Discovering the Hidden History of the Drumheller Valley with Wild West Badlands Tours
I’m sitting in the back of a gigantic wagon surrounded by a herd of bison. An enormous bull is making scary grunting sounds to deter younger males from getting close to females in the herd. Several cows and calves are milling about and another large bull is rolling in the dirt and stirring up a dust cloud. Just then, the farmer opens a book and reads the account of Peter Fidler who visited the Drumheller Valley in 1793 and became the first European to discover coal on the Canadian prairies. Fidler recorded his discovery in his journal along with an incredible description of witnessing a herd of wild bison so large it stretched as far as the eye could see. I gaze out at the bison herd and the rolling countryside and let the words of the explorer transport me back in time.
I thought I had seen and done pretty much everything in Drumheller and the Canadian Badlands region, but I was wrong. Don and Val Johnston of Wild West Badlands Tours promise to show their guests a side of the Drumheller Valley they have never seen before and minutes into the tour they are delivering.
After the visit to the bison herd, we head to Horsethief Canyon and take in one of the prettiest views in the Canadian Badlands at sunset. The scenery is almost otherworldly. It’s a place where the passage of time is visibly recorded in the landscape. While I gaze out at the view, Don tells me how the canyon got its name. The local legend involves outlaws and stolen livestock. Then he bends down and picks up a dusky green plant, hands it to me and tells me to smell it. He explains that sage is considered sacred by Indigenous people and it’s used in spiritual cleansing ceremonies. Several varieties of sage grow in the Drumheller Valley.
Indigenous knowledge and history is included in all of the tours offered by Wild West Badlands Tours. Val is a member of the Saulteaux First Nation and grew up on the Gordon reserve in Saskatchewan. “We love sharing the Indigenous history of the Drumheller Valley with our guests,” says Val. “Joseph Tyrrell is credited with discovering the first dinosaur fossils in this region in 1884, but the Blackfoot and Cree had long known about the fossil beds here. They thought the area was a graveyard for giants and considered it sacred ground.”
The next day on our way to visit Drumheller’s Little Church, Don makes a couple of random stops to show me some of the hidden historical sites in the area. As we stand in front of a rustic wooden building adorned with wagon wheels, Don talks about the houses of ill repute that dotted the valley in the days when coal miners were abundant and women were not. I especially enjoy his stories about Fanny Ramsley and Mary Roper, two brothel owners known for their kindness to destitute families during the Great Depression.
My tour includes well-known sites and hidden gems and at each stop I learn something I didn’t know about geology, ghosts, dinosaurs, coal miners and more. “There are people who come to Drumheller to visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum and miss seeing the rest of the badlands,” says Val. She doesn’t say what I’m thinking – those people are really missing out.
Contact Wild West Badlands Tours today. Discover the beautiful geography, hidden history, and unique culture surrounding Drumheller.