Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park

Hoping to avoid thick wildfire smoke, Shaun Luong, Wil Tabak, Zosia Zgolak and I eschewed venturing into our usual playground in the Canadian Rockies, and instead, we went for a hike at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park near Trochu, Alberta on 19 September 2020.  We got our inspiration for this hike from a 2017 trip report by Bob Spirko.

From Highway 21, turn east onto Township Road 344, 13 kilometres north of Trochu or 9.6 kilometres south of the junction with Highway 590.  Drive 19 kilometres to a gate and a large pullout with interpretive signs on the right overlooking the river valley.  If the gate is open, it is possible to drive another 1.8 kilometres to a day use area in the valley.

On this day, the access road winding down to the day use area was closed due to washouts.  As a result, Shaun, Wil, Zosia and I had to park at the pullout on the bluff.  Our plan was to visit the grassy plateau or "dry island" and a knob at the northeast corner of the park just as Spirko had done.  From the pullout, we followed the trail along the bluff northward to some benches before dropping down to the closed road.  We briefly descended the road before abandoning it to follow various game trails through light bush down into the badlands.  We first made our way toward the grassy plateau, and although we were initially quite enthralled by the distinctive and fascinating landscape, we quickly found that navigating through the maze of canyons and buttes would not be so simple.  With no established trails in the area, the footing on some of the sandstone slopes can be tricky as I found out early on when I took a tumble down a short embankment.  Luckily, only my pride was bruised, but I vowed to be more careful about where I stepped.  Route-finding was also made more challenging by the abundance of vegetation throughout the area, and the cumulative ups and downs can be wearisome both physically and psychologically.  Eventually, we scrambled with some difficulty up onto the ridge south of the grassy plateau, and after poking around some cool hoodoos along the ridge, we easily reached the top of the plateau itself.  Spirko describes the plateau as being "boring", and admittedly, there was not much there to hold our attention.  As such, we promptly dropped down the east side of the plateau and made our way through more labyrinthine terrain to reach the aforementioned knob.  There are actually two knobs here in close proximity to each other, and it was easy enough to tag both.  The south knob is slightly higher, and we took a short break here for lunch.

For our return hike, Shaun, Wil, Zosia and I descended to the Red Deer River hoping to find an easy route along the shoreline back to the day use area.  Unfortunately, the banks along the river here are too steep to traverse, and we were forced back inland to negotiate the complex twists and turns of the badlands.  At one point, Wil went off on his own to investigate an alternate route closer to the river while the rest of us continued to grind our way across a couple of ravines.  Later as Shaun, Zosia and I crested a ridge, we surprisingly spotted Wil in the distance nearly back on top of the grassy plateau we had traversed earlier in the day.  After some rather comical shouting back and forth, Shaun telephoned Wil, and we all agreed to continue our separate ways and meet back at the parking area.  Leaving Wil to find his own way back, Shaun, Zosia and I headed south along the ridge we were on and subsequently descended to a flatter part of the river bank where we picked up a rudimentary trail.  Hugging the southern edge of the badlands, this trail still undulates a bit to cross a few creek beds, but it is easy enough to follow and a breeze to hike.  We eventually intersected the access road just north of the day use area and followed it back up to the parking area without any complications.  Wil arrived at the parking area about half an hour after us to conclude a surprisingly gratifying hike in an extraordinary area.
This is the high point of the day! With the road to the day use area closed on this day due to washouts, Shaun, Wil and Zosia prepare to descend into the valley on foot.
We're assured of not stepping in cow dung there! At left is the grassy plateau--a dry island--for which the park is named.
Very cool. Sonny is thrilled to already see some eroded sandstone features which are typical of the area.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak


We would never really see the full sun all day. As Shaun and Zosia make their way down into the valley, the sun tries to break through the smoky sky.
Maybe some sorta ceramic pipe? Sonny finds what appears to be an old piece of pottery which was partially buried.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

It's like navigating a maze. The distinctive terrain presents some navigational challenges.

There's a bit of unpleasant bushwhacking to get to the base of the mesa from here.

Wil and Shaun try to figure out the best way to get up onto the grassy plateau ahead.


There are some disturbing holes in the dirt here... Shaun and Zosia scramble up a scrubby gully.
Fun stuff! Shaun and Zosia surmount a knoll en route to the grassy plateau.
Follow the leader! Shaun, Wil and Zosia can see their way clear to the grassy plateau.
These are the same people-sized hoodoos that crowded around Dinah! Zosia, Shaun and Wil stand atop some interesting hoodoos.
Shaun was so balanced that he couldn't even turn his head here! Shaun balances on a very tricky hoodoo to get up.
Don't need to pick up the soap! Sonny enjoys a "soak" in a bathtub-sized hole amidst the hoodoos.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Just as Bob Spirko described the top of the mesa--boring! Wil, Shaun and Zosia hike on top of the grassy plateau.
More maze running! Descending from the grassy plateau, the group faces some route-finding challenges to get to the two knobs (left of centre) in the distance.
Great job route-finding! Zosia and Shaun work their way closer to the two knobs.
Hooray! Shaun, Zosia and Wil stand atop the lower of the two knobs (792 metres).
I think I found a fossilized bone here. The group makes their way up the higher knob.
The Knob Masters! Wil, Shaun, Zosia and Sonny stand atop the higher knob (793 metres).
What's for lunch? Wil, Zosia and Shaun take a well-deserved break on the higher knob.  Red Deer River is visible at far left.

It's not a rattlesnake...I think!

Sonny tries unsuccessfully to pick up a small snake.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak


Anyone have a portable raft? Shaun, Wil and Zosia descend to the shores of Red Deer River looking for an easier route back to their starting point.  Unfortunately, they would be forced to head back into the maze of the badlands.
Not a fossil! Sonny picks up the lower jaw bone of some rodent.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

On easy street except for the long climb back up to the parking lot! Shaun and Zosia find a trail which leads easily back to the road near the day use area.
The perfect hike for a smoky day. Total Distance:  11.6 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  6 hours 9 minutes
Cumulative Elevation Gain:  553 metres

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