Travel: An out-of-this-world RV trip across Alberta, Canada
We are on our hands and knees on Bed 50 of Dinosaur Provincial Park (DPP), carefully scanning the ground for prehistoric treasure. This Unesco site, one of the richest sources of fossils in the world, is in the heart of an alien-looking landscape of the Badlands in Alberta, Canada, and it is utterly captivating.
Our fossil safari guide moves from group to group to help us identify any finds, which must not be picked up or even moved, but just left where they are. Huge dinosaur bones stick up from the ground at intervals, but we are concentrating on finding the small stuff including scales, a tooth, claw, or piece of cartilage.
The 20,000 acre park (dinosaurpark.ca) is a centre of research and beyond a few waymarked routes – we follow a circular walk close to our campsite and see the sunset turn the bleached rocks crimson – no one is allowed into the park without a guide or permission. Palaeontologists from around the world carry out research and digs at DPP, with finds making their way to museums across the globe.
There is a small but very interesting museum but you really need to join one of the guided trips to get the most out of a visit – which run from bus tours to an all-day hike and dig.
Back at our campsite, we rustle up dinner and then light up some gathered wood in the firepit and relax in the fading light, finally calling time on a fantastic day to sleep in our home for the week, a 33ft Jayco recreation vehicle. Our RV is a beast, with the front of a US truck and the back of a mobile home, which comfortably sleeps our family of five.
We had picked it up a couple of days earlier from rental firm Fraserway (www.fraserway.com) outside Calgary, with dreams of the open road and freedom to explore as we please.
Something of a bucket list fantasy, I had wanted to do something like this for years and Canada’s vast interior and spectacular scenery seemed ideal.
Our first stop was Dinosaur Provincial Park’s big brother, the Royal Tyrrell Museum (www.tyrrellmuseum.com), outside former mining town Drumheller, 120km or so from Calgary. Drumheller itself is fairly nondescript, home to a medium security prison, a giant model dinosaur and for those not in an RV, the blue clapboard Heartwood Inn & Spa (www.innsatheartwood.com) which is a nice place to stay. The Royal Tyrrell, meanwhile, is spectacular and a must-see with 40 dinosaur skeletons and ten galleries with thousands of fossil specimens. It is brilliantly done, informative and inspiring.
As a rookie RV driver at that point I was grateful for a section of the car park set aside for large vehicles. In fact, pretty much everywhere had RV parking areas and combined with the size of the roads, driving ceased to be much of an issue.
With temperatures in the 30s, we loved being able to hide from the sun and put on the air conditioning and fix up some food or take a cold drink from the fridge. The electric awning could be extended and the dining area could also slide out to make the living space bigger. The children could sit around a table while travelling and had a picture window to look out of, while the cabin gave a fantastic view of the road and countryside ahead.
So far so fantastic. Except we had some problems with our RV, which included the generator not charging the battery properly so the lights suddenly went out just when we were getting ready for bed and the water system not working, which meant we couldn’t use the shower or toilet. We had to belt back to Calgary at one point where the electrical problem was fixed but the water supply issues started again a few hours after they were meant to be sorted.
As we were staying in campsites we were able to use the facilities there, but if we had been wild camping it would have been more than an inconvenience.
The most famous national parks in Alberta are probably Banff and Jasper, home between them to treasures of the Rockies such as Moraine Lake or Athabasca Falls.
In mid July, however, visitor numbers are at their peak and we had previously failed to get to Lake Louise because the car parks were all full.
So we head on the road less travelled, to Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta’s oldest, in the south-west of the province.
The scenery is spectacular and the national parks-run campsite is close to the centre of the Waterton, which sits by the edge of the eponymous lake. In this part of the Rockies, even at lakeside we are more than 4,200ft above sea level. The days are sunny but not too hot, which suits us fine.
The town itself is lovely, with quirky independent stores to explore and plenty of good places to eat and stay (the Waterton Glacier Suites, www.watertonsuites.com is comfortable and central).
The hiking trails are fantastic and we climb up Bear’s Hump, which has wonderful views down to the lake, which we explore aboard the MV International during a shoreline cruise (www.watertoncruise.com) which takes us into the US state of Montana. We disembark for half an hour at Goat Haunt, an International Peace Park. You can hike from here in the US and get a later boat back but UK citizens need a US visa to go any further. On our return the skipper slows up the vessel so we can all see a bald eagle, which helpfully sits in plain sight before spectacularly taking flight.
We say farewell to Waterton, thrillingly spotting a magnificent brown bear ambling across a road and field during our drive to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (headsmashedin.org) near Fort Macleod. One of the oldest, largest and best preserved buffalo jump sites in North America and now a Unesco World Heritage Site, Head-Smashed-In has a five storey interpretative centre built into the cliffside, over which the buffalo were driven in hunts by the First Nation peoples. We are privileged to meet Little Leaf, a gentle, charming and charismatic First Nation Canadian from the Blackfoot who tells us about the nomadic nature of the North American tribes and their close connection to nature and the seasons. We learn how settlers slaughtered millions of buffalo and how land, opportunity and freedom was taken away. It is fascinating but there is an air of melancholy to the place. We walk out to the cliff, where the Great Plains meet the Rockies, and where warriors risked life and limb to drive the buffalo over the edge. Before us a vast landscape is calling, just waiting to be explored. It is time to climb aboard and hit the road again.
• Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com, 0207 616 9933) offers 12 night RV breaks in Alberta from £1,040 per person, based on two sharing a MH22 Motorhome for 11 nights, including convenience kits, preparation fees and 1,000km driving allowance, as well as flights from Glasgow to Calgary, returning via Toronto and 1 night in Calgary. Price based on an early June departure.