Dino digs, giant bugs, and T-Rex's cousin called Lilian. Renata Rubnikowicz discovers the West is still wild
"Hey, Cody, look at those big bugs."
"This is way cool."
These skater boys are entranced by an exhibit of Burgess Shale 12 times life-size at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, in western Canada's Alberta province.
A fearsome 86ft-tall T-Rex looms over the visitor centre in nearby Drumheller, a 90-minute drive north-east from Calgary over prairie plains deserted by the buffalo long ago.
Crouched in the Badlands that hide the fossil deposits from which many of the exhibits have been excavated, the museum features a window on the preparation lab where its 75 million-year-old finds are painstakingly cleaned for display, as well as enough jaw-droppingly huge dinosaur skeletons to bring out the Flintstone in any family.
Don't miss Albertosaurus, a teenage cousin of T-Rex, found locally, and named as a new species of dinosaur in 1905, the same year Alberta was named a province. Lest Al should think guys rule, his replica in the main gallery has been nicknamed Lilian by staff.
In this museum the visitors contribute to the discoveries and research. As well as Dinosite!, an introduction to paleontology for children who can help identify real dinosaur remains in an ancient bone bed, family sleepovers and summer day camps for seven to 12-year-olds, the museum runs day digs (for ages 10 to adult) all summer. Last year, close to the museum, participants helped uncover the femur of a duck-billed dinosaur and 540 other fossils. Another two hours into the hoodoos (the otherworldly sandstone pillars that guard Alberta's ancient secrets) is Dinosaur Provincial Park, a Unesco world heritage site and scene of even more Cretaceous activity, with its own separate summer visitor programme and campsite.
Moving on a good few million years, and a couple of hours' drive south of Calgary in the Oldman River Valley near Fort Macleod, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is another Unesco world heritage site. Its interpretive centre, built into the sandstone cliff, celebrates the culture of the Blackfoot Nation, members of which still live in the area and run the centre.
In the Porcupine Hills, archaeologists found evidence of 6,000 years of buffalo hunting, while local people drew on grandparents' memories of the great drives that sent the animals hurtling to their deaths over the cliff to create a unique picture of the plains people's lives before contact with the Europeans: the "dog days" when they had no horses, no metal, no material, no beads and no guns. The culture still feels alive in the centre. Guides tell the same stories which their ancestors told of their history - just a few words in the Blackfoot language brings a shiver of connection with the past.
As with the Royal Tyrrell Museum, a day is barely enough to take in the centre and explore the trails. Summer visitors can see dance and drumming demonstrations, while for those that book early there is a chance to spend a night in a traditional teepee. In downtown Calgary, the absorbing Blackfoot Gallery at the Glenbow Museum, with interpreters on hand every day in the summer, takes the First Nations story up to the present day.
And the origin of the name of the jump? Well, what would happen to a curious young boy who hid below the cliff as the buffalo thundered down?
Towards the end of the 19th century, when settlers arriving on $10-a-head train excursions had killed almost all the 60 million buffalo, starving the native people, and whiskey traders from Fort Whoop-Up had further undermined their resistance, the British sent a detachment of Mounties west to the Rockies to establish law and order in the territory. These pioneering Redcoats are remembered at the Fort Museum of the North West Mounted Police at Fort Macleod.
In the beginning, says the museum's executive director Christopher Cheesman, "they were a rag-tag bunch, not a great force in scarlet".
Without the lavish resources of its near neighbour, Head-Smashed-In, the simple wooden fort and its contents eloquently tell of Alberta's settlement by Europeans.
Another way of learning about this more recent history is to stay on a ranch, such as Homeplace Ranch, a short drive south of Calgary. When not taking visitors out on horseback into the foothills of the Rockies, owner "Mac" Makenny likes to sit in his rocking chair by the wood-burning stove and tell tales of how his parents and grandparents made the land their home over the past hundred years. The traditions of the West continue, and his father's beautifully beaded and fringed buckskin jacket still hangs on the wall of the ranch house to prove it.
Royal Tyrrell Museum, www.tyrrellmuseum.com; Dinosaur Provincial Park, www.cd.gov.ab.caparksdinosaur, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, www.head-smashed-in.com; Fort Museum of the North West Mounted Police, www.nwmpmuseum.com; Homeplace Ranch, www.homeplaceranch.com; Glenbow Museum, www.glenbow.org. More information: www.travelalberta.com; www.albertasouth.com.Canadian Affair offers seven nights in downtown Calgary and seven nights on a ranch for a family of four with car hire for pound;929 per adult and pound;719 per child. Details: 020 7616 9185; www.canadian-affair.com