When I think about Alberta’s dinosaurs, I think about the Canadian Badlands – that desert-like landscape in southeastern Alberta with its maroon-striped canyons and chimneys of weathered rock known as hoodoos. What you may not know is there are dinosaurs and badlands in northern Alberta, too. True story – you just have to dig down through a lot of forest floor to find them.
Case in point: the recently discovered Pipestone Creek bonebed – said to be the densest in the world for horned dinosaurs – is close to the northern gateway city of Grande Prairie and a good 737 km (458 mi) northwest of Drumheller. The bonebed turns out to be a massive gravesite of the Pachyrhinosaurus, a plant eating dinosaur, dating back 73 million years. The site is providing a very exciting time for the scientists who have also discovered specimens of hadrosaurs (duck-billed), nodosaurs (armored), pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and plesiosaurs (marine reptiles) just to name a few!
Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum
Supporting the ongoing excavation at Pipestone Creek is the new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. Named after the co-founder of the prestigious Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, the facility bills itself as an international institute for experiential learning and is attracting paleontologists and visitors from around the world.
The first thing I notice about the building is that I’ve been noticing it for miles and miles, standing sentinel on a relatively empty landscape. No need to use your mobile mapping apps. Follow Highway 43 and you simply can’t miss it.
The Very New is Home to the Very Old
The exterior of the building is an impressive mix of massive poured concrete retaining walls and glass. Take a stroll around the outdoor Discovery Fossil Walk and let the kids blow off some steam in the large dino themed playground. Inside, under gorgeous wood and timber ceilings are extensive gallery spaces, research and collection areas, two classrooms, restaurant, gift shop, interactive kid zone and a 70-seat theatre named after actor and patron Dan Aykroyd and his family.
It’s easy to spend the better part of a day here. You’ll see dinosaur skeletons never before reconstructed and a fascinating recreation of the bonebed from which they came. Watch real paleontologists at work. Take in one of National Geographic’s stunning documentaries in the Aykroyd Theatre. Get into some hands-on activities like casting a fossil that you can take home as a souvenir. See if you can figure out why hundreds and hundreds of dinosaurs all died in one spot.
There’s some very cool technology here, too – you can flesh out a skeleton at the touch of a button or take a virtual helicopter tour of the bonebed. Even better, sign up for a real live tour out at Pipestone Creek Park.
My dad was a geologist and I grew up amidst fossils of all descriptions. He would have loved this place. For me, in a lot of ways, it feels like coming home – and I’ll be back.