You’ll find a Dark Sky Preserve, five national parks, two major cosmopolitan cities, world-class ski mountains, and maybe the most-Instagrammed lake in the world all in Canada’s province of Alberta, and that’s just the start. The Northern Lights, long table dinners, Nordic spas, a Scandinavian-designed library, and one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs (which you can also sleep at) also await in this western Canadian province.
The Best Way to Experience Alberta and the Canadian Rockies
Drive a few miles outside of Calgary and you’ll see it. Out of nowhere, giant, towering, sharp granite spikes start to surround you. And that moment where the prairie meets the peaks is in fact magical.
The landscapes in Alberta range from dry prairies to the towering Canadian Rockies. Here’s why you should plan your next trip to Alberta, when to go, and what to do when you get there.
Major Cities in Alberta
Alberta’s two major cities are worthy destinations to visit in their own right, and both urban centers are close to national parks and other Alberta tourism attractions. So, when planning your trip to Alberta, it’s easy to bookend your nature-focused adventure with a night or two in either city.
The province’s capital is home to the largest museum in Western Canada, the Royal Alberta Museum, as well as a brand-new modern library, the Stanley Milner Library (opening in spring 2020). The city is in the process of developing a new mixed-use sports and entertainment district downtown, dubbed ICE. In summer, visit for the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and when the weather cools down, don’t miss the revitalized Flying Canoe Volant Festival—no canoes are actually flying, it’s a winter-time festival with music, food, art, and lights—and warm up at the new Edmonton Nordic Spa, slated to open in late 2020.
Edmonton is accessible via direct flights from major U.S. cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Orlando, Las Vegas, Seattle, and more.
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About a three-hour drive south from Edmonton is Alberta’s other major city, Calgary. It’s the gateway to Banff National Park, and it’s worth spending a few nights here, too. On a recent trip to Alberta, I was blown away by Calgary’s coolness and livability. From the newly opened modern library—it looks something like Noah’s ark in the middle of the city—to the city’s 135 breweries, there’s no shortage of culture here. Well-known for its famed festival, the Calgary Stampede held every July, the city has taken hold of its musical roots and transformed the urban center into a cosmopolitan destination. Don’t miss a visit to the Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre and explore the art and food scene in the nearby East Village.
Calgary is accessible via nonstop flights from major U.S. cities like Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Nashville, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, and more.
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The National Parks in Alberta
Canada’s western province is home to five national parks, which range in landscapes from a Dark Sky Preserve to emerald-colored lakes and activities from skiing to scuba diving (yes, you read that right).
Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park and it’s full of unique features—like its two alpine towns, Banff and Lake Louise, as well as the only distillery in a national park in Canada.
While Banff National Park is a popular tourist attraction in Alberta, visiting in the off- or shoulder-season can bring fewer crowds and just as many outdoor experiences. Stay at least one night in the town of Banff itself and then drive the 35 miles or so to some of the most famous lakes, like Lake Louise and Lake Moraine, in the Rockies.
In the town of Banff, soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs, experience the mountains at eye level with a trip up the Banff Gondola, immerse yourself in a form of therapy known as forest bathing, shop and eat on Banff Avenue, and pay a visit to the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.
Another highlight in the national park is the famed Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The property directly abuts the popular lake, but by staying overnight you can experience all the lake has to offer without the day crowds. You’ll find a variety of hiking trails around the lake, which offers different experiences in winter and summer. But don’t try and go swimming; the lake is filled by glacier water, meaning it’s too cold to swim in (although some locals occasionally jump in).
In order to gain entry inside the national park, even the towns, you’ll need a Parks Canada Pass. You can purchase either a Day Pass or annual Discover Pass, here.
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Jasper National Park
About three hours away from the town of Lake Louise and four hours away from Edmonton is one of the more accessible places in Canada to view the Northern Lights (your best shot at seeing them is between September and May). Every October, the national park is home to a Dark Sky Festival, with special programming around star gazing and nighttime activities.
Climb frozen waterfalls, gaze at the starts, hike the backcountry, and more at the largest park in the Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park. Popular natural tourist attractions in Jasper include the Maligne Canyon area, Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Falls and Glacier, and Pyramid Mountain and Lake. Jasper itself is an alpine town with a SkyTram, galleries, relaxing day spas, and more. The national park is also home to a golf course and ski mountain.
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Elk Island National Park
For wildlife lovers, Elk Island National Park should be your first stop in Alberta. Visitors have the chance to see bison, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and even Alberta lynx. The closest town is 25 minutes away in Fort Saskatchewan, which is home to a heritage center and two golf courses. Accommodations here are more basic, and camping (and glamping) is a popular choice. Edmonton is only 35 minutes away, so a visit here makes for a convenient day trip.
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Waterton Lakes National Park
Located at the most southwestern point of the province is this small but substantial national park. It even borders Montana’s Glacier National Park. But what it lacks in size it makes up for with its UNESCO World Heritage site, international peace park, and Biosphere Reserve designations.
This park is ideal for day hikers and those looking to pack a lot in on one trip. The park is home to countless lakes (hence the name) as well as thundering falls and even Red Rock Canyon. Check out the tourism board’s website for more information on hiking in Waterton National Park.
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Wood Buffalo National Park
Alberta is home to the largest national park in all of Canada (and the second-largest in the world), one that’s even larger than the country of Switzerland. Wood Buffalo National Park crosses over into the Northwest Territories, and while it’s not often visited due to its remoteness, the park is open year-round. It’s home to rare wildlife, like whooping cranes, as well as natural attractions like Pine Lake and the Peace-Athabasca Delta. The park is accessible by two gateway communities: Fort Smith (located in the Northwest Territories) and Fort Chipewyan (located in Alberta).
Lesser-Known Places in Alberta
While Alberta is a large province, many people only concentrate their time in the town of Banff and the Lake Louise area. But there are so many other natural wonders in the Canadian Rockies to explore. Here are a few tips on visiting Alberta, Canada with fewer crowds.
About an hour from Calgary is a recreational area right at the foothills of the Rockies that rivals the landscapes of the national parks. Whether you visit in winter for dog sledding, skiing, or snowshoeing; or in the summer for hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking, you’ll have plenty to do and see. In the fall shoulder season, many of the area’s resorts and lodges host wellness retreats, and the area even has Alberta’s first Nordic spa, an increasingly popular attraction in Canada.
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The town of Canmore is another area that’s popular among locals. It’s about an hour’s drive outside of Calgary and is close to the entrance of Banff National Park. The town has its own Nordic center for winter sports as well as mountain summits and turquoise blue lakes. You can even explore underground with a cave tour. Don’t miss out on the quaint downtown either: it’s a quintessential Main Street with Rocky Mountain views.
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Visiting Alberta in Shoulder Season
Like many beautiful places in the world, certain parts of Alberta are crowded with tourists during peak season, which for Banff National Park is the summer season. Consider visiting Banff outside of this time period, like the late fall, winter, or early spring for fewer crowds.
Getting Around Alberta
The best way to get around the province is by rental car. However, there is a reliable public bus system that runs year-round throughout the Bow Valley region. Check out Roam’s website for up-to-date fare information and scheduled routes. Many hotels and resorts also have their own shuttles and there are plenty of private car hire companies to choose from (see Viator for more information).
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