Alberta is Canada’s fourth largest province by area. Named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the daughter of Queen Victoria, it’s a province that begs to be explored. From north to south it’s a distance of over 1,200 kilometres – as the crow flies, so it’s impossible to see all but a small section of the province if you only have a few days.
Alberta boasts a diverse landscape. The Rocky Mountains are justifiably the most famous and visited feature of the province but the badlands with their wildly eroded rock formations are also worth of a trip. The prairies have their own beauty, but it’s more subtle and not appreciated by everyone.
Here are 21 must do activities if you visit Alberta.
- Straddling the border with the Northwest Territories is Wood Buffalo National Park. It’s Canada’s largest park – and bigger than Switzerland. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the world’s largest population of wild bison. Also of note is the fact that it’s the nesting grounds for the endangered whooping crane. It’s got the world’s largest beaver dam and one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world. The downside is that it’s hard to get to. Your best bet is to drive into it via Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. Via Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, you can only access the park via air or water.
- If you’re a birder then an overnight stay starting in late May at the Boreal Center for Bird Conservation in Northen Alberta on Lesser Slave Lake will be something to consider. The Point Pelee effect seems to be in action here. Birds avoid crossing the lake and are funneled along the shoreline where you can see them in higher numbers than you’d normally expect. There is a cabin that can be privately booked right next to the bird conservation center – allowing you to take advantage of lakeside walks and beautiful sunsets.
- Head to the town of Grand Cache near the western edge of the province. Its setting, on a plateau, offers views of many peaks of the Rockies foothills. It’s also the gateway to Willmore Wilderness Park – a vast area of wilderness adjacent to Jasper National Park. Here you’ll find 750 kilometres of backcountry trails as well as hundreds of kilometers of horseback riding trails.
- Elk Island National Park, only about an hour east of Edmonton, offers loads of hiking as well as some beautiful canoeing on Lake Astotin. In the winter it’s a peaceful spot to go cross-country skiing.
- Dinosaur Provincial Park is a phenomenal place even if you have zero interest in dinosaurs. The badlands scenery here is fantastic – truly a photographer’s dream. There are a number of easy hikes to do as well as a very worthwhile guided tour to see dinosaur skeletons in place. It’s a UNESCO site because of some of the most important discoveries ever from the Age of Reptiles. You can camp here though it gets really hot in the summer; fortunately it’s an easy day trip from Calgary.
- If you are a fan of dinosaurs, don’t miss a visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. It’s a world class center for paleontological research. Their collection includes more than 110,000 fossil specimens and 40 dinosaur skeletons. Should you be hungry post tour check out Bernie and the Boys – a restaurant the Constant Rambler describes as offering simple comfort food.
- If you’re in eastern Alberta – in what feels like the middle of nowhere and you’re hungry and it feels like nothing is open do not despair. Lilly Wong’s Golden Chinese Restaurant in the town of Foremost, soon to be known for its drone testing more than anything else, is the place to go. It’s open on national holidays and according to my friend Judy, the food is very good.
- Check out the galleries and cafes in the pretty little town of Rosebud – population 90, located about 9o minutes east of Calgary. Don’t miss a performance at the Rosebud Theater.
- Drive the Dinosaur Trail – a route that’s well signed. It takes you from Drumheller along the north side of the Red Deer River on Highway 838, a secondary road to the Bleriot Ferry. Cross the river and return to Drumheller on the south side of the river. Get out and admire the views of Horsethief Canyon.
- Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, located in the southeastern corner of the province, boasts the highest elevations between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. In the park there are numerous hiking trails which double as cross country ski trails in the winter. Come summer, Elkwater Lake will beckon you to swim.
- Southern Alberta is home to Waterton Lakes National Park. Its small compared to its next door neighbour – Glacier National Park in Montana – but it sure is beautiful. Hiking is out of this world. Three trails I can personally recommend are the infamous Crypt Lake trail, the Lineham Ridge Trail and the Carthew-Alderson trail.
- Heading north from Waterton Lakes National Park, you’ll come across Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump. Visit. It’s actually a UNESCO site and although the site looks underwhelming, it’s still starkly beautiful, the museum exhibits are excellent and the story is compelling.
- Calgary may not be everyone’s cup of tea but come Stampede time, it sure has a lot of community spirit. This year the Calgary Stampede runs from July 4th – 13th. Apart from a giant parade, there are grandstand shows every night, a daily rodeo, pancake breakfasts and an amusement park. If you’re not the stampede type perhaps you’d enjoy tubing on the Bow River or cycling on the 550 or so kilometres of pathways.
- Kananaskis Country is like a miniature version of Banff National Park with little in the way of amenities. It’s a fabulous place to hike, camp, bike and ski. It’s home to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Nakiska Mountain Resort. Last summer the area was hard hit by the floods so many trails and bridges are still being rebuilt. Check in at the Visitor Center along Highway 40 for staff recommendations on what to do. For hiking I’d highly recommend the hike to Guinn Pass.
- A visit to Banff National Park is obviously on the must do list of just about any out of town visitor. It won’t disappoint – if you get away from the summer crowds wandering the streets of downtown Banff. What to do with perhaps limited time will be the biggest decision you need to make. In the summer and fall, the hiking is superb. In the winter there are three downhill ski resorts within the park and loads of cross-country skiing. A visit to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise should figure high on your list. And for a relatively easy hike with wonderful Rocky Mountain scenery, do the hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse above Lake Louise.
- In early November head to Banff for the world class Banff Film Festival. You’ll be inspired by writers, videographers and photographers.
- Unleash your inner cowboy and try a guided horseback riding trip in the Rockies.
- Drive the Icefields Parkway – probably the prettiest drive in all of Canada. Try to do it in the summer as winter driving can be very hazardous. Bring warm clothes too – even in the height of the summer.
- Take a boat ride on Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park. Even better, book a trip (now as campsites fill quickly) and canoe or kayak down to the end of Maligne Lake and stay for a few days.
- Edmonton is also worthy of a visit – especially if you like shopping or festivals. The West Edmonton Mall is the largest in North America with plenty of indoors activities to do other than shop. The city boasts 30 annual festivals including the internationally renowned Folk, Fringe and Street Performers festival.
- Last but by no means least, visit the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, located about 100 kilometres east of Calgary. This National Historic Site pays tribute to the cultural heritage of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Enjoy exhibitions, performances and the self-guided tour of numerous historic sites within the park. Noteworthy too, is the fact the park is home to one of the largest intact prairie river systems in North America.
These 21 must do activities just scratch the surface of what is offered. If there is something I’ve left out that you think deserves to be mentioned, then please leave a comment.