Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dinosaur Provincial Park, Part 2
Bring along some extra time, too - at least two days for an in-depth visit. The park offers five self-guided trails, which are nice enough. But it's a lot more interesting to go out with a park interpreter, who can get you into areas that are otherwise off-limits and who can also answer questions. Space is limited on these tours, and the park holds half the places for same-day sales, so you'll need to be a little flexible. Reservations can be made by telephone and are strongly recommended.
There are some other advantages to a guided hike. Unless you know why the giant, mushroom-shaped rock formations dotting the park are called "hoodoos," for example, it's good to have someone along who does, someone who can tell you that they form under caps of harder rock like ironstone as water erodes the softer mudstone beneath until the cap balances precariously atop a slender column.
The interpreters offer three different hikes, each about two and a half hours long. For those with sturdy legs, the hike to a Centrosaurus bone bed is worth the trip. Centrosaurs were horned dinosaurs, and this site is a mass grave where hundreds of adults, youths, and youngsters perished at once, about 75 million years ago. Their death together indicates that they probably lived together as well, traveling in vast migrating herds like today's wildebeests in Africa. One theory about what killed this group is that the front of the herd halted at a flood-swollen river. The back of the herd, not knowing what was going on, may have surged forward and shoved their traveling companions into the torrent - again, much as wildebeests do today.
After a 20-minute trek up two sandstone ridges - here's where you'll regret wearing those sneakers - you'll see the remains of an excavation at the site. Part of the hillside is protected by what looks like a large garage door (which, in fact, it is; palaeontologists tend to favor low-tech equipment). When the interpreters open it, you can see bits of centrosaur frills, horns, jaws, ribs, and limb bones. They will pass around some fossils for you to examine; look carefully for puncture marks made by the teeth of scavenging tyrannosaurs, who had themselves a picnic at the site. Take a moment to hike up to the Citadel, a rock formation overlooking the dig. You'll get a spectacular view of the badlands and get to see more centrosaur bones from this immense bed sticking out from the other side of the hill.
A coulee hike is a little easier, but it focuses more on the current inhabitants of the badlands than it does on the ones who died out 65 million years ago. You'll encounter more of the deceased on what the park glibly calls its Fossil Safari, which goes to a dig site in the otherwise inaccessible natural preserve. For the less athletically inclined, the park does have a bus tour, which covers the major features, explains some of the history, and stops at a couple of outdoor displays where you can examine dinosaur skeletons. Each of these gives you a chance to spot a bit of shiny white or brown against a background of muted grays and reds, and feel the thrill of discovering a fossil.