Near the town of Drumheller, the rolling prairie suddenly parts to reveal one of Alberta’s natural wonders: Horsethief Canyon.
We’ve been staying close to home recently, and taking Slow Travel somewhat more local.
The badlands of Alberta are rich with things to do, but this canyon hike might just be my favourite! Read on to discover everything you need to know about Horsethief Canyon.
Horsethief Canyon vs Horseshoe Canyon
First things first, if you have seen mention of both Horsethief Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon: Yes. They are different canyons!
Horse Thief Canyon is just north of Drumheller and is the less famous of the two.
Horse Shoe Canyon is right beside one of the highways leading into Drumheller, which is my theory as to why it is busier and more famous.
So, How Are They Different?
Horsethief Canyon is much bigger than Horseshoe Canyon, and as I mentioned, less trafficked. There are no services here, just a gravel parking lot with a sign.
Horseshoe Canyon has a paved parking lot with pit toilets, and a picnic area above the canyon. Parking here will cost you $2.
Besides the walkway down being a bit steep, Horseshoe Canyon is actually accessible! The hike however, is very short.
If you want to see both, definitely go to Horseshoe Canyon first! The hike is quick, and while still worth your time, it will seem less impressive after Horsethief Canyon.
Getting to Horsethief Canyon
Horsethief Canyon is just north of the town of Drumheller. It’s actually very close to the Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum, so it’s a great activity to plan for the same day.
If you are coming from far, Calgary is the nearest big city to arrive in. You will need a car to get to Horsethief Canyon and the other attractions of the Alberta badlands.
From Calgary, the drive is about 1 hour 45 minutes.
From Drumheller, it is only 15 minutes up “Dinosaur Trail” – HWY 838.
Where to stay
If you want to stay very close to Horsethief Canyon, there are camping and hotel options in and around Drumheller.
Drumheller can be on the pricier side when it comes to small town Alberta hotels, especially during the summer. For that reason we have never actually stayed in Drumheller.
When we visit the Drumheller area, we either stay in Calgary and drive east for the day, or we stay in the nearby town of Hanna (a 53 minute drive.)
Remember that everything is fairly spread out in Alberta, so we think nothing of driving for an hour and 45 minutes in the morning. If your road trip tolerance is lower, it may be worth it to stay closer.
There is plenty to do in Drumheller, if you are trying to decide whether to do a day trip or stay a while. We have the luxury of coming back any weekend, but if you want to see it all in one go, one afternoon is not enough.
Where to eat
It’s a good idea to pack a lunch when you go to the canyon, so that you can sit a while and enjoy the incredible views!
There is no place to eat in the vicinity, so you will need to bring food from your accommodation, or pick something up in Drumheller.
For more about where to stay and eat during your trip to Drumheller, see this article about the Drumheller Valley.
Why Is It Called Horsethief Canyon?
I was pretty curious about where this canyon got its name. Being in the badlands it conjures up images of the wild west.
So is that why?
The canyon was supposedly used to hide stolen livestock back in the day. The legend says that horse thieves would travel the canyon as part of their route to slip into Montana.
If you read the picture of the sign you will have noticed that it spins a similar tale. Suggesting that branded horses would reappear from the canyon sporting a different brand from when they entered.
Whether it’s fact, fiction, or speculation, I guess we will never know. It’s fun to think about though, as you look over the vast labyrinth of canyons within the canyon.
Why Visit Horsethief Canyon
The views of Horsethief Canyon are absolutely incredible!
Layers of different coloured sand, clay, and rock deposits, form small colourful “mountains” as far as the eye can see.
It is the closest thing we have to the Grand Canyon here in Alberta (and maybe Canada!)
When we visited in mid-May, the canyon was even a little green still.
A nice scene before the hot summer sun comes along to scorch it all. At that time, with the river shining in the distance, you could almost pretend you were somewhere else.
Guide to Hiking Horsethief Canyon
If you want only a quick photo op, then the parking lot above will do perfectly well.
There is no need to enter the canyon for a good view. The prairie dogs will greet you as they pop out of their burrows in the grassy field above.
There is something about the canyon that calls you to get right in there and explore! If you weren’t sure when you planned your trip, the itch to hike will definitely strike when you look down onto all the places you can climb.
It’s easy to see how someone could live a quiet life down there, with just a campfire and some stolen horses.
How Long Does the Hike Take?
We goofed a little in our planning and went to Horsethief after we spent the day in Drumheller, thinking that it would be very similar to Horseshoe Canyon. It isn’t really.
In Horseshoe, if you stuck to the main gravel path, you would be in and out in 15 minutes.
You could be in Horsethief Canyon for hours if you wanted to. We took about 25 minutes at the end of a busy day, and only really climbed one hill to look around.
We will be smarter next time and head there in the morning with a packed lunch and plan to spend most of the day.
The summer daylight hours up here are great for long days in the Drumheller Valley! You have lots of time to do all the hiking you want. You could spend hours here, visit the museum, and still have daylight for the hoodoos, so take your time!
Hiking Trails in Horsethief Canyon
In Horseshoe Canyon you are asked to stick to the trails so that the ecosystem can recover from the heavy traffic it has experienced in recent years. That’s great, and we are happy to oblige, but unfortunately only one trail is clearly an official trail, so it was confusing to hike.
Horsethief Canyon is a little more comfortable to hike, because we weren’t as afraid about doing wrong. There is no obvious trail that you must take, and even to climb down into the canyon there are several options.
We were only wearing sneakers and had a tot in tow, and we found the most gradual descent to be the trail straight across from the parking lot, at the end of the field. It was still steep, but nothing crazy.
Once in the canyon, the sheer size is overwhelming!
The trails through Horsethief Canyon are narrow, user-made paths that lead all over the canyon. The area is mostly sand and clay, so they are pretty well packed.
We didn’t see a trail that seemed more major than any other, but there is supposed to be a main path that is about .8 km long. I suspect it is at the bottom of the canyon and we had stuck to climbing in the hills.
From above, hiking Horsethief Canyon looks really challenging!
Lucky for all of us, the climb down into the canyon and back out is the steepest and most abrupt part of the hike.
Once in the canyon, the hills are not so difficult to slowly wind your way up. There are also easier trails that stick to the bottom of the canyon.
Best Time to Visit
I would advise checking what the weather has been like in the days leading up to your hike.
The clay holds moisture like nothing else, and even though it was dry when we went, there were still slippery patches hidden under the sand.
As per usual, I slipped and fell (a hiking norm for me) and this was near the top of a hill, where you would think it would dry first.
All this to say, hiking boots would be best – even though we did it in sneakers, and don’t even ATTEMPT the hike in the rain.
It’s best to visit in:
- Late Spring when the snow has been gone for a while
- Summer or Fall (after a dry week)
- Winter with cleats
Bear in mind that this is a canyon on the prairies, so unless you choose a mild winter day, I imagine it gets windy and extremely cold in the winter.
If you don’t have the luxury of planning your trip around the weather, the fraternal twin Horseshoe Canyon can be hiked any time, because the main path is gravel.
If you still want to hike Horsethief Canyon when it has been wet, bring footwear suitable for climbing a muddy hill. (Probably cleats.)
There is limited or no cell service in Horsethief Canyon, so if you are hiking alone, bring a whistle or flares in case you injure yourself.
Be careful in narrow or steep sections of the trail because of the hidden clay that I mentioned earlier. It really does look like the rest of the dirt, so do test your footing with caution. For the same reason, don’t let your kids run ahead on more skilled parts of the trails.
Of course, being the badlands it could be incredibly dry when you are there, and not have rained for weeks! Fingers crossed.
Plants and Animals
Speaking of safety tips, there are snakes in Horsethief Canyon. The majority of them are harmless.
Dinosaur Provincial Park (also the Alberta badlands) does have rattlesnakes, so in theory this area could too. We did see a small garter snake, but no rattlers, and I would not be too concerned about them.
Despite what you see in movies, rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal. Only 4 people have been bitten in Alberta in the last 20 years.
You will likely see lots of prairie dogs (ground squirrels) during your visit, especially near the parking lot.
This is not bear country, so you don’t need to be worried about large predators in the canyon.
You will see some cacti, which is a rare sight in Alberta! I am not a cactus expert and couldn’t find a lot of information online, so I will say that the canyon is home to both a yellow and pink flowering cactus. (Very official)
While I don’t know for sure, I don’t believe camping is permitted in the canyon itself.
I was able to find a page where someone mentioned camping in their vehicle overnight in the gravel lot above. That would be a fine place for an overnight rest stop and to watch the sun go down, but a fire would not be permitted and it isn’t somewhere you would want to actually stay.
The good news is that there are many camping options in the area. So if you want to save some money visiting the badlands, you should be able to get a spot!
If you Google provincial parks or provincial recreation areas, there are plenty within a short drive. I would recommend some, but I have never camped in the area. Maybe this summer!
Is Horseshoe Canyon or Horsethief Canyon Better?
If you hadn’t picked it up yet, I think Horsethief Canyon is a thousand times better!
Not only is it better for hiking and has better views, there are less crowds and you are likely to be alone in nature for long parts of your hike.
Where Horseshoe Canyon would win, is in the event of a heavy rain, where it would still be hikeable and Horsethief would be a slippery mess.
Horseshoe Canyon IS still worth the visit, but plan for a short walk, and not a proper hike like Horsethief Canyon.
I hope your first (or next) trip to the Alberta Badlands includes a breath-stealing stop at Horsethief Canyon. I promise it is a hike to remember!