advertisement

Located 130km (81 miles) northeast of Calgary in Alberta's badlands, the Drumheller Valley is one of the premier dinosaur-fossil hunting places on earth. It wasn't always so, though. In the 1930s, Drumheller was a boomtown of a different sort. Rich in coal deposits throughout the surrounding badlands, it swelled to more than 30,000 people. But after a few fruitful decades the coal was all but mined out, and the town was dying. Desperate for a new anchor industry, in 1967 a large federal prison became the town's largest employer.

But the town was overlooking something else, buried in the ground. Seventy-five million years before, an extraordinary range of dinosaurs roamed the badlands -- so named for its rough, difficult-to-farm soil, though at the time it was largely an inland sea. The first discovery, by James B. Tyrrell in 1884, was an enormous skull of a predator, the Albertosaurus. The rich prehistoric resource hovered in the background for decades, though, as industry took hold, even though paleontologists from all over the world had made Drumheller a center of study. Then, in 1985, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology opened, and Drumheller was truly open for the dinosaur business. About half a million visitors make their way here each year now, drawn largely to the museum and such sites as Horse Thief and Horseshoe canyons -- where, until recently, a casual meander along one of its hiking trails would yield pocketfuls of dinosaur bone fragments. The fossils are still there, but be warned: the province states that "all fossils in or on the ground are owned by the province." Taking them constitutes theft. So look, touch, but leave them in peace.