JANUARY - FEBRUARY
Ice On Whyte Ice Carving Festival, Edmonton
Sled Island Music and Arts Festival, Calgary
Waterton Wild Flower Festival
Canadian Badlands Passion Play, Drumheller
Edmonton International Street Performers Festival
Big Valley Jamboree, Camrose
Canmore Folk Music Festival
Edmonton International Fringe Threatre Festival
Agri-Trade Exposition, Red Deer
www.travelalberta.com/ca/things to do/events-festivals
Writer: Susan Mate
Backdropped by the Rocky Mountains to the west and great swaths of prairie to the east, Alberta is first and foremost an outdoor lover’s paradise. Five of Canada’s national parks are found in Alberta, beckoning travellers year-round with a myriad of recreational offerings such as skiing, boating and hiking—along with more esoteric pursuits such as ice walking, caving and skijoring (dog-assisted Nordic skiing).
Urban escape artists flock to Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, for retail therapy, gourmet dining, rustic spas and shopping at North America’s largest shopping and entertainment complex, West Edmonton Mall.
Alberta is blessed with a diverse heritage that encompasses First Nations history, pioneer spirit and a rich immigrant culture that draws New Canadians from all parts of the globe. The annual Calgary Stampede celebrates all things cowboy and rodeo early each July. Edmonton K-Days follows up with a tribute to northern Alberta’s Klondike heritage, while dozens of other festivals across the province celebrate Alberta’s unique pockets of regional pride—think perogies in Vegreville, or beef jerky in Longview. An acclaimed new Central Library in Calgary’s revitalized East Village opened last fall and is an architectural marvel. Edmonton’s renewed Royal Alberta Museum opened downtown in October to similar recognition.
The biggest urban centres, Edmonton and Calgary, are cosmopolitan cities, while smaller cities including Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Airdrie serve as important regional hubs for shopping, government, tourism and agriculture/industry.
Alberta’s dining scene is innovative and fiercely local, emphasizing Rocky Mountain Cuisine such as game, fish and world-famous grain-fed beef. From upscale hotel dining rooms in the big city to eclectic alpine bistros in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, the restaurants consistently win international awards.
Provincial recreational areas help keep Albertans and their visitors outdoors. Spread across 661,848 sq. km (255,541 sq. mi.) of pristine terrain, the five major snow resorts and sprawling 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 near Jasper. The lakes of Kananaskis Country are a delight for ice fishing in winter and boating, hiking and cycling in the summer. The 4,645-sq. m (50,000-sq. ft.) Kananaskis Nordic Spa opened late last year with outdoor hot, warm and cold pools and treatment rooms. Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton offers a great opportunity to photograph wildlife, including its resident buffalo and, of course, elk.
Alberta’s glacier-fed waterways—particularly the Bow and Red Deer rivers—lure anglers with the promise of top-notch trout fishing. In the same day, visitors can play the back nine of a world-class golf course, hopscotch past cactus patches in search of ancient rock carvings in the desert, and then retire to the hotel hot tub to watch the sunset.
Float your boat down a river or head for calmer waters along Lake Minnewanka or Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Bonus: hear the crack of avalanches overhead, well out of your path but still powerful. Chase champagne powder from the top of first-rate resorts such as Sunshine Village, Lake Louise or Marmot Basin, or explore them in summer to unveil abundant wildlife and colourful carpets of wildflowers. Canada Olympic Park in northwest Calgary has a national athlete training centre, a snow park and Olympic museum, while Peter Lougheed Provincial Park boasts unparalleled opportunities for adventure all year-round.
Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, south of Calgary, chronicles pioneer life from 1882 to 1950; this pristine setting in the shadow of the southern Rockies is featured on many postcards. 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 endangered whooping crane and the world’s largest herd of free-roaming wood bison can be found.
The stunning Royal Alberta Museum reopened in Edmonton’s downtown Arts District after three years of renovation. The largest museum in Western Canada now includes double the display space, over 5,300 exhibits and an expansive gift shop with a major emphasis on Alberta artisans. Two massive bronze mammoth sculptures dominate its bright lobby, while a sizeable Bug Gallery features live invertebrates and the Children’s Gallery engages the youngest visitors in hands-on interactive activities. With numerous research activities, the new RAM is home to curatorial programs on topics such as military and political history, botany and mammalogy. It also supports a variety of international touring exhibits (www.royalalbertamuseum.ca).
The architecturally striking new Calgary Central Library is a $245-million spectacle adjacent to the popular National Music Centre, east of downtown’s office towers. With its swooping front archway clad with red cedar wood (which also dominates the interior stairs and walkways), the 22,300 sq. m (240,000 sq. ft.) library’s many features include a public art exhibit, a performance hall, community meeting spaces, Indigenous Place Making and early learning centres. It has been called a “place for the people” because it welcomes everyone (www.calgarylibrary.ca/new-central-library).
For the first time in more than a century, wild plains bison can be seen roaming in Banff National Park. Hailed as an historic and cultural conservation triumph, the herd of 31 bison was released last July from an enclosed pasture to travel freely through a 1,200 sq. km (463 sq. mi.) “reintroduction zone” along the remote eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Canada’s first national park. Parks Canada is monitoring the herd over the next several years to determine if it is feasible for the giant creatures to roam freely long-term.
Alberta’s two major cities offer quite different insights into the province, though they share a love of green space, sprawling river pathways and tidy, bustling downtowns.
The provincial capital of Edmonton 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 new Royal Alberta Museum, the Winspear Centre and the Citadel Theatre. The meandering North Saskatchewan River cuts a steep swath through the city north of downtown, and can be explored by canoe or raft (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/February. 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. Fort Edmonton Park along the North Saskatchewan River showcases the fur trade and Gold Rush eras.
Calgary’s office towers, which contain the majority of Canada’s oil and gas company headquarters, were built to showcase the Rockies on the western horizon. An inner-city energy hub called the Bow Tower is a modern architectural skyscraper that covers two city blocks. Nearby Chinatown segues to the Bow River pathway and the ongoing redevelopment of the East Village has revitalized this historic section of east downtown.
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 (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 and its pretty lagoon, where families can skate in winter and canoe and paddleboat in summer. Just west of City Hall, Olympic Plaza is a busy festival and performance venue that hosted the 1988 Winter Olympic ceremonies. The Calgary Zoo is renowned for its conservation initiatives while, south of the city, Spruce Meadows attracts equestrians to several international show-jumping competitions each summer.
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 in Dinosaur Provincial Park, home to some of the planet’s largest fossil beds and fantastic interpretive programs. Or scramble up the Via Ferrata (Italian for iron path), a rope and cable-assisted mountain journey at Mt. Norquay near Banff. Should winter be your season, abundant ice-climbing, skiing, fishing, snowshoeing and ATV journeys can be found across the province.
Explore the snow-caked Spray Lakes valley on dogsled. Drive the winter ice road to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta’s oldest First Nations community north of Fort McMurray, or photograph wildflowers among the alpine lakes at Sunshine Village resort west of Banff or the Plain of Six Glaciers trail near Lake Louise.
HERITAGE AND CULTURE
The province’s history is just over a century old, but the First Nations heritage dates to prehistoric times. Métis Crossing, northeast of Edmonton, offers a taste of the musical culture created by the melding of First Nations Peoples 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—where dragon boat racing and other water sports are held. History is also chronicled at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, one of five UNESCO sites in Alberta, or Blackfoot Crossing—a modern interpretive centre built into the Bow River bluffs east of Calgary.
Explore transportation history at the Remington Carriage Museum at Cardston, or hop aboard an open-air biplane at Reynolds-Alberta Museum for a bird’s-eye view of the prairies around Camrose and Wetaskiwin. Paleontology enthusiasts will want to head north to the City of Wembley—24 km (15 mi.) west of Grande Prairie—to tour the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum, which chronicles the work done to preserve the world’s largest hornbill dinosaur bonebed.
MUST SEE, MUST DO
Rogers Place is Edmonton’s shiny new conference centre and indoor sports & entertainment hub, but many visitors come here to see the colourful floor murals and other works of art by legendary First Nations artist Alex Janvier (www.rogersplace.com).
Nestled into the lush coulees of the Rosebud River Valley, the abandoned railway town of Rosebud was overtaken by a group of faith-based artists three decades ago. They created a thriving professional theatre school and arts centre that offers high-calibre, family-friendly theatre and music. Many tourists stroll along the hamlet’s two streets, which are spattered with funky art shops and galleries (www.rosebudtheatre.com).
Historic Fort Macleod, in southern Alberta, is the birthplace of the North-West Mounted Police—now the RCMP. The first musical ride in Canada was held in the town in 1876. Modelled after British Army cavalry drills, the musical ride is held four times daily in July and August (www.nwmpmuseum.com).
Icefields Parkway: Ranked one of the most scenic drives in Canada, Highway 93 from Jasper to Lake Louise is a 237-km (147-mi.) stretch that zips past dozens of waterfalls, glaciers, emerald lakes and rocky gorges. A gateway to the Alaska Highway, the town of Jasper is a portal to nearby destinations such as Athabasca and Sunwapta falls, Miette Hot Springs and Maligne Lake (www.icefieldsparkway.com).
Deh Cho Trail: The best of northern Alberta is found along this 758-km (471-mi.) journey northwest of Edmonton to High Level. It offers vast tracts of stunning wilderness with countless lakes and rivers; the boreal forests, parkland and wetlands are teeming with wildlife including rare birds. Explore old fur trade posts at historic sites such as Fort Vermilion, or cross Alberta’s longest vehicle suspension bridge over the Peace River at Dunvegan.
Cowboy Trail: Western heritage takes the spotlight along this scenic Highway 22 drive through the foothills of the Rockies between Pincher Creek and Mayerthorpe. Highlights of the 700-km (435-mi.) route include Bar U Ranch National Historic Site and historic Cochrane RancheHouse (www.thecowboytrail.com).
Don’t miss the World Waterpark at West Edmonton Mall, the Calgary Zoo’s Penguin Plunge or The Brainasium outdoor centre/slide at the TELUS Spark Centre. Kids enjoy the Tropical Pyramid at the Muttart Conservatory. The Great Canadian Barn Dance at Hillspring features campfires, music and food (www.gcbd.ca), while the Innisfail Discovery Wildlife Park is a 36 ha (90 acre) zoo housing more than 40 species of orphaned animals including bears, wolves and lions (www.discoverywildlifepark.com). The Royal Tyrrell Museum offers a Jurassic joyride; also the chance to climb into the belly of the World’s Largest Dinosaur in Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands.
PARK PICKROCKY MOUNTAIN HOUSE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Immerse yourself in nine authentic Indigenous cultures at this former fur-trading post along the confluence of the mighty North Saskatchewan and Clearwater rivers, where 200 years of fur trade heritage have been brought to life. Play traditional Blackfoot games or cook bannock (unleavened bread) using just a stick and an open campfire. Tap your toes in harmony with a local drummer or dancer, or learn to make an authentic Native dream catcher. Bed down for the night in a teepee or Métis trapper’s tent under a canopy of stars. Step into the wide-bottomed York boats built to navigate the northern trading routes, or check out the authentic Red River carts that brought Métis settlers West across Saskatchewan and Manitoba (www.parkscanada.gc.ca/rockymountainhouse).
National Parks and Historic Sites: