They look like giant, petrified cow patties, strewn across the grasslands in vivid shades of rust and speckled with gnarly bits of multi-coloured lichen. The ones that rest on exposed patches of shale look more like ancient curling rocks used by a mutant race, or maybe extraterrestrial spacecraft that once transported aliens to Earth.Whatever you think you see when you first see these sandstone spheroids, they are actually called concretions and were formed in prehistoric seas as layers of sand, calcite and iron oxide collected around a dead organism such as shells, leaves or bones. They grew as the circulating waters deposited more layers, and are harder and more resistant to erosional forces than everything around them, but they aren’t indestructible.Un(buried) treasures
Most of the concretions are nearly perfectly round or oval.
I’ve come to Red Rock Coulee Natural Area, 800 acres managed by Alberta Parks, to marvel at concretions that measure up to 2.5 metres across and are considered some of the largest in the world. I can’t explain why it took so long to stumble upon this place even though I summer in the area and have driven right by the turnoff countless times.Keith Diakiw feels the same way about “this very unique geological wonder” and plans to explore it soon for Talking Rock Tours. The professional geoscientist went to university in nearby Lethbridge, but only heard about Red Rock Coulee last year at a tourism conference. While the Edmonton-based tour guide has seen his share of concretions in the oilfields, they resembled baseballs and beach balls — not boulders — and he can’t wait to add this spot to his custom trips.The drive
Watch for the single blue sign that says to turn off paved highway on to gravel.
Red Rock Coulee is just 30 minutes southwest of Medicine Hat, a lively city built on natural gas, brick and clay that really should position itself as the base for day trips to this oddball treasure, not to mention the quirky Etzikom Museum and Canadian Historic Windmill Interpretive Centre just a half hour down the road.Leaving Medicine Hat on Hwy. 3, I turn south on Hwy. 887 just before Seven Persons and head towards Manyberries. I count 24 kilometres worth of fields of lentils, barley and winter wheat, grazing cattle and jumpy deer while watching for the blue road sign for Red Rock Coulee.Veering off the paved highway onto gravel for a final few kilometres, the road dead ends in a small parking lot beside a simple log and barbed wire fence and aging government interpretive sign. You can see the rust-coloured concretions from here, but it’s just a short walk, past a single picnic table, to mingle with them in the coulee (that’s Alberta-speak for a deep but dry ravine formed by water erosion).The entry point
There’s a small spot for people to slip through this fence and start exploring.
“Caution: You are in rattlesnake country,” warns that government sign, and since it is dawn my friend and I sing loudly and step carefully.This stretch of southeastern Alberta is home to white-tailed jackrabbits, mule deer, pronghorn, Richardson’s ground squirrels, western rattlesnakes, bull snakes, short-horned lizards and even scorpions. Who knew that the rare northern scorpion, a relative of the regular scorpion, lives in southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia? Or that the venomous creature glows a greenish-yellow in the dark under UV light when it hunts prey?Flora and fauna
This melodic beauty dancing on a concretion turns out to be a rock wren.
I fight the urge to pick up rocks and disrupt scorpions, and sit down to watch a particularly melodic songbird that’s dancing across the top of a concretion. It is small and mousey with an interesting barred tail and longish bill, and a birder friend later identifies it as a rock wren. It must be a male, since the Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls that gender “truly remarkable singers” with a repertoire of more than 100 song types.Rock wrens nest and forage for insects on the ground, and love arid or semi-arid spots with exposed rock. That’s exactly what they get here at Red Rock Coulee, where grassy plateaus give way to steep, eroded coulees dotted with sagebrush, prairie crocus and prickly pear cactus. Horned larks, Sprague’s pipits, prairie falcons, meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows are also spotted here.Out of whack
Concretions have an otherworldly appeal in the middle of the Canadian Badlands.
As Saskatchewan visual artist/photographer Ken Delgarno notes in Badlands: A Geography of Metaphors, Red Rock’s concretions are especially striking because they’re out of whack with the surrounding grasslands, bentonite clay and grass-flecked hills. Seen at dusk or dawn, “the concretions appear like a discovery of strangers, wandering souls, exiled her from another world,” he writes. Delgarno believes the captivating concretions resemble “large dinosaur eggs or alien pods in various states of decay.”Concretions could surely stand in for inkblots for Rorschach tests.A Traveller’s Guide to Geological Wonders in Alberta, published in 1988 by the Provincial Museum of Alberta, devotes two pages to “the strange spheres of Red Rock Coulee.” It says the concretions “can show such remarkable symmetry that they have been erroneously mistaken for dinosaur eggs and brains, meteorites and even fossil animals.” Some are completely exposed. Others are just starting to emerge from the soft shale of the Bearpaw Formation.In search of guidance
I recognize cactus but could have used an expert guide at Red Rock Coulee.
I find myself wishing I’d brought along a geological nerd, but I get the next best thing from the folks at the Esplanade Archives in Medicine Hat — two typed pages and a hand-drawn map called “Information on Red Rock Coulee” written by the late Hope Johnson and shared from the Medicine Hat Historical and Museum Foundation.Johnson — an avid naturalist, amateur paleontologist and published illustrator of dinosaur fossils — provides explicit driving directions and details things like a small area of badlands within the coulee that’s much like Dinosaur Provincial Park. She enthuses about the shooting stars, golden beans, torch flowers, blue violets and wild roses that bloom in early summer.“Visitors are cautioned that the bedrock of this area is very bentonitic, which means that is is extremely treacherous when wet,” Johnson points out. “If rain threatens, get out fast, and do not visit this area in thawing conditions, nor shortly after any amount of rain.” I already know from travels through Alberta and Wyoming’s dinosaur country that mudstones made of bentonite turn into a slippery, greenish “dinosaur snot” when wet.Perhaps this is why Alberta Environment and Parks says Red Rock Coulee is only technically open from May to September. There aren’t any gates, but the winter road isn’t plowed and the concretion area may be treacherous when covered in snow or wet.Making family memories
With the Sweet Grass Hills on the horizon, my kids enjoy a concretion.
I explore Red Rock another time in the gentle heat of the mid-morning summer sun. My husband, who is from these parts, is excited to see the small but distinctive Sweet Grass Hills of Montana on the horizon. My kids romp, mesmerized by every interesting concretion and every ordinary rock in the area, and make enough noise to ward off rattlesnakes.The secret is out
Nothing lasts forever. Not even the concretions of Red Rock Coulee.
When we arrive, we have Red Rock Coulee to ourselves. When we leave less than an hour later, the parking lot is jammed, relatively speaking, with seven cars. I hesitate to share news of such a special place so widely, but the truth is that as the parent material erodes, these lovely concretions are exposed and begin to slowly erode.
You’ll see concretions in various states of decay mingling with perfect siblings.
Some concretions are already split in half, broken into jagged bits or in the throes of cracking up. Take time to look closely and you might see “growth rings” (layers of sediment deposition) and fossilized shells, leaves and bones.No matter what shape they’re in, these gorgeous concretions deserve to be worshipped a little before they disappear, just like dinosaurs and aliens.
I love the desert vibe of Red Rock Coulee and each and every concretion.