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Visiting the Oldman River near Lethbridge, Alberta: dramatic topography and a history of erosion

Updated on August 7, 2015
Provincial flag of Alberta
Provincial flag of Alberta | Source
The Oldman River at sunrise, near Lethbridge
The Oldman River at sunrise, near Lethbridge | Source
A photograph of the Lethbridge Viaduct at midday. Photograph taken from the south of the viaduct, near Whoop-up Drive, on the west side of the Oldman River.
A photograph of the Lethbridge Viaduct at midday. Photograph taken from the south of the viaduct, near Whoop-up Drive, on the west side of the Oldman River. | Source
Photograph of the northern section of University Hall at the University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta
Photograph of the northern section of University Hall at the University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta | Source
Lethbridge | Source

Unexpected landforms

Visitors to the Lethbridge area of southern Alberta are likely to be struck by the topography surrounding the winding Oldman River (1), close to which the city is built.

The Oldman River is 363 kilometres long. Rising in the Rockies, it eventually joins with the Bow — the river on which Calgary is built — and flows into the South Saskatchewan, forming part of the Hudson Bay watershed.

The instances of deep erosion in riverbeds in Western Canada and the United States are often referred to as coulees, from the French coulées, meaning 'flows'. The Oldman river in southern Alberta offers much evidence of starkly eroded, winding gullies and ravines thought to have been caused by the flooding of receding glaciers. Some of the coulees in the area have given rise to the extraction of ammolite deposits: a mineral which has been designated the City of Lethbridge's official gemstone (2).

A series of parks around the Oldman River has been created in the Lethbridge area. These include: Alexander Wilderness Park; Botterill Bottom Park; Bull Trail Park; Elizabeth Hall Wetlands; Indian Battle Park; Peenaquim Park; Popson Park. There are also 30 kilometres of dedicated recreational trails around Lethbridge.

Many species of fish are to be found in the Oldman River; these include various varieties of trout, walleye, pike, lake sturgeon and mountain whitefish. Coyotes, beavers, porcupines, badgers, foxes and rabbits are among the many animals that make the area their habitat. The Oldman Valley at Lethbridge is noted for the presence of different varieties of poplar trees. The Helen Schuler Nature Centre at the foot of the Oldman Valley — accessible via Whoop-up Drive — is dedicated to the study and preservation of local flora and fauna.

West Lethbridge, across the Oldman River from the Downtown are of the city, has largely been built since 1971 and is the home of the University of Lethbridge, the campus of which enjoys a wide, panoramic view of the Oldman Valley.

The most well-known feature over the Oldman RIver at Lethbridge is undoubtedly the High Level Bridge, completed in 1909, which still carries rail traffic over the giant river gorge.

My impression of the local topography around the Oldman River, with its coulee features is that, outside the city, one may intriguingly imagine that one is travelling along fairly flat or gently undulating land, when suddenly the land dips and the coulees reveal the winding Oldman a distance below. Similarly, the impression given of walking in Downtown Lethbridge is of a flat, urban built environment. But suddenly, there is a break in the land, which dips dramatically down to the parkland mainly at the base of the Oldman Valley. While at Calgary, one is essentially on the edge of the Prairies near to where the inclines lead upward to the Rockies, yet at Lethbridge the landscape seems to be characterized by sudden dips to lower ground: the unexpectedness of the landforms has to be experienced to be properly grasped.

August 7, 2015


(1) Sometimes the form 'Old Man River' is also seen.

(2) The Albertan mining company Korite International is the largest commercial producer of ammolite; see also the following website for more information about the gemstone:

Some sourcing: Wikipedia

A view upward into a coulee in the Oldman River valley in Lethbridge, Alberta
A view upward into a coulee in the Oldman River valley in Lethbridge, Alberta | Source

Of interest

Map of Lethbridge
Map of Lethbridge | Source

In Lethbridge, notable sights include the Galt Museum; the Japanese Gardens; Henderson Lale; the record-breaking High Level Bridge (see also above) over the Oldman River, dating from 1909; dining in the Water Tower Restaurant; and many others.

Nanton (distance: 121.4 kilometres); the Air Museum commemorates Canadian aviators of Bomber Command during World War Two and notably possesses a Lancaster bomber. There are various well appointed antique shops close by.

Waterton (distance: 124.6 kilometres): this outstandingly scenic location - part of Warterton-Glacier International Peace Park - has striking views from the much photographed Prince of Wales Hotel over the often snow-capped Rockies and the Waterton Lakes.

How to get there

Air Canada, flies to Lethbridge Airport, via Calgary, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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