on a solo adventure like this... a charming mom-and-pop hole in the wall diner that served up a mighty-fine bacon cheeseburger.


With a full belly I headed up the Dinosaur Trail, stopping along the way at the HorseThief Canyon lookout and riding the Bleriot Ferry. The Red Deer River isn't very wide or very deep at the ferry crossing.... they probably could have built a small bridge here for less than the cost of keeping the ferry operational but I'm glad they chose not to. The ferry lends a historic charm to the drive.

Royal Tyrrell Museum:

If the VFR1200 were a dinosaur, which one would it be?

HorseThief Canyon:

Bleriot Ferry:

After looping back to Helldrummer I worked my way back towards Dorothy to stop and see some sights that I bypassed on the way in. (I was too focused on getting to a gas station to bother stopping anywhere else) I stopped to walk across an old timber-framed cable suspension bridge in Rosedale. It is one of several such bridges built by mining companies a hundred years ago, but is still maintained and preserved as a functional relic. I also stopped at a roadside-attraction-cum-campsite near Cambria, where sight-seers can hike and play in the hoodoos that stand around a mini canyon. Cocky about my VFR's off-road capability after my ride down the gravel roads earlier, I rode down a potholed dirt trail through a little coulee and back. A guy ambling his way by me in a Jeep gave me a shocked double-take. I must have appeared really lost, but the fighter-bomber and its pilot were fully up to the task.

The VFR out of its element:

Heading further south I stopped at the Atlas Coal Mine near the village of East Coulee for a few quick photos.

Back at Dorothy, it was time to head home but I didn't want to go back the way I came... I had enough gravel for one day. I took a long way home, working my way back to highway 36 up to Hanna and west back to Calgary. I was texting my brother while I fuelled up in Hanna, and I told him that I was in "the home of Nickelback". His response was "quick, take a shit on something!" It wouldn't have done the town any harm... what a dump. I bet those guys were huge losers back in school... not that I wouldn't trade them places. They've found their niche selling millions of shitty albums to white trash the World over. Good for them.

As long as I`ve lived in Calgary I`ve never bothered to tour the Badlands until now. It`s a damn shame, because the area has a great deal to offer. I plan on spending more time a little ways east of Calgary instead of always heading west. The Badlands aren`t bad at all.


This is a montage of my "all-road" riding on the VFR. The first half is the gravel road west of Dorothy (sped up and condensed) and the second half is in the coulee behind the hoodoo park.


This is the Dinosaur Trail, condensed into 5 minutes:


A few more pics...

Wheat on the left, flax on the right:
I couldn't resist riding my 1200 into the knee-high flax field for this image: 
An old truck contrasted against a new motorcycle:
Apatosaurus sculpture in Drumheller:
World's Largest Dinosaur... a cartoonish looking T-Rex standing over Drumheller:
Don't know why but I just love the big green machines:



  1. Your writing is alive in this blog! Fantastic. I want to take Marcelo to the Badlands as soon as we get a chance. Nice photos too. Parabens!

  2. You are such a talented writer - you should be selling this stuff..

  3. Lol, i just saw the Flax field pic. The Veefalo is grazing!

  4. If the VFR1200 were a dinosaur, which one would it be?

    Oooo, Oooo, I know...Veefalosauraus!

  5. Loved the pics, especially the VFR in the flax..Did you do the 7 bridges road?

  6. Great writing, Taylor - Really glad you're enjoying that bike.

  7. It's the 11 bridges road... no, totally missed that. I'll have to make another trip.