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Hoodoo Aurora Borealis.

The Hoodoos of Drumheller Valley: Tall Tales of Sandstone Towers


In the badlands of Alberta, Canada, unusually shaped rock-formations which rise to 20 feet tall, grace the landscape. According to Blackfoot and Cree traditions, these rocks are petrified giants who come alive at night to protect their land by throwing stones at trespassers. A legend of the Paiute Indians, who inhabited the area for hundreds of years before the arrival of European Americans, claims the colorful hoodoos are ancient people who were turned to stone as punishment for bad deeds.

Today we know the rocks were created by erosion, shaped by wind and water. These hoodoos (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney or earth pyramid) have been carved over millions of years into pillar-like shapes. They’re formed from soft sandstone, and most are capped with a harder rock which sits on top like a hat. The cap rock slows the process of complete erosion by keeping them from disintegrating at the same speed as the surrounding sandstone. The sandstone structures will ultimately be worn away and break, and the harder top rock will eventually come crashing down.

Badlands, Drumheller (Public Domain)

Badlands, Drumheller (Public Domain)

Hoodoos are found mainly in the desert in hot, dry areas and smaller versions of these sandstone giants can be found all over the Badlands. In common usage, the difference between hoodoos and pinnacles (or spires) is that hoodoos have a variable thickness while spires, have a smoother profile or uniform thickness that taper upward from the ground.

Hoodoos Around the World

Hoodoos, not unique to Alberta, Canada or the North American continent, are commonly found on the Colorado Plateau and abundant in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Hoodoos are also prominent a few hundred miles away at Goblin Valley State Park on the eastern side of the San Rafael Swell as well as other parts of the world.

Several are found in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France and one of the most famous examples is the formation called ‘ Demoiselles Coiffées de Pontis’ since hoodoos in French are called ‘ladies with hairdos’ ( demoiselles coiffées) or  cheminées de fees which translates to ‘fairy chimneys’.

Hoodoos ( peribacası) houses have been carved into the formations found in the Cappadocia region of Turkey and were depicted on the reverse of a Turkish banknote.

Serbia has about 200 formations described as earth pyramids or towers by local inhabitants. The site is called Đavolja Varoš (Devil's Town) and since 1959 has been protected by the state and nominated in the New Seven Wonders of Nature campaign.

Devil's Town, near Kuršumlija, Serbia (Nikolic / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Devil's Town, near Kuršumlija, Serbia (Nikolic / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The hoodoo stones on the northern coast of Taiwan are unusual for their coastal setting. The stones formed as the seabed rose rapidly out of the ocean during the Miocene period.

Red Deer River Valley Is Rich in Fossils

The Drumheller portion of the Red Deer River Valley in the badlands of Alberta is approximately 1.2 miles (2 km) wide and 17 miles (27.3 km) long. The area is often referred to as Dinosaur Valley because of the abundance of fossils found in the area, beginning in the late 1800s.

In 1884, Joseph Burr Tyrrell, found the skull of a meat-eating dinosaur and named the dinosaur in honor of the newly founded Canadian Province:  Albertosaurus sarcophagus.

Albertosaurus Skull Cast Geological Museum in Copenhagen (Michael BH / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Albertosaurus Skull Cast Geological Museum in Copenhagen (Michael BH / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Over the years thousands of fossils have been collected and 101 years after  Albertosaurus was discovered, the Tyrrell Museum opened. It is now one of the leading dinosaur museums in the world.

The semi-desert badlands surrounding the museum are very different to the lush forests where dinosaurs once roamed. Each year the sediments of the Red Deer River Valley are eroded by nature a little more, revealing more fossils at sites such as Dinosaur Provincial Park, and Hoodoo. Alberta is such a rich fossil province, the museum has multiple specimens for many of the species, enabling them to exhibit a wide collection.

Stiff Fines And Jail Time Await Vandals

Hoodoos take millions of years to form and are so incredibly fragile that the site is protected under the Historical Resources Act. Visitors convicted of defacing or removing property from the site could face a fine of up to $50,000 and/or a year in prison, and yet, some feel the need to leave their mark.

Recently, a Drumheller woman was appalled to see a man scratching into the formations, defacing the hoodoos with a small rock. The man had carved out the word ‘ METTEN’, the name of a town in Germany, and the lady sent a video recording to the police as evidence. Locals are rightly proud of the area.

By contrast, two ladies hiking near the popular tourist attraction found what appeared to be a dinosaur fossil, the leg bone of a hadrosaur, or duck billed dinosaur, and immediately contacted the museum. The rule for fossil collecting in Alberta is that anything still buried in the rock belongs to the government, which is the case with these remains.

Top image: Hoodoo Aurora Borealis.  Source: Doucet, K.E. / CC BY-SA 3.0

By Michelle Freson


Evans, D. 2008: Drumheller. Historica Canada

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Panciroli, E., 2017: A glimpse of when Canada's badlands were a lush dinosaur forest by the sea. The Guardian.

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White, R., Visitor caught on camera defacing hoodoos outside Drumheller. CTV News Calgary

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Michelle Freson's picture


Michelle Freson is a professional writer and editor and has spent many hundreds of wonderful hours working with and learning from fiction writers based all over the globe.

Born in July, 1971, Michelle has long since stopped working out her... Read More

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