by Pam Hobbs

Dinosaurs are definitely in vogue these days. You see them as soft toys and home decor accessories, fashioned into costume jewelry and grinning from children's school gear. But believe me, nothing is as exciting as the real thing exhibited in natural habitats recreated here at the Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, 87 miles northeast of Calgary - 180 miles south of Edmonton. If you come through its doors feeling lukewarm about prehistoric monsters, be assured you will leave hopelessly hooked.

The Red Deer River has been world famous for its dinosaurs since the first remains were found accidentally by Joseph Tyrrell in the spring of 1884. Leading an expedition for the geological Survey of Canada, he was here to study coal seams. In addition to large coal beds he came across a 70 million-year old dinosaur skull. Realizing its value he looked around for more, and soon his wagon was so loaded down it broke an axle - necessitating several trips to cart the fossilized specimens out of the valley. Once they were verified, paleontologists arrived on the scene to claim the best specimens for natural history museums around the world. The great dinosaur rush was on.

With more bones being found all the time, and an ever-growing interest in dinosaurs, a permanent storage and display facility was required. In 1987 this huge museum was built with nearly 48,000 square feet of display space, a 200 seat auditorium, research library, storage areas and laboratories. It is named for the man who discovered that first skull: Joseph Burr Tyrrell.

Located in Midland Provincial Park, this is the first Canadian institution devoted entirely to paleontology, of life through fossils. Its display of 200 dinosaurs is the largest under one roof, anywhere and takes us back to life on earth some three billion years ago. For $4 per person (2 for $7) you can rent a cassette player and taped commentary to guide you on your museum tour.

Simulated dig sites contain a jumble of unconnected bones and fossils of huge Cretaceous fish. During the devonian period, 350 million years ago, the land we know as Alberta was covered by oceans. All classes of fish developed. Some were small, others over 30 feet long. As fresh water pools began to dry up, the fish learned to struggle onto land and take their first gulps of air. The most spectacular development occurred during the era when reptiles dominated both land and sea 150 years ago. Hadrosaurs, known as duckbills, were commonplace here 70 million years ago. They appear to have moved with ease on land and in water. Specimens preserved with stomach contents indicate a diet of coniferous leaves and branches. Recent finds indicate that their oblong eggs were larger than a human hand, laid in double rows of 12 to 14 eggs beneath an incubating bed of rotting vegetation.

When touring Alberta do allow two or three days for the Drumheller area, so you can visit the museum's field station in Dinosaur Provincial Park. Unless you have been to the moon, park scenery is unlike anything you've ever seen. In places it is starkly devoid of vegetation. Intricately sculpted into hills and gullies now, the area was a series of deltas and river flood plains millions of years ago. These are Alberta's Badlands, their name derived from the time when early French trappers knew the region as "mauvaise terre". Natural erosion has created unbelievable sculptures, sink holes, striking multi-colored layers of rock accumulated over millions of years. For good reason then this 30 square mile Dinosaur Provincial Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Most of the Tyrrell Museum's bones were found within the park. Important fossils are wrapped in burlap and plaster of Paris for their journey into Drumheller, often by helicopter because of the bundle's size and weight. A two-mile drive through the park leads to outdoors exhibits, including a hadrosaurus skeleton on the site where it was discovered by the park's first ranger in l959.

In July and August park interpreters lead various tours into the restricted-access Natural Preserve. There are also self-guided interpretive walking trails. Resident birds are best observed in May and June, flowering cacti are at their most brilliant from mid June to mid July and Fall colors from mid September. The126 campsites in the park are particularly popular with families. Sleeping on the very ground crowded with dinosaurs millions of years ago, and to know their bones could be buried beneath your tent - well, "what I did in my summer vacation" stories don't get much better than that.

CONTACTS:, telephone 1-888-440-4240. For information on Dinosaur Provincial Park visit telephone 403-378-4342. Or Travel Alberta at Tel 1-800-Alberta