Horse Thief Canyon is along North Dinosaur Trail northwest of Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.
The drive from Calgary purposely continues north on Highway 2 to the Didsbury exit where travel east will allow access to the Bleriot Ferry across the Red Deer River for more direct, northerly access into the Horse Thief Canyon parking area. The drive west from Highway 2 along Highway 582 is peaceful and magical through big sky country of undulating prairie expanse punctuated by marshland ponds and occasional dips into the stark contrast of protected coulees where lush terrain with rock and water features seem like carefully crafted movie sets.
Good and virtually unoccupied highway drops south and west where increasing proximity to the Red Deer River builds anticipation with haunting views of the Badlands surrounding the Red Deer River Valley towards intersection with the Bleriot Ferry.
At arrival, the ferry is empty and waiting on the far side of the Red Deer River. A short wait precludes the brief journey across calm water on this beautiful, sunny day. The quick drive west leads to the intersection with North Dinosaur Trail (Hwy 838) heading south and eager anticipation is satisfied soon with the short, well-signed spur into early morning empty parking at Horse Thief Canyon, not to be confused with newly appointed infrastructure at Horseshoe Canyon south of Drumheller. Horse Thief Canyon is 17 KM (10⅝ miles) along North Dinosaur Trail NW from Drumheller, Alberta.
The official sign addresses the proliferation of dinosaur remains discovered in Dinosaur Provincial Park without mentioning that world-renowned park is near Brooks, Alberta, several hundred kilometers east of this location. Even though the parking area is empty, I am met by the official resident greeting committee.
There is no-one else here on this sunny Tuesday morning and the Toyota looks lonely in the paved and currently ample parking area. Views from the top edge of the canyon are nothing less than spectacular. Trails visibly wiggle invitingly throughout the visible portion of the multi-layered and multi-colored valley initiated by the Red Deer River and formed by erosion over thousands of years.
Horse Thief Canyon was named near the end of the 19th Century when local residents observed herds of stolen horses were often herded into the valley with one brand only to surface later with a different brand.
A wander south along the brim of the canyon finds a rustic, eroded and fairly dry trail into a coulee that leads to a series of colorful formations about midway into the distance to the bottom. This short hike is a photographic extravaganza with views of surrounding badlands complemented by crop fields at the bottom being prepared for planting adjacent to the Red Deer River. Old and intermittent barbed wire fence might be remnants of ancient property lines or guarding dangerous terrain. There are many viewpoint options in the array of colorful mounds. Exit is achieved via the same trail taken in.
Return to the edge of the canyon at the parking area reveals a variety of rustic trail alternatives. All are steep and compromised by the erosion from recent Spring runoff. Descent is slow, carefully calculated and frequently compromised by sections which have been washed out. As always, dogged determination and extraordinary care leads to achieving the bottom of the formidable canyon where a small creek is still hosting water running above ground. Soon, the creek bed will be dry.
Main trail heads left through the bottom of Horse Thief Canyon. The sketchy trail also branches right and this is today's chosen route - the path less traveled. Quality of trail diminishes rather rapidly and forward progress increasingly depends on hopping from one side of the creek to the other combined with rock hopping along the creek. Side walls host major erosion channels. Just as further forward progress becomes questionable, a bend reveals a potentially promising Y junction a short distance upstream which appears to allow the possibility for reasonable subsequent ascent. Pursuit of this branch of the canyon bottom soon discloses an unexpected surprise.
The rusted skeletons of old cars occupy canyon bottom and forward progress is now driven by curiosity. Obviously the cars have been pushed into the canyon decades prior. There are no remains inside. Over the edge and out of sight was a common method of disposition in past decades, particularly in remote, rural locations where there were no feasible options and environmental agendas had not been formed or considered. Eventually, everything returns to the Earth.
Forward progress is shut down a short distance past the derelict vehicles. Retreat options are via the route used for access or an off-trail mission straight up the side of the canyon. Near the location of the dumping area, a route up the side of the canyon appears to be potentially achievable so the uphill scramble begins on challenging terrain. Decades of old relics and debris have been cast over the side which adds interest and a degree of adventure to the effort which increasingly appears to be a bad idea.
Impenetrable componentss are defeated with lateral alternatives to more reasonable ascent sections. The nature of the fascinating ascent through and up the old dumping ground is unique from anything attempted in the past. Cacti and broken glass are obstacles to be avoided.
The final section of the ascent is completed on hands and knees into the field at the top of the canyon. Performing this level of endeavor in early season has taken it's toll. Pure exhaustion demands assumption of the prone position in the tall grass to rest and restore normal breathing and heart rate. It occurs to me that my single car in the parking area combined with my potentially final and lateral position in the field could create concern from low flying aircraft so I listen carefully for the sound of engines above my pounding heart beat while considering the distinct possibility I may be getting too old for this shit.
On the return hike along the upper edge of the canyon to the car there are spectacular images of the trail complex within Horse Thief Canyon.
To enjoy Horse Thief Canyon on a bluebird day, without anyone else in attendance, is an unlikely and special opportunity. The entire day could easily be spent here exploring many routes through the canyon but this short adventure will allow plenty of time exploring in the Badlands beginning with the next stop at Drumheller's Little Church which seats 10,000 people, six at a time.