Alberta does lakes and mountains like Rome does cathedrals and chapels, but without the penance. For proof head west to Jasper and Banff, two of the world’s oldest national parks; despite their wild and rugged terrain, they remain untrammeled and easily accessible. They're majestic, breathtaking, awesome. No one should leave without first laying eyes on Peyto Lake and the Columbia Icefield, nor before traveling east to the fossil-encrusted badlands around Drumheller, south to the Crypt Lake trail in Waterton Lakes National Park, and north to spot bison in the vast, empty northern parklands.
In the center of the province, the wheat blows and the cattle and pronghorn roam; here you'll find historic ranches, sacred native sights and the eerie, martian landscape of the hoodoos. Calgary has become unexpectedly cool, with top museums and cocktail bars, while Edmonton’s fringe theater festival is the world’s second largest.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Alberta.
Jasper is a rugged beauty; it's more raw and less tourist-pampering than its southern cousin Banff, and hence host to a more ambitious, adventurous visitor. Its tour de force is its extensive multipurpose trail network, much of it instantly accessible from the park’s compact townsite. Backing it up is abundant wildlife, colossal icefields and–for the brave–the kind of desolate backcountry that makes you feel as though you’re a good few miles (and centuries) from anything resembling civilization. Unlike Banff, most of Jasper’s trails are multiuse, open to hikers, horseback riders and cyclists. Thanks to this liberal sharing policy, the park is able to offer the best network of off-road cycling trails in Canada–and they’re not just for daredevils. Rated green (easy), blue (moderate) or black (difficult), they cater to pretty much everyone, including kids or parents with trailers in tow. An added bonus is that many of Jasper’s trails start directly from the townsite, meaning you don’t need to lug your bike around by car or bus. Using a special cycling trail map (free from the info office), numerous loops can be plotted from your hotel or campground, with time to incorporate hiking, swimming, canoeing or grabbing a cup of coffee along the way. Some of the most popular natural wonders, like Miette Hot Springs and Maligne Canyon, are easily accessible, and many more attractions are just a short hike away. Keep a little spare time in your itinerary to take advantage of the many diversions you stumble upon–a sparkling lake to admire, a snowshoe tour to explore or a moose to watch ambling by. As the largest of Canada's Rocky Mountain parks, Jasper will quickly captivate you with its beauty and serenity. Admission fees and other practicalities Jasper National Park and Banff National Park are connected by the Icefields Parkway –one of Canada’s most famous road trips. There are three main road entrances to Jasper National Park. The East Park Entrance is on Hwy 16 between Jasper and Hinton, just east of Pocahontas. The West Park Entrance is on the same highway, 24km (15 miles) west of Jasper Town, near Yellowhead Pass and the border with British Columbia and Mt Robson Provincial Park. The Icefields Parkway Entrance is 6km south of Jasper Town on Hwy 93, on the way to Lake Louise. You must either buy or show a park pass at all entry gates. Park admission is C$10 for adults, C$8.70 for seniors, C$20 for families and free for kids under 17. There are additional fees for campground use, backcountry camping and fire permits. See the latest fees on the Jasper National Park website. Camping in Jasper National Park Three of Jasper's 10 campgrounds currently accept advance reservations: Wapiti, Wabasso and Pocahontas. Jasper's largest campground, Whistlers, is currently closed for renovation but will resume accepting reservations when it reopens in summer 2021. All other campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are also recommended for backcountry camping, as Parks Canada limits the number of hikers on each trail. Both frontcountry and backcountry sites can be reserved via the Parks Canada website starting in late January each year. Jasper offers a handful of huts and lodges modeled on the European alpine tradition. All situated a good day’s hike from the nearest road, these venerable backcountry retreats offer a unique wilderness experience without the hassle of setting up your tent or listening to things that go bump in the night. Hotels in Jasper National Park Aside from its venerable historic lodge, Jasper has a varied stash of hotels, motels, hostels, cabins, B&Bs and bungalows. Notwithstanding, in July and August you’d be wise to make reservations way in advance. Jasper gets seriously busy in July and August, and finding a room on the spur of the moment can be extremely difficult. Fortunately, aside from the standard clutch of hotels, motels and campgrounds, Jasper Town–which has a permanent population of 4500–has more than 100 B&Bs in private houses. The Jasper Home Accommodations Association maintains an excellent website of inspected B&Bs inside the park, complete with descriptions, contact details and web links. Prices range from C$75 to C$275 in high season and facilities often include kitchenettes, private entrances and cable TV. HI Jasper Patricia Lake Bungalows Mt Edith Cavell Wilderness Hostel Alpine Village Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge
Why you should go Of all Canada ’s top sights, Banff National Park justifiably ranks as many people’s number one. As much a piece of history as a natural wonder, Canada’s oldest national park, founded in 1885, is what Canada is all about. It’s a feral, but largely accessible, wilderness that attempts to cater for everyone – and largely succeeds – from bus-tour visitors to hard-core mountaineers. The towering mountains of Banff provide endless opportunities for wildlife-watching, hiking, boating, climbing, mountain biking, or skiing. But you don’t have to be a seasoned outdoor-enthusiast to enjoy Banff–its natural beauty will astound even those who just want to soak up the sights. Rugged canyons compete for your attention with fields of alpine wildflowers, turquoise lakes–like the famed Lake Louise and Moraine Lake –and dense emerald forests. One of the great beauties of Banff is its juxtaposition of the untamed and the civilized. Grizzly bears roam within growling distance of diners drinking cocktails at the romantic Banff Springs Hotel, while hikers fresh from summit attempts queue up for ice cream with golfers clutching nine irons. History Banff is a piece of history in itself. The region was home to First Nations peoples for 10,000 years before the creation of the park in 1885. Banff National Park is the world's third-oldest national park (and Canada's oldest). Cataloguing past triumphs and tribulations, Banff Town supports a healthy cache of four museums, virtually unparalleled for a 'natural' national park. Tickets and other practicalities Park admission is C$10 for adults, C$8.70 for seniors, C$20 for families and free for kids under 17. There are additional fees for campground use, backcountry camping, fire permits and fishing permits. See the latest fees on the Banff National Park website. Camping in Banff National Park Banff has 14 frontcountry campgrounds catering for tents, recreational vehicles (RVs) and camper vans. Most are open from around June to mid-September, although Tunnel Mountain Village Two and Lake Louise Trailer campgrounds are open year-round. Advance reservations are available for Tunnel Mountain, Two Jack, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise and some sites at Rampart Creek. The Parks Canada website starts taking reservations in January each year for a fee of C$11 in addition to regular camping fees. Book as far ahead as possible, as sites fill up fast. Sites at all other campgrounds are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, so the best way to claim a spot is to turn up early (around the official 11am checkout time is best) or check with parks staff about which campgrounds currently have availability. Banff Park Radio (101.1FM) also releases regular bulletins on campgrounds with available sites. It’s a good idea to stay in one place over weekends; sites are generally easier to come by midweek. There’s a maximum stay of 14 nights and a maximum occupancy of six people per site. At larger campgrounds you can pay fees at the entry kiosk, but at smaller campgrounds, you’ll have to self-register: find a vacant site first, then go to the self-registration shelter, remembering to enter your name, site number, license plate and duration of stay on the envelope along with the relevant fees. If it’s late when you arrive, you can do this in the morning, or sometimes staff will come around and collect your fees in person in the morning. Fires are usually allowed at campsites where there’s a fire pit – you’ll need to buy a fire permit (C$8.80, including wood) from the campground entrance. Watch for fire restrictions during dry periods. Hotels in Banff National Park Despite having enough hotel rooms to rival a town three times its size, finding a place to sleep in Banff Town can be tricky. Demand is huge, and rates are notoriously expensive, especially in peak season. Many visitors choose to cut costs by camping, hosteling, hiring recreation vehicles or staying in nearby Canmore. Regardless of where you stay, book well ahead, especially if you're coming in June, July or August. Skoki Lodge Fairmont Banff Springs Buffaloberry Paradise Lodge & Bungalows Banff Log Cabin B&B
Why you should go Considered by many to be the crown jewel of Banff National Park, Lake Louise is nearly impossible to describe without resorting to clichés. This implausibly turquoise lake is ringed by chiseled mountains capped by Victoria Glacier. Roughly 2km (1.2 miles) end to end and 70m (230ft) deep, the lake is famous for its stunning blue water, caused by light reflecting off tiny particles of ‘rock flour’ (glacial silt) carried down from the mountain glaciers. The lake has become one of Banff National Park’s most famous (and busiest) attractions, and the lakeshore inevitably gets crowded on summer days. Visit as early as possible to avoid the squash, and spend the rest of the day exploring the nearby attractions of Moraine Lake and the Lake Louise Gondola. You can usually escape the coachloads of sightseers milling around in front of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise by following the lakeshore trail, which tracks through forest along the northern side of the lake, offering fabulous vistas of Fairview Mountain and the Victoria Glacier. A spur trail leads steeply up the mountainside to the famous Lake Agnes Teahouse and the Big Beehive lookout, but it’s a long slog, so you’ll need good shoes and plenty of water. Further along the lakeshore trail, you can continue up the valley on the Plain of Six Glaciers walk. There are several more classic hikes leading off around Lake Louise, including the steep climbs up Saddleback (2330m/7644ft) and Fairview Mountain (2744m/9003ft), which both brood along the lake’s southern shore. For something more sedentary, you can hire canoes from the Lake Louise Boathouse. Once you've got over the shock of the price, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of the silence and natural majesty. Tickets and other practicalities Banff National Park admission is C$10 for adults, C$8.70 for seniors, C$20 for families and free for kids under 17. There are additional fees for campground use, backcountry camping, fire permits and fishing permits. See the latest fees on the Banff National Park website. There is a C$11.70 fee per vehicle for parking at the Lake Louise lakeshore. Lake Louise is best seen early or late in the day, when the vibrant colors of the lake are strongest. In winter the scene is transformed into a wonderland of powder-white ice. As it freezes over its signature blue waters won’t be visible–but it does become an epic skating rink. Lake Louise 'village,' just off Trans-Canada Hwy/Hwy 1, is little more than an outdoor shopping mall, a gas station and a handful of hotels. Hotels near Lake Louise Other than a very popular hostel and a fantastic riverside campground, Lake Louise doesn't have much in the way of budget accommodations. At the pricier end of the spectrum you'll find some truly splurge-worthy properties, including cabins, historic lodges and one of the Canadian Rockies' most iconic lakeside hotels, the opulent Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
Why you should go The spectacular, deep teal waters of Moraine Lake are one of Banff National Park’s most iconic sights. The lake’s rugged and remote setting in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, accessed via a narrow winding road, only add to its allure, Many visitors actually prefer Moraine Lake to the more famous Lake Louise –so many, in fact, that you'll have to be lucky or an early riser to get a parking spot here; the lot often fills up by 5:30am in peak season. At the eastern end of the lake is the Moraine Lake Rockpile, a massive heap of boulders of somewhat uncertain origin: some geologists think it was created by an ancient avalanche, while others believe it was formed by the long-gone glacier that carved out the rest of the valley. A paved trail leads up to a series of viewpoints at the top of the rockpile, offering a panoramic vista across the lake and the Wenkchemna Peaks beyond. A part-paved trail leads off around the lake’s northern shore, linking up with the branch trail to Larch Valley and Eiffel Lake. Another trail leads southeast from the rockpile to Consolation Lakes. Alternatively, you can explore the lake in the manner of the old voyageurs by hiring a canoe from the boathouse next to Moraine Lake Lodge. Tickets and other practicalities Banff National Park admission is C$10 for adults, C$8.70 for seniors, C$20 for families and free for kids under 17. There are additional fees for campground use, backcountry camping, fire permits and fishing permits. See the latest fees on the Banff National Park website. The Moraine Lake Road closes seasonally–from about October to May–due to the avalanche risk.
Encompassing 11,228 sq km of Rocky Mountains wilderness, including jagged peaks, vast forests, glacial lakes and the magnificent Columbia Icefield, Jasper shelters some of the most pristine natural features on the North American continent. Jasper receives over two million visitors annually, making it Canada's second most popular national park.
The tongue of the Athabasca Glacier runs from the Columbia Icefield to within walking distance of the road opposite the Icefield Centre. It can be visited on foot or in an Ice Explorer all-terrain vehicle. It has retreated about 2km since 1844, when it reached the rock moraine on the north side of the road. To reach its toe (bottom edge), walk from the Icefield Centre along the 1.8km Forefield Trail, then join the 1km Toe of the Glacier Trail.
This fantastic museum is one of the pre-eminent dinosaur museums on the planet, made even better by a $5.9 million expansion project completed in 2019. Even if you have no interest in dinos, you'll come out feeling like you missed your calling as a paleontologist. The exhibits are nothing short of mind-blowing. Unlike some other dinosaur exhibits, there's nothing dusty or musty about this super-modern place. Children will love the interactive displays.
More remote than Banff's historic springs, Miette Hot Springs ('discovered' in 1909) are 61km northeast of Jasper off Hwy 16, near the park's eastern boundary. The soothing waters, kept at a pleasant 37°C (98°F) to 40°C (104°F), are surrounded by peaks and are especially enjoyable when the fall snow is drifting down and steam envelops the crowd. Raining summer evenings also make for stunning, misty conditions.
Looking like a whimsical copper castle, this fabulous new museum is entirely entertaining, taking you on a ride through Canada's musical history with rotating exhibits, cool artifacts (like the guitar Guess Who used to record 'American Woman') and interactive displays. Test your skill at the drums, electric guitar or in a sound-recording room and even create your own instruments. Don't miss the Body Phonic room or the solar-powered Skywalk with its repurposed pianos destroyed in the 2013 flood.