For some travellers, Cowboy Culture is the big attraction: Calgary Stampede, vast tracts of farmland and the famous Grade A beef. To others, it’s the Rocky Mountains—snow-capped peaks, pristine wilderness and endearing alpine towns.
Alberta’s unique heritage is also popular with visitors—a potent mix of First Nations history, pioneer spirit and rich immigrant culture. Did we mention the Badlands—the lunar-like landscape running parallel
to the Rockies along the eastern flanks, where dinosaurs once roamed?
From the rocky spine of Waterton Lakes in the south to Wood Buffalo National Park in the far north, Alberta delivers on every front: nature, adventure, scenery, urban escapes and small-town charm.
The two biggest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, should be part of your must-see list, but Alberta is also home to a half dozen thriving smaller cities, such as Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. Each has its own unique flavour, culled from local lore, geography, people and culture.
It’s a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll . . . with a whole lot of “other” thrown into the mix. Go for a five-star dinner, relax at a spa, fish the glacier-fed rivers, or play the back nine where your biggest hazard is the wildlife. Search for ancient rock carvings along the Milk River, or sketch a wildflower-carpeted mountain meadow near Banff or Jasper.
Our travel experiences are Mother Nature-approved—and you only have to visit once to know this is true.
The timeless beauty of our national parks is just the beginning. More than 300 provincial recreational areas will keep you outdoors—with 661,848 sq. km (255,541 sq. mi.) to play in. Five major snow resorts and endless tracts of untrammelled backcountry lure powder-hounds from November to May. Try dogsledding through the untouched Spray Lakes valley, or take a guided ice walk in frozen Maligne Canyon with ice cleats. The lakes of Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary, are a paradise for ice fishing in winter, and boating, hiking and cycling in the summer. Try winter camping at Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton; watch for wildlife, including its resident buffalo. Let your spirits soar at the annual Festival of Eagles bird migration each October in the Rockies. Rent a mountain bike and test the trails in West Bragg Creek, or do a more sedate, but still breathtaking, cycle on the paved path between Banff and Lake Louise.
Adrenaline might just be Alberta’s middle name. Float your boat down a river—North Saskatchewan, Red Deer or the Bow, all fed by glaciers—or head for calmer waters along Lake Minnewanka or Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Bonus: hearing the crack of avalanches overhead, well out of your path but still powerful. Chase powder from the top of world-class resorts such as Lake Louise or Marmot Basin, or explore them in summer—Sunshine Meadows near Banff is a hiker’s paradise, and accessible year-round by gondola to max your time at the top. Canada Olympic Park in northwest Calgary has a national athlete training centre, a snow park and Olympic museum.
Saddle up to explore the rugged beauty of Willmore Wilderness Park near Grande Cache, a northern town ringed by a dozen ice-capped peaks. Bar U Ranch is a national historic site south of Calgary, which chronicles life from 1882-1950. Travellers with time on their hands head north to Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 44,807 sq. km (17,300 sq. mi.) of protected wilderness where the world’s largest herd of free-roaming buffalo can be found.
Calgary’s East Village: The site where Calgary was originally founded has undergone an exciting transformation. A thriving new urban hub has emerged with St. Patrick’s Island, restoration of the historic Simmons mattress factory building into local eateries and coffee shops, and landscaped pathways to Fort Calgary and the Calgary Zoo (www.evexperience.com
Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum: After the discovery of the Pipestone Creek bone-bed, a massive dinosaur gravesite dating back 73 million years, this elaborate facility near Grande Prairie opened. It can be toured with a guide or independently. Helicopter bone-bed tours can also be booked (www.dinomuseum.ca
River Forth Dining Car Lunch: Located in the Heritage Park Historical Village, a fully restored 1929 CP rail car offers luxurious three-course dining while travelling around the park powered by an antique steam train (www.heritagepark.ca/plan-your-visit/event-calendar/river-forth-dining-car-lunches.html
Alberta’s two major cities are different in character, but are equally worth exploring. Edmonton is the provincial capital, so it is a government city with a grand legislature building, a thriving arts community and numerous galleries, craft stores and art shops. Most can be found along trendy Whyte Avenue or in the downtown Arts District, the location of the modern Art Gallery of Alberta, the Winspear Centre and the Citadel Theatre. The meandering North Saskatchewan River cuts a steep swath through the city north of the busy downtown, and can be explored by canoe, raft or the Edmonton Queen Riverboat (www.edmonton.ca
The “Festival City” boasts more than 60 events a year. Its long winters are cause for several events including the Ice on Whyte winter festival in January. Summer offerings include the Fringe Theatre Festival, the Folk Music Festival, K-Days and Heritage Festival.
North America’s largest indoor shopping complex is like a self-contained mini-city. West Edmonton Mall spans the equivalent of 48 city blocks, has 800+ retail/food outlets and the year-round World Waterpark.
Calgary’s glittering towers contain the majority of Canada’s oil and gas company headquarters. Don’t forget to pose for a photo in front of Alberta’s tallest building, the Bow Tower, a modern architectural skyscraper that spans two city blocks. The city has preserved much of the sandstone buildings along Stephen Avenue Walk, where many great restaurants and shops are found, along with the Glenbow Museum, Olympic Plaza and the Calgary Tower. Numerous retail stores and eateries are also part of The CORE complex tucked between 7th and 8th Ave. S.W. Don’t miss the Devonian Gardens, an urban skylit garden with a backdrop of shiny skyscrapers (www.visitcalgary.com
Residents are devout nature lovers, flocking to the city’s network of river pathways as well as the inner city Prince’s Island Park, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and Bowness Park lagoon, where families can skate in winter and canoe and paddleboat in summer.
The new National Music Centre, which houses music memorabilia, is slated to open later this year (www.nmc.ca
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Head for the hills from summer to fall for a guided multi-day backcountry pack trip on horseback. Sleep under the stars and listen to coyotes howl in a riverside tent camp with a view of Dinosaur Provincial Park, home to some of the planet’s largest fossil beds. Or scramble up the new Via Ferrata
(Italian for iron path), a rope and cable-assisted mountain journey at Mt. Norquay near Banff. Should winter be your season, there’s loads of ice-climbing terrain west of Calgary—and of course five world-class ski resorts in Banff and Jasper national parks.
Explore a snow-caked valley on dogsled, or book a popular boat trip up the shores of windswept Waterton Lake in Alberta’s most southern national park. Don waders, grab a reel and cast for world-class trout in hundreds of rivers, lakes and creeks.
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
The province’s history is just over a century old, but the First Nations heritage dates to prehistoric time. Métis Crossing, northeast of Edmonton, offers a taste of the musical culture created by the melding of First Nations people with European settlers in the 19th century. Fort Edmonton tells of the city’s Gold Rush era, when these same voyageurs paved the way for the fur trade. Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village overlooks the calm waters of the Glenmore Reservoir—which has dragon boat racing and other water sports. History is also chronicled at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, one of five UNESCO sites in Alberta, or the modern Blackfoot Crossing east of Calgary where Treaty 7 was signed with the federal government in 1877. Explore transportation history at the Remington Carriage Museum at Cardston, a town that was settled by Mormons—admire the sprawling white marble temple (no public access). Or savour the solitude of the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens, a lush Lethbridge horticultural tribute to the city’s Japanese citizens.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
Canmore Cave Tours: The Rat’s Nest Cave has been used by spelunkers for many years, but you can now enjoy the same experience on a guided tour. The undeveloped cave under Grotto Mountain near Banff and Canmore is the real deal—with no interior lighting, no walkways and no handrails. Learn about local geology and fossils and explore stalactites and stalagmites with safety gear and headlamps (www.canmorecavetours.com
St. Patrick’s Island: The pride of Calgary’s revitalized East Village is a four-season place for urban families, cyclists, joggers and the savvy traveller. Located on the eastern edge of downtown, this redeveloped island on the Bow River has river-fed play ponds, playgrounds, firepits, a giant toboggan hill, skating rinks, über-cool benches . . .the list goes on (www.evexperience.com/patrick-island
Wild Rapids Waterslide Park: There’s no ID necessary to prove you’re young enough to enjoy Alberta’s most famous outdoor waterslide park in Sylvan Lake. Try the Sneaky Snake
, Cinnamon Twist
, or even the Hell’s Gate
. A wading pool and play area take care of smaller kids, and there’s plenty of lakefront beach if you need a change of pace.
The Calgary Stampede is an annual 10-day whoop-up in early July, celebrating the area’s Western roots, with many hotels booked a year in advance.
Cowboy Culture: The ranch experience offers an authentic taste of Alberta’s western culture along 735 km (447 mi.) of highway from Mayerthorpe to Longview that will leave more great memories than saddle sores (www.thecowboytrail.com
Victoria Trail—Kalyna Country: This 547-km (340-mi.) route winds through the province’s central heartland, a taste of prairie life and European culture, where you’ll find Canada’s largest Ukrainian settlement. Along with traditional foods, the region has several roadside attractions including the world’s largest pysanka (Easter egg) at Vegreville, 103 km (64 mi.) east of Edmonton. The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a step back in time with costumed interpreters, historic buildings and artefacts.
Head for Lake Country around Red Deer for boating, parasailing, waterskiing and swimming. Families can’t miss the indoor World Waterpark at West Edmonton Mall or the Calgary Zoo’s Penguin Plunge. The TELUS Spark Centre in Calgary has a wildly popular new outdoor fun zone called The Brainasium. Climb an 11 m (36 ft.) tower and zip down a 19 m (63 ft.) slide. Kids flock to the Tropical Pyramid at the Muttart Conservatory, as well as the animatronic dinosaurs at the Calgary Zoo. The Great Canadian Barn Dance at Hillspring features campfires, music and food (www.gcbd.ca), while the Gopher Hole Museum at Torrington northeast of Calgary is a quirky indoor diorama of stuffed, costumed gophers depicting daily prairie life. The acclaimed Royal Tyrrell Museum is a Jurassic joyride, as is the chance to climb into the belly of the World’s Largest Dinosaur, both in Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands (www.canadianbadlands.com
PARK PICK: JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Four and a half hours, 365 km (230 mi.) by car from Edmonton, this national park is rich with wildlife: black and grizzly bear, moose, elk, mountain sheep and countless bird species. It is busiest in July and August when a convoy of RVs pass through en route
to the Alaska Highway, but it’s a must-see destination in its own right. Drive or cycle the glorious Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise, a 237-km (148-mi.) roller coaster ride past a string of dangling glaciers, emerald lakes and impossibly steep rock faces. Climb into the mouth of Athabasca Glacier, or pitch your tent next to a babbling creek. Paddle a canoe on Canada’s deepest alpine waters at Maligne Lake, or book a boat cruise to its often-photographed Spirit Island. In winter months, the world-class Marmot Basin ski area keeps Jasper in business, as do natural attractions such as Miette Hot Springs and the glacial Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls. Take a guided walk through an ice-encased canyon, or strap on skis for an endless journey of Nordic and backcountry skiing. Astronomers are lured to Jasper at night to witness carpets of glittering stars and the shape-shifting northern lights. (www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/jasper/index.aspx
More info on National Parks and Historic Sites: www.pc.gc.ca