No dearth of dinosaurs in Drumheller

DRUMHELLER, Alberta - If dinosaurs are of interest to your family - and if you have children they almost certainly are - this town should rank right up there with anything Disney has to offer.

In Drumheller you see dinosaur likenesses everywhere - in gas stations, parking lots, in front of motels, in public parks, in huge mosaics, and even in front of city hall. Their size and number are impressive. But Drumheller is more than just dinosaur statues and paintings.

The town has a human population of 7,000 - and many, many more dinosaurs. In fact, the surrounding hills contain more dinosaur bones than any other area on the planet. Active digs are going on all the time. Plenty of dino bones have been dug up, but the number remaining in the ground is enormous.

Most of the larger bones uncovered are in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology - a 120,000-square-foot building on a 20-acre site - that is the area's focal point.

Opened in 1985, the museum, one of the largest paleontology museums in the world, has 4,700 square feet of display area, a 200-seat auditorium, research library, and research and preparation laboratories. It attractively displays more than 200 dinosaur specimens, the largest number under one roof anywhere. For scientists - and children - the museum has a utopian quality. It can be tremendously fascinating and rewarding, even to those with only a moderate interest in things prehistoric.

Hence, the descriptive ''Dinosaur Capital of the World'' slogan, which you see on a welcoming sign as you enter Drumheller and in numerous other places around town, is more than just boosterism.

We drove to Drumheller from Calgary through miles of fields that in July were covered with yellow canola flowers. These were pretty enough at first but a bit boring after 10 or so miles.

All of a sudden, after motoring little more than an hour, the agricultural land turned strange and visually more interesting. We had arrived at the Alberta badlands, where nothing, save a few hardy weeds, grows.

Eons ago, however, the area was filled with vegetation that was the dinosaur equivalent of haute cuisine. That's why so many lived here. (In the museum's ''prehistoric garden'' you can see more than 100 species of plants that thrived when Tyrannosaurus Rex and his friends called Alberta home.)

Going through the museum will take several hours and, if you opt to take advantage of the various lectures, movies and special events, you could easily spend an entire day or two. We took about four hours and felt we had only scratched the surface.

A nice aspect of the Royal Tyrrell is that it succeeds in pleasing children and adults, casual observers and scientists. Each can go through the exhibits and find something to fit their interests.

Through the museum, which is named after Joseph Tyrrell, a 19th-century geologist who was the first to discover dinosaur bones in the area, one can arrange to be part of an actual dig. This requires at least a full day, and the work is tedious and muscle straining.

We opted, instead, to go on a ''dig watch.''

This 90-minute excursion took us by bus to a dig site, let us walk around the area, talk to people who were digging, and even pick up and hold some dinosaur bones. (You may not take even the tiniest one home with you, we were warned. Violators, if caught, face a $10,000 fine.)

Another interesting diversion is the ''dinosaur trail,'' a 20-mile circular drive through the Red Deer River Valley, that starts and ends in Drumheller and leads to smaller museums and sites dedicated either to the area's prehistoric period or its more recent coal mining days.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)


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