26 February 2018 by David Ward
Alberta is a land defined by its outdoors. Its topography ranges from majestic peaks to sweeping grasslands and dense forests, home to moose, caribou, deer and bear. Once the hunting grounds for tribes dating back some 8,000 years, today you can ski, hike and fish your way through its spectacular national parks before visiting some of its great lakes, host to magnificent glaciers and scenic boat trips alike. Knitting it all together are picturesque drives and train routes. Perhaps take the Icefields Parkway; stretching for almost 150 miles, it offers wilderness views of the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier. Or, take things a bit slower with a rail journey through the Rocky Mountains winding through river canyons and thick forests before skirting the shores of Kamloops Lake.
Alberta's Rocky Mountains
For some, Alberta begins and ends at the Rocky Mountains. Forming the colossal hunched backbone of continental America’s west, its snowcapped peaks are an imperious backdrop to glistening lakes, hiking trails and world-class ski resorts. Its crown jewels – Banff and Jasper – are among the oldest national parks in the world and were, more recently, designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s no surprise, then, that the Canadians are so fiercely protective of them with their rugged terrain immaculately preserved and plied by excellent infrastructure. And, no crown would be complete without its sapphire – in this case the spectacular Lake Louise. Here, towering pines fringe still waters whose faint ripples do little to disturb the reflected grey and white of the surrounding peaks. After you’ve overdone the postcard photos, or taken a canoe out onto the lake itself for an atmospheric paddle, pay a visit to Columbia Icefield. As a 350-metre thick hangover from the last ice age, it covers an area the size of Vancouver straddling a plateau between two peaks; it makes for humbling viewing. If you prefer your water more lively, head to Jasper’s Athabasca Falls where torrents have cut so deeply that they’ve formed everything from potholes to whole canyons. Of course, there’s also some excellent skiing in the area and you can warm up after a day on the slopes with a trip to Banff’s hot springs. Conveniently located near the town’s famous gondola, they’ve been attracting health-conscious visitors for over a century. In fact you can still glimpse some of the buildings’ classic 1930s Art Deco elegance.
Moraine Lake, Alberta
Moving away from the Rockies, you’ll cross endless golden prairies before reaching the stunning moonscapes of Canada’s Badlands that cut a swathe through southeastern Alberta. As the land that time forgot, it was discovered in the 19th century to be something of a paleontological hotbed giving rise to some the most important dinosaur fossil discoveries. Start in the gateway to the region, the small town of Drumheller, where the excellent Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology – more research centre than annals collector – provides a superb introduction. It’s the largest collection of artefacts sourced from the region. From here, head out into the alien landscape of weather-beaten rocks, multicoloured cliffs and hoodoos – warped spires that reach out in a steepled salute to the vast Albertan skyscape. Explore Dinosaur Provincial Park to walk in the footsteps of the fearsome tyrannosauridae that once trod these lands. As a World Heritage Site and one of the richest sources of dinosaur fossils in the world, everything from large carnivorous dinosaurs to microscopic organisms have been discovered here. You can even take part in an on-going excavation at a dig-site or simply enjoy the raking sunsets over its unique geography.
Alberta's City Gateways – Calgary and Edmonton
Swap the rural ideal for urban refinement in Alberta’s two largest cities, home to two thirds of its populous and best known for their festivals. Calgary has long lived with an oil baron’s swagger – some dinosaurs weren’t lucky enough to see out their days in a museum – having funded contemporary art galleries in Glenbow Museum and one of North America’s best zoos. You’ll also find the Calgary Stampede, billed as ‘The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’. Attracting over a million visitors each year, it’s an annual rodeo that features everything from parades to stage concerts. Expect cowboy chaps, pancake breakfasts and huge barbecue cookouts. Calgary is also perfectly positioned for access to the mountain delights of Banff, having hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. Some 200 miles to the north – a stone’s throw by Canadian standards – lies Edmonton, better poised for trips into Jasper National Park. Dig beneath its businesslike veneer – it’s the state capital – and you’ll find a host of cultural surprises. There’s Alberta’s premiere art gallery and the $340 million Royal Alberta Museum, featuring an esteemed display of aboriginal culture and the world’s largest collection of insects. Visit in August for a fringe theatre festival.