Like the province in which it resides, Banff is something of an enigma. A resort town with souvenir shops, nightclubs and fancy restaurants is not something any national-park purist would want to claim credit for. But, looks can be misleading. First, Banff is no ordinary town. It developed not as a residential district, but as a service center for the park that surrounds it.
Modern, spreadout and frigidly cold for much of the year, Alberta’s second-largest city and capital is a demure government town that you’re more likely to read about in the business pages than the travel supplements. Maybe that’s why the city’s surprises, when (or if) you find them, are so delightful.
The national parks of Banff and Jasper and the cities of Calgary and Edmonton grab most of the headlines in Alberta, leaving the expansive south largely forgotten. Here, flat farmland is interrupted by deep coulees or canyons that were caused by flooding at the end of the last ice age.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Who? What? Where? The name Waterton Lakes National Park is usually prefixed with a vexed question rather than a contented sigh of recognition. While its siblings to the north – Canmore, Banff and Jasper – hemorrhage with tourists and weekend warriors, Waterton is a pocket of tranquility. Sublime.
Famous for its teahouses, grizzly bears, grand hotel, skiing, Victoria Glacier, hiking and lakes (yes, plural), Lake Louise is what makes Banff National Park the phenomenon it is, an awe-inspiring natural feature that is impossible to describe without resorting to shameless clichés.
Paralleling the Continental Divide for 230km between Lake Louise and Jasper Town, plain old Hwy 93 has been wisely rebranded as the Icefields Pkwy (or the slightly more romantic 'Promenade des Glaciers' in French) as a means to somehow prepare people for the majesty of its surroundings.
Right in the heart of southern Alberta farming country sits the former coal-mining city of Lethbridge, divided by the distinctive coulees of the Oldman River. Though there isn't a lot to bring you to the city, copious parkland, a couple of good historical sites and an admirable level of civic pride might keep you longer than you first intended.
Kananaskis, or K-Country as the locals call it, is a mountainous Shangri-la, with all the natural highlights of Banff National Park, but with almost no clamor. It abuts Banff National Park in the southeast, acting as both a buffer zone and a first-class wilderness area in its own right. At an impressive 4000 sq km, it's a hefty tract of landscape to try and take in.
West of Fort Macleod the Crowsnest Hwy (Hwy 3) heads through the prairies and into the Rocky Mountains to Crowsnest Pass (1396m) and the British Columbian border. The Pass, as it's known, is a string of small communities just to the east of the BC border. Of note is the story of the town of Frank.
From St Paul, more than 200km northeast of Edmonton, to the NWT border lies Alberta's immense lake district. Fishing is popular (even in winter, when there is ice fishing), but many of the lakes, especially further north, have no road access and you have to fly in. St Paul is the place to go if you are looking for little green people.
Despite the presence of the increasingly infamous oil sands, the top half of Alberta is little visited and even less known. Once you travel north of Edmonton, the population drops off to Siberian levels, and the sense of remoteness is almost eerie. If it's solitude you seek, then this is paradise found.