Horseshoe Canyon provides a hint of unique badlands scenery surrounding Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.
Following an hour and a half driving the 140 KM (87½ miles) of open, barren prairie between Calgary and Drumheller, there is strong motivation to exit the car to stretch the legs. The traditional place to do this is at Horseshoe Canyon, a short distance south on Highway 9 before dropping into Drumheller, Alberta. Horseshoe Canyon is undergoing renovations and expectations are exceeded with substantial new development.
New and informative signage is accompanied by the in-progress construction of flower gardens, border railings and dramatic viewpoints with newly constructed wooden stairs descending from the top into the bottom of Horseshoe Canyon.
Several large and impressive klinkers supplement the border fencing. Klinkers are an amalgamation of ash and solid residues bound together by combustion from burning coal. There is no shortage of klinkers in this area which, decades prior, hosted a robust coal mining history.
Initial tentative views on approach to Horseshoe Canyon amplify exponentially until the entire canyon vista unfolds. What was previously impromptu trail is now more formalized within the bottom of the canyon where clearly-defined trail and viewpoints have been constructed.
One of many klinkers
The top-of-canyon, newly constructed, wooden viewing platform features a protective guard railing around its circumference. The expansive vistas across Horseshoe Canyon, as well as new formalized trail at the bottom, beg to be explored. From the top, the desert-like terrain in Horseshoe Canyon hosts a sparse bit of brush and the occasional tree where scarce runoff collects into cauldrons and provides sufficient ground moisture to harbor vegetation.
The threshold at the wooden stairs displays an impressive and somewhat intimidating flight of stairs which will be straightforward to descend but may be potentially challenging to climb. The stairway features steps different and more shallow than standard. A standard stair riser is about 17.8 cm (7 inches). Each step on this extended flight is about 12.7 cm (5 inches). The lower riser can be more comfortable for children and the elderly but initial steps are awkward due to a different expectation. There are small, side retreats along the stairs which allow people to pass or rest.
Patches of snow in the canyon accentuate the different colored layers created by erosion spanning thousands of years.
Snow melt has created patches of ice from overnight freezing and in the warmth of day perfectly navigable dry soil assumes an unpredictable expectation as clay-like soil becomes slippery. Quality footwear is an asset combined with sensible caution. Similar issues exist in summer following infrequent rain.
Higher elevation trail is relatively dry and easy to navigate but increased descent finds increasing mud. The nature of mud in this kind of soil is similar to hiking on grease. The landing foot can potentially take off in any unexpected direction.
Soon the canyon will be bone dry . Rain during Spring, Summer and Fall will create the same very slippery surface conditions but the mud tends to dry quickly in desert-like conditions. Wooden beams create enclosures filled with sandy gravel that provides a more stable path. Every mound gained creates new and spectacular views across the badlands.
Prior to the final viewing stand, the trail degrades to a point where the option to return becomes attractive via a different, drier path along the base of the cliff towards the bottom of the impressive stairs.
The climb up the stairs and out of the canyon is less ominous than expected. Due to the lower step height, steps can be easily taken two at a time and the ascent is fairly quick and a good aerobic workout.
Back at the parking area, the bathrooms are locked and unavailable but the Town of Drumheller is only a short distance away en route to the fascinating and reportedly haunted East Coulee School Museum which is open between May 1 and September 30 annually.