Dinosaurs, the Rockies, and beef. Those are the first few things that come to mind when I think about the province of Alberta. For years, I have wanted to visit this great province but I really wanted to see the Rocky Mountains. I’ve seen countless documentaries and TV shows about the Rockies but I never had the opportunity to explore them firsthand. That was going to change as we crossed the border from Saskatchewan and into Alberta.
Our time in Alberta was to going to see us in Calgary, Jasper, & Banff. Much like a lot of our cross-country journey, that changed.
Our first stop in Alberta was at a campground in Cochrane, just outside of Calgary. To get there, we did our longest day of travel to date. We left from Regina early as the weather forecast was calling for snow in Saskatchewan later in the day. One of the goals of our full-time RV lifestyle was to avoid the snow. We’re done with it. To avoid the snow, this meant driving over 800km throughout the day to get to Cochrane before sunset.
While a lot of people told us that driving through Manitoba and Saskatchewan would be more boring than watching paint dry, they were wrong. We quite enjoyed the drive and scenery through those provinces. Yet, once you cross from Saskatchewan into Alberta it all changes. The drive from the Alberta border to Calgary was a true bore. The landscape is more flat than most of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. There aren’t any of the beautiful farmer’s fields or the odd grain elevators that dot the Saskatchewan & Manitoba landscape. Rather, the fields are dry & vast. Nothing catches your eye aside from the odd cow or oil pump pulling up the black gold from below.
Even though our drive to Cochrane was far from exciting, we knew that was going to change over the next handful of days as we would get to experience some of the province’s more beautiful areas.
Arriving into Cochrane was a bit of an adventure. Kate had driven throughout most of our long & boring drive through Alberta, but near the end of the journey I took over. Our route took us on a bypass around Calgary which was great since we were driving through at rush hour. It was still a touch chaotic at times but we got through with no issue. Instead, the issue decided to wait until Cochrane.
As we were driving towards Cochrane, we didn’t notice how much we were climbing in elevation. Just before you approach the city, you’re essentially on top of it looking down on the city. To get to where we were camping, this meant a descent. Likely because we were a bit worn-out from the long drive, we both failed to notice the signs to use lower gears when descending into the city.
The slow descent into the city is beautiful, but it did a number on our brakes because I failed to shift down into 3rd or 2nd. Instead of riding the brakes, which I know is terrible, I tapped them as we made the descent. At last, we were at the bottom of the long decline sitting at stop lights waiting to turn. That’s when I saw a large cloud of smoke emit from the front of the truck. At first, I thought it was the engine but Kate knew right away that it was the brakes. Not good. Thankfully, we only had a couple of kilometers to go before arriving at our campground.
Afterwards, we studied a bit online about downshifting on grades. I also consulted with my RVing pal Eric who said he had a similar incident happen to him when driving through Yosemite. He informed me that it’s key to let the brakes cool down after the heat up like that. The best way to do that is to pull over, enjoy the scenery and wait for them cool. That’s definitely a good tip for us, should we ever encounter a similar issue. Now that we know more about proper shifting on grades, we can avoid our brakes looking like they’re at a party with Snoop Dogg.
For our first couple of days in Alberta, we chose to stay in Cochrane as it was close enough to Calgary that we could easily pop into the city.
We ended up staying at a fabulous campground called Bows RiverEdge which is owned by the Lions and Rotary Clubs. The park was beautiful. Each site had its own little yard with grass and shrubs surrounding it. Bella loved the campground as well. There was a wonderful, off-leash dog park along the Bow River where she got to sniff a plethora of doggie bums and play around a bit.
The night we arrived in Cochrane, we started to plan our next day in Calgary. I should say that Kate did this. She planned while we were at Boston Pizza watching the Blue Jays vs Orioles Wild Card game. I was too focused on the game to offer much help. During a break in the action, we did make the decision that we were actually going to skip Calgary. While we know the city has some great attractions, we just didn’t feel like a city day was in us. We wanted to explore a bit instead.
The next morning, we explored Cochrane a bit. The small city is beautiful and well maintained. The roads were fantastic, the parks were great, and the downtown area was adorable.
MacKay’s Ice Cream
One thing that Cochrane is famous for is ice cream. As much as we love our ice cream, it was a complete coincidence that we ended up in Cochrane. During our Ice Cream Tour of Canada, we had not encountered any ice cream joint that actually makes their own ice cream. Instead, most times we were served Chapmans or some other major ice cream producer. That changed in Cochrane at MacKay’s Ice Cream.
Located in the downtown you will find MacKay’s which has been open in Cochrane since 1948. Since they opened their doors almost 70 years ago, they’ve been making homemade ice cream with 16-18% butterfat cream. We know from enjoying and touring Cows in PEI that a higher percentage of butterfat cream is key to excellent tasting ice cream. We were excited to give MacKay’s a try.
Although the weather outside was far from typical ice cream weather, we weren’t going to let that stop us. We entered the downtown shop, which is large and welcoming. The shop is filled with all sorts of fascinating history about MacKay’s and Cochrane. Up to the counter we went with the toughest of decisions to make – which flavours would we have?
MacKay’s has recipes for over 200 different varieties of ice cream and specialize in flavours that are inspired by countries around the globe. They have interesting flavours like Buko, Durian, Kulfi, & Purple Yam just to name a few. I decided to go with a scoop of Butter Pecan and a scoop of Pralines & Cream. Kate went with Black Licorice & Haskap Berry. The young gentleman serving us told Kate that Haskap was one of his favourites. Haskap is a Japenese fruit that grows on shrubs and resembles berries. It’s also known as honeysuckle. Kate enjoyed it but almost died when she tasted her Black Licorice ice cream. Kate got extremely excited when she found out that MacKay’s had real Black Licorice ice cream. The last time she enjoyed the delights of Black Licorice ice cream were as a kid. Since then, she hasn’t found it anywhere else until MacKay’s. Needless to say, we left MacKay’s as happy customers.
A while ago, I wrote 30 Places I Want To Visit in Canada and on that list was Drumheller. The main reason for wanting to visit the small town was because of its unique location. Drumheller is located in the Canadian Badlands, an area where dinosaurs roamed many millions of years ago. It’s also home to the Hoodoos which not only sound cool but also look cool. When we decided to skip a trip to Calgary, we made up our minds to visit Drumheller instead.
Almost a couple hours after leaving Cochrane, we were on the Hoodoos Trail just outside of Drumheller. When we first arrived in the area, we were stunned by our surroundings. We had never seen another landscape like the one that presented itself to us at the foot of the Hoodoos Trail.
The setting around us felt cold and eerie, yet somehow beautiful. Kate remarked how it looked like a scene out of Star Wars. To me, it felt like we were on a different planet. It also felt like at any moment a dinosaur might poke out from around of one the distinct crevasses.
A quick walk up some steps and you’re right in front of the magical looking Hoodoos. The Hoodoos are a grouping of naturally made figures that have been carved by the weather of their surroundings for millions of years. It is said that the Hoodoos protect the land around them by hurling rocks at intruders who threaten the land. Thankfully, the area around the Hoodoos are protected by fencing rather than having the Hoodoos to defend for themselves. There were even signs in the area that if you’re caught on the Hoodoos or destroying them in any way that you could be fined up to $50,000. It’s great to see such measures are put in place to protect the special site.
When we were done examining the Hoodoos up close, we continued walking the trail with Bella who was quite happy with the walk. Even though she was happy with the walk, she’s still terrible when it comes to having her picture taken.
Star Mine Suspension Bridge
On our way to Drumheller, we noticed a sign for a suspension bridge ahead. Since we were feeling adventurous, off we went towards the bridge.
The Star Mine Suspension Bridge is 117 meters long crossing the span of the Red Deer River. It was built by the Alberta government in 1958 to commemorate the mining history of the area. Coal mining was a huge industry in the area during the early to mid-1900’s. For a while, miners would use rowboats to cross the Red Deer River until a similar suspension bridge was built in 1931. Even though rough winds and floods compromised safety, miners used the original bridge until 1957.
The bridge is not for the faint of heart. If you’ve ever been on a suspension bridge before, you know the feeling. That feeling of your heart beginning to race as you look down through steel grates, looking at the water below as you gently sway side-to-side with each step. I tried to hold a brave face, but it was a bit nerve-wracking for me. Meanwhile, Kate was joyfully walking across the bridge with no worry whatsoever. We tried to get Bella to come with us but as soon as she took a look down below, she pulled us back to the truck.
The World’s Largest Dinosaur
Anytime you go on a road trip, you’re likely to stumble on a small town with some sort of giant, quirky roadside attraction. During our trip, while in Wawa, we saw the giant Canada Geese. Canada has a wide variety of roadside attractions but I feel confident in saying that there isn’t one more impressive than the World’s Largest Dinosaur in Drumheller.
I had seen pictures of the attraction, but that didn’t prepare me for what we were going to see in Drumheller. A quick drive through the small town led us to the large prehistoric beast which completely consumes you due to its enormous size. The giant attraction is 86 feet tall which is more than double the size of an actual T-Rex.
The detail that went into the construction of the giant T-Rex is nothing short of amazing. Something that makes this roadside attraction different from most others is the fact that you can actually walk up to the top of it. For three bucks, you can climb the stairs through the bowels of the T-Rex to a lookout platform that overlooks Drumheller.
Saying that Drumheller takes its dinosaurs serious is an understatement. While we were driving throughout the town, we noticed dinosaur statues at almost every corner. They were colourfully and playfully decorated. Some of them were even made into fun benches. There is also the Royal Tyrell Museum. Due to time, we passed on the museum but it features many galleries focused on dinosaurs. Amongst the galleries, there are 40 dinosaur skeletons and over 110,000 fossils. If you have kids that love dinosaurs, a visit to Drumheller would have them smiling all day in excitement.
With the day winding on, we decided to make our way back to Cochrane from Drumheller. Less than 10 minutes outside of Drumheller, Kate noticed a sign pointing towards another attraction – Horseshoe Canyon. “Do you wanna go?” she asked. Although I was starting to get a bit tired from our adventure, I said, “sure, why not?” We made the turn and were at the impressive canyon within a few minutes. It was much more than what I was expecting.
The setting made us both think of the Grand Canyon. Yes – Horseshoe Canyon is quite different than the Grand Canyon, but we had never experienced a canyon in Canada quite like this one. It was beautiful. There wasn’t another soul in sight aside from the three of us. There was a nice trail that led down a long set of stairs and along various levels of the canyon. Bella loved it. She appeared to be much happier than when she visited the Hoodoos earlier in the day.
Departure Time/Location: 9a Regina, Saskatchewan
Arrival Time/Location: 6p Cochrane, Alberta
Total Distance: 802km
Next Stop: Jasper