Rich dinosaur history makes Coates Conservation Lands a find in the Edmonton area

More than just a spot for a quiet stroll, Coates Conservation Lands in Leduc County was once a spot dinosaurs roamed and paleontologists have the bones, footprints and skin impressions to prove it.

'An exciting place for paleontologists and it's a cool place to go walking,' says dino hunter Philip Currie

Edmonton and Area Land Trust staffer Nikki Paskar spends time at Coates Conservation Lands southwest of Edmonton. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

Nikki Paskar carefully navigates the hiking trail at Coates Conservation Lands, one hour southwest of Edmonton.

"This place is so special to me," says Paskar, conservation coordinator with the Edmonton and Area Land Trust. "You can sit in the serenity of the forest and just relax and think." 

This 32-hectare space features a 1.3-kilometre trail, which meanders through the forest to the bottom of Willow Creek connecting with the North Saskatchewan River a few kilometres away. 

This land is a wildlife corridor for fox, coyote, moose, snowshoe hare and is also home to a variety of birds, Paskar says. 

'An immediate sense of tranquility'

4 months ago
Duration 1:39
Tag along on a tour of Coates Conservation Lands, a natural area with a rich dinosaur history, an hour southwest of Edmonton.

You can see more from Coates Conservation Lands on Our Edmonton on Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 11 a.m. Monday on CBC TV and CBC Gem. You can also find it and 55 other green space gems in the capital region on this map.

Open to the public in 2016, the land was donated to the land trust by Ethel Coates who wanted to see the spot "conserved in perpetuity." 

A natural legacy

Born in 1922 to a farming family in Carbon, Alta., Coates spent 45 years working for Imperial Oil and traveled the world. 

Her niece Cheryl Bissell says Coates taught her family about birds, how to ski and canoe.

"She made you pay attention to nature and all of its offerings, all the while relishing in it herself," Bissell says.

Adventure and nature lover Ethel Coates donated the land to the trust. (Submitted by Edmonton and Area Land Trust)

Coates decided to retire in the Calmar area and found "her little piece of heaven" in Willow Creek.

For close to 30 years she gardened, kept bees, walked the hills and valleys and skated on the creek. 

"She loved her land with a passion and never ever wanted to leave it," Bissell says.

Coates died in 2014 at the age of 92. 

In addition to her zeal for nature there was another reason to protect the space — dinosaurs.

A dinosaur bone identified in Willow Creek in the summer of 2015 at Coates Conservation Lands. (Submitted by Edmonton and Area Land Trust)

Dinosaur discoveries

"In the early 1990s Hadrosaur footprints were extracted from the area via helicopter and brought to the Royal Tyrrell Museum," Paskar says.

"Shortly after that they found Albertosaurus skin impressions as well as a number of dinosaur bones."

Philip Currie remembers it well.

"It's a pretty cool story," says the paleontology professor at the University of Alberta.

The world-renowned dinosaur hunter was called to the area in 1994 to investigate a find by 12-year-old Tess Owen and her father Tom Owen. 

The skin impression of an Albertosaurus, a type of tyrannosaur, was found at the bottom of the creek. The fossil may have fallen from the cliff above although, Currie says, they weren't able to pinpoint the exact spot. 

It's now in the back collections of the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, where researchers are still studying it.

"In fact, it has attracted a lot of attention over the years because skin impressions of tyrannosaurs are pretty rare," Currie says.

Philip Currie leads a team of University of Alberta students unearthing dinosaur bones at a quarry in south Edmonton in 2017. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

Alberta is rich with specimens and the Edmonton area is no exception. 

"Even people who dig sewers hit dinosaur bones periodically," Currie says.

Protected areas like Coates, where people can wander and observe, are fantastic.

"I think it's an exciting place for paleontologists and it's a cool place to go walking."

Coates and 10 other natural areas are open to the public under the stewardship of the Edmonton and Area Land Trust.

The day-use area has interpretive signs along the trail and a small parking lot at the intersection of Township Road 502A and Range Road 280.

A view of Willow Creek running through Coates Conservation Lands. (David Bajer/CBC)


Adrienne Lamb


Adrienne Lamb is the host and producer of Our Edmonton featured weekly on CBC TV. She served for several years as CBC Radio's national arts reporter in Edmonton. Prior to moving to Alberta in 2001, Adrienne worked at CBC in Ontario and New Brunswick. Adrienne is a graduate of Western University with a degree in English and Anthropology and a Masters in Journalism.


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