Cottonwood Flats offer a unique and refreshing oasis within the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks, Alberta.
The final hiking opportunity along the one-way Public Loop Road in Dinosaur Provincial Park is the well-groomed 1.4 KM (⅞ mile) Cottonwood Flats Trail on a large delta adjacent to the Red Deer River coursing its way towards confluence with the mighty South Saskatchewan River and eventually Hudson Bay.
The small gravel parking area provides direct access to the Cottonwood Flats trail-head which heads directly through flat grassland on high quality, well-groomed gravel surface. Pedestrian traffic appears to trend counter-clockwise at the T junction so hiking clockwise may reduce traffic interaction and improve photography efficiency. This trail is wheelchair accessible. Dramatic Badlands cliffs consume the far distant horizon and encourage progress along the flat, scenic trail.
Ancient, disheveled Cottonwood trees punctuate the otherwise relatively flat, prairie landscape on terrain unique to the majority of this special and prehistoric area. Interpretive signage provides interesting and worthwhile information within this relaxing and beautifully visual adventure. Sporadic and early Autumn color adds intermittent splashes of vibrant color to the experience.
The clockwise loop hosts increasingly dense shrubbery and forest as the trail approaches the shoreline of the Red Deer River. Dramatic Badlands cliffs exponentially consume a greater portion of the horizon. Arrival at the river is visually overwhelming with a cool breeze tempering the heat of the afternoon. Badlands formations on the far side of the river loom large and spectacular beyond another ribbon of riverside forest. Small sandy beaches punctuate both shorelines of the Red Deer River.
The Cottonwood Flats Trail continues past initial river exposure into and through forest arches which lead to another area of more densely forested exposure to peaceful and dramatic river views.
The trail loop through this desert oasis swings away from the riverside and passes the perimeter around a large cottonwood forest. Vibrant grasslands frame the skeletons of past tree generations and much of the current growth is hundreds of years old. The specie's unique propensity to divest itself of old branches to encourage and reinforce new growth creates an odd vision of tangled beauty combined with disarray.
This forest is alive with deer shyly occupying small grassland areas among the forest groves. The natural ambiance is emotionally intoxicating for those who choose to stand and stare at the pristine forest no differently than they would in any of the world's most famous art galleries. The grandeur of artistic creation is no different for those whose choose to take the time.
Cottonwood Trail graciously retreats from forest to grassland on the return portion of the loop. At the T-junction, the remaining portion for return to the parking area is a short stretch with the rugged beauty of the badlands providing an appropriate background.
Photographs along the Cottonwood Flats Trail loop are captured in the later afternoon of Sunday, September 10, 2017 ending an incredible hiking day through the unique features of Dinosaur Provincial Park northeast of Brooks, Alberta, Canada. The hot tub and the pool are looking very enticing at excellent accommodation at the conveniently located Heritage Inn and Suites in Brooks.