Friday, August 05, 2016

Paddling the Alberta Badlands

Buy a boat, rent a boat, borrow a boat....but do what you have to do to find a canoe or set of kayaks because this is an adventure you'll want to add to your family's adventure bucket list. You can even use a stand up paddleboard to explore the Red Deer River through the Alberta Badlands.

Canoeing and Kayaking on the Red Deer River through the Alberta Badlands

Family-friendly Paddling on the Red Deer River

The Red Deer River starts up in the mountains where you'd want to join a rafting tour if you were to paddle it. Hop on below the city of Red Deer though and you're set for an easy float trip that is great for novice paddlers and completely family-friendly.

Reasons I love paddling the Red Deer River:

  • The biggest obstacle you'll hit is a sand bar. Fall off your stand up paddleboard on sand and it doesn't hurt very much. Hit a sand bar with your canoe or kayak and you won't do any damage or tip your boat.

  • You could paddle up river if you wanted to on this barely moving river. (good news if your child has dropped a toy, paddle, or water bottle in the river.) - yep, it's happened

  • You'll have lots of time to practice your canoe strokes, to master kayaking, or to work on your balance while SUPing down the river. This river resembles a gently moving lake and at times doesn't move at all. There are no sharp corners to maneuver around, there are few to no sweepers or strainers, and you'll see the odd rock coming up ahead of you in plenty of time to steer around it

  • You can just enjoy the paddle without worrying about the children falling in. If they do, the water is warm and you'll easily pluck them out of the river in seconds since it's so slow moving.

  • you can enjoy relaxed floating without worrying about the next set of rapids, wondering what's around the next corner, or having to focus too hard on any of your technique. This is truly a great trip for novice paddlers.

A gentle river that you can SUP your way down

Safety Notes: The river can change dramatically during flood conditions, in times of high water during spring run off, or after a few days of heavy rain. Even on our last trip, it rained a lot overnight and the river was faster on our second day. It was also much murkier so you couldn't see the bottom at all. This could have made it harder to see the odd rock or sand bar below you.

It is always advised to have "some" experience in a canoe or kayak before launching your boat down a river. If you are a solid newbie who doesn't know a J-stroke from a sweep, perhaps consider taking a lesson first.

Finally, the Red Deer River attracts some wicked storms in summer. It's advised that you have some form of shelter set up by mid-afternoon and that you get on the river early in the morning. By 3:00pm you could be looking at thunderstorms and even the occasional tornado warning. (We had a tornado tracking down the river on our first Red Deer River trip and it was terrifying!)

Gentle floating down the Red Deer River through the Alberta Badlands

Paddling from Content Bridge to Drumheller

This is the most popular stretch of the Red Deer River that most folks will paddle and it takes roughly four days to do the entire distance of 119 km. (longer if you are on a stand up paddleboard or if you want to enjoy shorter days with children.)

For information on this route, please read this document: Paddling in the Canadian Badlands from Paddle Alberta. It's one of the most detailed documents I've found outlining where to camp, how to break up the trip, and what to see along the way.

We have not done the entire trip yet but are breaking it down into weekend outings to make it more family-friendly and realistic for our schedule.

Scrambling the hoodoos on a rest break along the Red Deer River

Our Recent Trip: Tolman Bridge to Bleriot Ferry

We originally planned to drive out Friday night, to camp in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park at Tolman Bridge, to paddle to the Starland Recreation Area on Saturday (camping in the official campground here or randomly along the river,) and then to paddle to the Bleriot Ferry, up river of Drumheller on Sunday (where we would have a second vehicle waiting.)

Put in spot at Tolman Bridge

We ended up establishing a paddle base camp at the the Starland campground instead for Saturday night and we only started Saturday morning, dropping our trailer at Starland, and then driving to Tolman to put in.

Our base camp at the Starland Recreation Area Campground

Setting up a base camp made for LOTS of shuttling Saturday morning since we still had to leave a second vehicle at Bleriot and had to coordinate all of this with friends. However, it made us feel safer because bad storms were expected for Saturday afternoon/evening and we didn't want to be camped along the side of the river with no shelter. (in the end, it was a very smart decision and we would not have been very comfortable in our small tent beside the river Saturday night during the large storm that blew in.)

Take out spot at the Bleriot Ferry

Total Trip Distance:

Tolman  Bridge to Morrin Bridge (Starland Recreation Area) day one - 23 km

Morrin Bridge to the Bleriot Ferry day two - 10 km

Paddling under the Morrin Bridge

It's always nice to have a shorter second day since you'll have to finish off your shuttle and drive home.

Canoeing and kayaking the Red Deer River towards the Morrin Bridge

Other Stretches of the Red Deer River that we've paddled:

The next most popular stretch of the Red Deer River through the Alberta Badlands is from Drumheller heading south for Dinosaur Provincial Park. It is 145 km by river from Drumheller to the Dinosaur Provincial Park Campground.

We spent two days on the river doing portions of this stretch.

We paddled from Emerson Bridge and Campground (where we camped Friday night) to the Steveville Bridge and Campground (where we camped Saturday night.) We then paddled to Dinosaur Provincial Park on Sunday and drove home.

I always SUP the Red Deer River

Distances for this trip:

Emerson Bridge to Steveville Bridge - 28 km (very long day on a stand up paddleboard!!)

Steveville Bridge to Dinosaur Provincial Park - 14 km

For more information on this section of the river, pick up a copy of Mark's Guide for Alberta Paddlers. It has every section broken down  by distance with campgrounds listed along the way.

Paddling the Red Deer River in an inflatable kayak

More Reasons to Paddle the Red Deer River

MUD!! Glorious mud to play in along the river.

The kids could stay here all day playing in the mud

Opportunities to scramble through the badlands, climb hoodoos, and to play along the river.

Playing in the hoodoos and climbing hills in the Badlands along the river

Hours of Family Bonding! (what else are you going to do for 5 hours while you float down the river?)

Floating down the Red Deer River

It's an excellent option for stand up paddle boarders who want a bit of a flow to help with the paddling and fear head winds on lake circuits!

SUP paddling the Red Deer River

It's gives you a great wilderness experience without having to carry your gear into a backcountry campground, without having to spend hours on a hiking trail, or without having to worry about a lot of wildlife. This is one of the safer ways to have a "wilderness experience."

Miles away from the nearest town on the Red Deer River

Next Up? 

Our next Red Deer Trip will likely start above Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park so that we can explore this interesting park.

We're also interested in doing a base camp canoe trip from Dinosaur Provincial Park next summer so that we can enjoy some short day trips on the river combined with hiking in the provincial park.

Paddling on the Red Deer River


  1. 28km on a SUP! That is long! This looks like a fun adventure. We love the badlands but have never considered canoeing through them. Yet another adventure to add to our list :) Thx

  2. Lovely summary of your trip. You always provide an excellent guide to the trips in Alberta and British Columbia. For people exploring the outdoors, they are very valuable.

  3. I'm hearing the mosquitoes are quite bad in the area this year. Did you have issues while on the river?

    1. We didn't have any issues but conditions change all the time so they may be different now than we went much earlier this year.
      Right now I'm not finding mosquitoes to be a problem anywhere I go.
      And generally they are fine on the water. It's at camp that they are a problem. So stay close to the water. :)

  4. Can you advise how long it will likely take to paddle from Bleriot Ferry to Rosedale?

    1. I'm not sure. Sorry. It would depend on how fast the water is moving and how many kilometres that section is. I haven't done that section personally.

  5. Is Red Deer River swimmable, or is it too muddy (or full of manure)?