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Red Deer River Valley – 27 Crossings

When he set a summer riding goal to explore the crossings and curves of the Red Deer River valley, this Albertan finally saw his own back yard in a whole new light.

You rode your motorcycle all the way to Trochu and back this morning?”

Yes, I said.

“Why? Do you know someone there? Do they have the best pie in Alberta?” 

No. I didn’t even stop in town, but the river crossing just east of the town has a few nice curves. 

Reason enough? Motorcyclists understand but the rest just shake their heads. For those living on the Canadian prairies curvy roads are in short supply. We long for a little lean angle. We frequently ride three or four hours out of our way on the rumour of a single kilometre of sensuous snaking asphalt. We plan all year for a week riding where the curves never end, and we dream of that elusive adventure to faraway places. So what is a guy to do when time and responsibilities continue to hold the adventure hostage in our imaginations?

This summer my brother and I decided to have an adventure on our own terms. We set a local riding goal and promised to get it done one way or another. We chose to explore the curves and crossings of the Red Deer River valley, which may not be the most storied or exotic place on earth, but the entire length of the river is, for us, nearby.

The Red Deer River has its source high on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains from where it meanders east, then south and then east again across Alberta before joining the South Saskatchewan River near the provincial boarder. There are 27 places where a motor vehicle can cross this river and we determined to ride across every one.

And so it began on a Sunday afternoon, me riding south, my brother riding east from our homes to meet in Cereal, Alberta, a town that proved to be the first of many surprises. After driving in a straight line for many miles I suddenly realized that Alberta Highway 41 was about to disappear over the edge of a small coulee. Just over the edge hangs the picturesque town of Cereal, as quaint a discovery as you will find. Stick to the main roads in a rush to get to better places and you will miss most of what there is to see. But that is not what this adventure would be about. We were looking for a few curves in our own backyard. 

Traveling south and east from Cereal the landscape continued to open up, dry out, and rumours of ghosts began to haunt our thoughts. By the time we arrived at the first bridge near the mouth of the Red Deer River we had found the Canadian Old West. 

The valley is wide and the corners open as the river prepares to expend into the South Saskatchewan. We crossed the river on Route 899 and entered a mostly boarded-up ghost town called Empress. About the only building still open for business was the old bank. It had been transformed into an art shop/coffee shop/bed and breakfast hoping to coax a few dollars from the pockets of tourists who found their way here looking for rattlesnakes and the ghosts of cowboys long gone. We got our fill of chili and stories, and eventually the stories turned to the topic of bridges. When the locals told us of a narrow bridge over the Red Deer River that didn’t show up on our maps we were eager to get on with our adventure.

bridge over the red deer river

Traveling west we crossed bridge No. 2 on Highway 41 and then took gravel roads through Bindloss and down the valley to the old, rusty single-lane Range Road 30A bridge. The wood plank surface was in such bad repair I thought I might go down, but we crossed the river safely for a third time. With the setting sun in our eyes we continued west to Buffalo Bridge and a quiet campground in the trees next to the river for the night. Trees are scarce in southeastern Alberta, as are people, towns and gas stations. 

In the morning we cruised through open ranch land. Our companions as we dodged gophers on the road were cows and pronghorn antelope. The only interruption in this large landscape was the river cutting through it. We explored less traveled highways first on one side of the river and then the other. As we made our way west we started to encounter cultivated land interspersed with pastures. Trees now lined fences and pointed the location of farms. At this point we were once again searching the dirt roads. It was a long ways between the last bridge and the next, but we knew that somewhere in between there was a ferry crossing. 

The pavement turned to tarred gravel, which turned to gravel, and then crossing Texas cattle gates the road surface became dirt and gravel. As we stopped for a large herd of cattle on the road it was clear we were approaching the river again, though we thought we were lost. Several dusty turns later we saw cables stretched across the river, and found our way onto the deck of the Finnegan Ferry. 

I consider the Finnegan Ferry to be the southeastern edge of the Drumheller area—the heart of the so-called Dinosaur Valley—which is bracketed by two ferries. The Finnegan Ferry we had just crossed in the southeast and the Bleriot Ferry in the northwest. Between the two ferries there are close to 80 km of smooth asphalt following the curves of the Red Deer River along valley bottom. 

You can cross the Red Deer River on four different bridges and two ferries. Plus there are 14 different roads that rise out of the valley. Add world class attractions such as the Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum to the good roads and it is easy to spend three or four days enjoying this area.

Being local boys we had seen it all before, but this time we had the advantage of a whole new perspective given to us by our self-imposed ride goals.

It was now approaching 2 p.m. and since we had not had a meal or a good drink all day we headed straight for the Last Chance Saloon up 11 Bridges Road for a late afternoon brunch. Okay, it was anything but straight as the road up to Wayne, Alberta really does have 11 bridges, holding the Guinness Book of World Records title as the most bridges to be found within the shortest distance.

With evening approaching we decided to find a few more bridges before returning home for work and family obligations. 

The bridges north of Drumheller are the real sweet spot of this adventure. From the Bleriot Ferry north you will find four bridges before the river turns west again. Here, the river valley is at its deepest and steepest. Every crossing will serve up sharp lean angles and interesting scenery. If you are traveling in a westerly direction from the prairies toward the mountains and want to find a few curves on your way this is where you want to cross the river. My favourite is Morrin Bridge on Highway 27. 

It would be several weeks before I could get away again to look for more crossings. When the day came I got on the road by 7 a.m. and reached the crossing at Content Bridge around nine. From there I traveled west up river toward the city of Red Deer where there are five bridges that are only worth crossing if you need to get somewhere in town. 

However, west of the city things get interesting again. The landscape begins to change. The rolling parkland of central Alberta transitions to forested foothills, and though the river valley is not so deep here, the roads between bridges are more likely to twist and turn a little. 

The ride across the spillway at Dickson Dam just west of Innisfail provides another unique experience. After crossing the dam I got lost for a while in the multitude of small crisscrossing secondary highways. I finally stopped to ask for directions and eventually found my way to the bridge in the western town of Sundre. There was just one bridge left. My goal was within reach, but 60 km down forestry trunk roads. My Suzuki V-Strom is called a dualsport by some, but not by me with my limited off-road experience. 

I rode around town until I spotted a KLR at a gas station. It was not hard to identify the owner. He was more than happy to inform me of current road conditions to the west and I decided to go for it. The next two hours riding into the forests and foothills was the best leg of the entire adventure. When I reached the bridge on trunk road No. 40 near the Mountain-Aire Lodge I felt a sense of accomplishment as good for me as if I had reached the Arctic Circle. 

In the end I found 27 crossings of the Red Deer River: 24 bridges, two ferries, and one dam. Four of the crossings are only accessible by gravel roads, which I don’t normally spend time on. Having a riding goal forced me a little out of my normal riding habits, and after having discovered Alberta’s backcountry forestry service roads I know I will be back for more. I ride as much as I can every summer, but having a local objective really added a sense of adventure and interest to it all.

by Marvin Penner Canadian Biker  #317

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