The badlands that surround Drumheller are a fascinating mix of arid prairie and deep, dramatic canyon carved over the millennia by the Red Deer River. Two canyons, Horse Thief Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon, drop dramatically downward into the bald prairie; the land is so seamless at the canyon's edges that you can hardly see into them unless you're right on top.
A road called the Dinosaur Trail is a 55km (33-mile) loop that starts west from town along the northern edge of the Red Deer River, crosses the river on the tiny Bleriot car ferry (free), and continues along the south side of the river and back through town.
Along the northern leg of the Trail, you'll pass the Royal Tyrrell and Horse Thief Canyon, a spectacular viewpoint from which you can see deep into the canyon and the badlands beyond, to the west. The name is come by fairly, according to local legend: In the late 19th century, a rancher left his horses in the canyon only to see them disappear. The following season, the horses had returned, sporting a different brand. Horse Thief trails are steep and rugged, and unforgiving for those not in decent shape or wearing proper footwear, so be warned.
The southern leg of the Dinosaur Trail passes by Horseshoe Canyon, the more dramatic of the two and the easier to hike. A network of pathways leads through the spectacular buttes and plateaus carved over millennia by the river, and the badlands stratification is clear to see. You can almost see the history melting away before your eyes.
Closer to town on the South Dinosaur Trail is the site of the annual Canadian Passion Play (tel. 403/823-2001; www.canadianpassionplay.com), where, every July, a local theater troupe recreates the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The site alone is worth a visit: A natural amphitheater of rock and sandstone cradles about 2,500 seats under the colossal skies of the Canadian prairie. Tickets are C$30 for adults and C$15 for children.
The Passion Play Amphitheatre also hosts the annual Beethoven in the Badlands concert, in which the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra travels to Drumheller for a one-night-only engagement (www.cpo-live.com/main). Be sure to check ahead; the 2008 version was cancelled.
A guided tour of the region is a good idea, and the best of them is Wild West Badlands Tours (tel. 888/823-3118 or 403/823-3118; www.wildwestbadlandstours.com). Your guide, Pat Mulgrew, is a long-time badlands resident and a former program director at the prison. He overflows with facts and history, and is a font of knowledge on the region's prehistoric past. Different tours cover the museums, the canyons, a cluster of bizarre sandstone formations called the hoodoos, a couple of authentic western ghost towns (still with a few inhabitants), and a hay ride through a herd of bison at a local ranch. Tours range from 4 to 8 hours; full-day tours are C$40 per adult, C$26.65 for children 7 to 17, or C$104.75 for a family of four.
Another interesting option is the badlands from above: Mountainview Helicopters (tel. 403/286-7186; www.mvheli.com) offers badlands helicopter tours that explore Horseshoe Canyon. No reservations are required; tours run from mid-June to early September. Tickets are C$45 per person, minimum 2 people.
Hammer Head Scenic Tours (tel. 403/260-0940; www.hammerheadtours.com) has 9-hour tours to the Drumheller badlands and the Royal Tyrrell Museum out of Calgary for C$80. Once weekly, the company also runs its van to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for C$85.
Hoodoos -- Formed by natural erosion of Alberta's sandstone landscape, there are formations called "hoodoos" all over the province. But none are as haunting -- or as bizarre -- as the hoodoos that lie outside Drumheller. Ten to 20 feet tall and mushroom-like, they were believed by the local native bands to be petrified giants who came to life at night. Their thick, rounded pillars are capped with an odd brim. They seem like an assembly of close-together mesas in miniature, except for their protruding caps, called a capstone. These formations take millions of years to form, and are thus protected by the provincial government; the examples outside Drumheller aren't guarded full-time, however, and occasionally bear footprints on their capstone -- which, if dislodged, would surely mean their quickly-eroded end. The hoodoos site is located 16km (9 miles) south of Drumheller on Hoodoo Trail (Highway 10).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.