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Canada 150: Visit Alberta for Stars, Stories, and the World’s Wildest Wilderness

SmarterTravel

This year our national neighbors to the north celebrate their 150th anniversary and we’ll be celebrating with them as they do. Each month we’ll focus on one part of their magnificent country and share it with you. From the sky-high trees and brown bears in British Columbia to the kitchen parties and codfish-kissing in the Maritimes, our toast to Canada will give you well over 150 reasons to make this the year you take the trip. This month we’re exploring city celebrations and prairie charm in Alberta.

Canada 150: Alberta in April

Alberta is where the cowboys live. You’ll find them on horseback in the mountains, on the plains, and every summer in the middle of the city at the Calgary Stampede. Bordered by British Columbia to the West and Saskatchewan to the East, the province is a major tourism draw thanks to its mix of cosmopolitan cities, Jurassic ancestors, and forest trails. Here are reasons to visit Alberta this month, or at any time of year.

The Cities: Calgary and Edmonton

Start with Alberta’s artistic heart and family-friendly experiences in Calgary, then make time for the festivals and history in Edmonton.

Indigenous Experiences, Art & Family Fun in Calgary: Explore Canadian art and artists at the Glenbow Museum, which is set to open an exhibit in June that will explore 150 years of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Continue that learning at the Calgary Stampede’s popular Indian Village, now a permanent exhibit, which offers opportunities to delve deeper into the culture through dancing demonstrations, storytelling with elders, and tastes of traditional foods. Animal lovers won’t want to miss the newest exhibit coming to the Calgary Zoo: lemurs! And those looking for a trendy new neighborhood should head to East Village, home of the brand-new Studio Bell National Music Centre as well as award-winning eateries. Canada’s largest living history museum, Heritage Park, is here too. Don’t miss the 1905 wooden Colonist Rail Car being restored on site.

History and Culture in Edmonton: Whether you’re looking to delve deeper into the cultural history of the city or sit back and enjoy the best of the present day, Edmonton is worth your time. Start at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, an open-air museum where performers in authentic Ukrainian heritage dress recreate the life of ancestors who settled here in the late 1800s. (Pro tip: Don’t miss a peek inside the three Eastern Byzantine Rite churches on site, or the pierogis for sale in eateries throughout the region.) For a change of pace, check out one of the more than 100 festivals held in and around the city each year. The biggest is the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival. This Fringe is second only to Edinburgh in size, and features a host of activities for adults and kids alike. For hip hotels (including the new Crash Hotel with its vintage cocktail and martini bar) and a neighborhood that will excite foodies, visit the 104th Street Promenade. Throughout the city, keep an eye out for the Canada 150 Art Project installations:  Alberta artists will create five original sculptural works that reflect Canadian landscapes, culture, history and values such as diversity, inclusion, reconciliation and inspiring youth.

Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Go

Spring in Alberta brings the opportunity to hike, bike, and explore the outdoors. Milder weather means lighter jackets and even more opportunities to get out early and stay out late. Here are just a few things you’ll want to do with all that extra time:

Head out for a Hike: The town of Canmore in the Canadian Rockies offers a great jumping-off point for  hikes (and mountain views) for visitors of all abilities, along with opportunities to bike or horseback ride on gorgeous forested trails.  For incredible views of the iconic Lake Louise, try the 6.8-kilometer Lake Agnes Trail on the other side of the province instead.

Join the Expo: Pull out your superman tights, dust off your minion suit, and join the huge parade that will be a part of this year’s Calgary Expo—an annual celebration of beloved superheroes and pop culture icons. Among this year’s headliners at this year’s Expo, which runs from April 27 to 30, are actors Jeremy Renner, Peter Capaldi, and Mara Wilson.

Why Alberta Is Great Other Times of Year

Stampede: Each July the city of Calgary shuts down early so that everyone can swap business suits for cowboy boots. In Calgary, Stampede isn’t a festival, it’s almost a religion. From bucking broncos to favorite fair food, it’s a full-out celebration of everything Western.

Museum Mania: Plan your trip for year-end and you might get a peek at the new  Royal Alberta Museum. The museum—which will be the largest in Western Canada—moves into its new home in downtown Edmonton later this year. Once complete, there may be no better place to get a full sense of Alberta’s history.

Geek Show:  Lovers of art, science, and engineering will gather at the annual Beakerhead Festival in September. This year, along with a culinary focus that will look at science and food, visitors can opt to participate in a life-sized snakes-and-ladders game.

Dark Skies:  Astronomy gets its chance to shine at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. The 11,000-square-kilometer Jasper National Park was designated a Dark Sky Preserve (DSP) in 2011 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, thanks in large part to the park’s limited light pollution: It’s believed to be the world’s largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve. The October festival features a mix of speakers; past festivals have included talks by Bill Nye and George Takei.

If You Go, Don’t Miss …

The Dinosaurs in Drumheller

Alberta was once home to dinosaurs, and over the years their fossilized remains have continued to be uncovered.  Drive out to Drumheller, the “Dinosaur Capital of the World,” and the surrounding badlands to spend a few days looking for some of your own. The biggest one will be hard to miss: An 86-foot Tyrannosaurus rex sculpture in the city center. For more information, and the opportunity to try your hand at a dig, visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Their new Grounds for Discovery exhibit, promises to be a must-see.

Elk Island National Park

It may be Elk Island National Park, but the bison who graze here are the main attraction. The 2,000-pound beasts were on the brink of extinction until conservationists fought to bring them back. Along with the bison you’ll find coyotes, birds, elk, moose, and more. According to the park, Elk Island is home to “the highest number of hoofed mammals per square kilometer”—more than any other wilderness area in the world. Drive the Bison Loop to see the animals from your car, or sign up for the VIP Bison Experience for a hands-on tour with an interpretive guide.  Admission to the park (along with all other national parks) is free all year long thanks to the Canada 150 initiatives by Parks Canada.

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Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and a National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on GlobeTrottingMama.com.

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