by Dr. Robert Berdan
September 1, 2016
Hiker looking over Horseshoe Canyon from the South rim near the first parking lot
Alberta offers a number of places to hike and photograph the Badlands including, Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks, Red Rock Coulée south of Medicine Hat, Writing-on-Stone near the Montana Border, Drumheller, the Red River Valley, Horsethief Canyon, Dry Island Buffalo jump and other more obscure locations. One of the easiest Badlands to visit is Horseshoe canyon located only a 90 min trip from Calgary. You can also head on afterwards into Drumheller which is 17 km east.
Horseshoe canyon is located along highway 9 - it is well marked and there is even a fossil shop and helicopter rides from about 10 am until about 7 pm in the summer. The helicopter rides are provided by Mountain View Helicopters and their prices are quite reasonable $55\person for 5 minutes (min of 2), about double the cost for 10 min etc. They accommodated me by taking the door off one side so I didn't have to photograph through the glass.
View from the south side of Horseshoe Canyon looking north
Looking west over Horseshoe canyon you can see highway 9 on the left and the first parking lot
This view is from east of the Canyon and shows most of it with branches leading north - you can see the two arms that from the horseshoe shape.
Here is an aerial view from the south west looking north east of the Canyon
If you plan to take pictures on the helicopter the best time to do this is early morning or later in the day when the angle of the sun creates shadows and gives the badlands a more three dimensional appearance. Also I recommend a wide angle zoom lens with a polarizer. I used a 20-35 mm zoom lens on my Nikon D800 camera.
Horseshoe canyon gets its name from its horseshoe shape defined by two coulées (drainage ditches) that flow into the Kneehills creek, a tributary of the Red Deer river. The canyon's two arms are approximately 5 km long. The canyon is composed of mudstone, sandstone, carbonaceous shales and coal seems. There are three unique habitats. At the top is prairie, along the banks are wooded coulée slopes and the bottom consists of badlands. Trees include white spruce and shrubs - wild rose and Saskatoon bushes. There are some cacti and seven species of sagebrush. Some flowers include prairie crocus in spring, and other hardy species (see below). Common wildlife includes mountain bluebirds, garter snakes and mule deer. If you go hiking into the valley in summer bring mosquito repellent.
Prickly-Pear Cactus (Opuntia polyacantha)
Smooth Blue American-Aster (Symphytrichum laeve)
Hairy False Golden-Aster (Heterotheca villosa)
Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is common and grows in the bottom and along the slopes of the badlands. Sagebrush has a strong pungent fragrance (especially when wet) due to the presence of camphor, terpenoids and other volatile oils. It is an evergreen shrub, keeping some of its leaves year-round (although it loses many of them in the late summer). It has the ability to root quickly into the eroding soil on the edges of the canyon.
Sign next to the first parking lot where most folks stop to look over the canyon.
Fossil and Gift Shop at the Edge of the Canyon
Fossil shop has numerous stones and other collectibles for sale.
There are several trails leading down into the canyon and some of them are steep. Walking poles are helpful. The best time to hike is in the morning or later in the evening in summer. After 11 am it starts to get very warm in the canyon. When you hike into the front part of the Canyon there is a section with hundreds of inukshuks that people have built though its best to only take pictures and not disturb the landscape.
Inukshuks that people have built
The terrain is typical badlands with rills in the sides of the hills from erosion.
As you leave the first parking lot, turn left onto a dirt road and it winds around to the back of the canyon where you can see views like that below.
Panoramic photo from the back of the canyon (see aerial map below to see where this was taken).
If you go left of the Helicopter pad from the first parking lot there is a short dirt road that will bring you to a Nature Conservancy of Canada sign. Turn right and a few hundred yards up you will find a parking lot. There aren't any signs pointing you to this part of the canyon (yet) and I only learned about it recently. Some photos of this part of horseshoe canyon are shown below.
Nature Conservancy sign leading to the back part of Horseshoe Canyon
Once at the Nature Conservancy parking lot, you can hike along the ridge of the canyon until you come to a path leading down into the canyon with a sign - Caution Enter at your own risk.
Sign in front of the trail that leads down into the canyon. The Nature conservancy is restoring the native grasses on the prairie above the canyon and includes some informative signs about the wildlife and geology of the area.
Carys Richards overlooking the back of Horseshoe Canyon
My wife Donna pointing toward the back part of Horseshoe canyon.
View of badlands from adjacent to the Nature Conservancy Parking lot.
Hiking in the back part of the Canyon
Some landowners and an ongoing partnership with EnCana has enabled the Nature Conservancy of Canada to restore parts of the backside of Horseshoe canyon and make it accessible to the public (see link to Nature Conservancy below for more information).
Satellite image of Horseshoe canyon (courtesy Google Maps). Highway 9 is at the bottom and north is at the top.
Horseshoe canyon is a great place for a half day hike to see the badlands, some wildlife, and native plants. The area would also make a great night sky preserve and I have been thinking of driving there some evening and camping in my car and bringing my camera and telescope. It's also close enough to Drumheller that if you preferred to sleep in comfort you can always get a motel room and restaurants are plentiful in Drumheller. Of course if you travel this way I also recommend visiting the Tyrrell Museum and other attractions in and around Drumheller. RB
Driving Directions to Horseshoe Canyon from Calgary
1. From Calgary, travel on Highway 2 north.
2. Take Highway 72 east through Beiseker. The road becomes Highway 9. After 43 kilometres, the highway turns north.
3. Watch for the Horsehoe Canyon signs and turn west (left) onto Township Road 284.
4. Continue past the first parking lot, then turn north (right) past the helicopter pad, and follow the road into the parking lot of the NCC's Nodwell-Horseshoe Canyon property.
Google Map - Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon Geology & Dinosaurs - Wikipedia
Horseshoe Canyon - Nature Conservancy of Canada
Horseshoe Canyon for Geology Geeks - PDF
Mountain view helicopters
Royal Tyrrell Museum
Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training.
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