With turquoise glacial waters set against soaring, snow-capped peaks, the iconic alpine scenes of Alberta’s Banff National Park are arguably the poster child of Canada. And while the rugged Canadian Rockies live up to their reputation, they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Alberta’s striking landscapes. From the mushroom-shaped hoodoos of the fossil-laden Badlands to the ice bubbles trapped beneath the surface of Abraham Lake—there is no shortage of natural wonders to discover.
Four national parks and five UNESCO World Heritage sites offer year-round adventure for outdoor enthusiasts. But with a burgeoning Indigenous tourism industry and the two main cities–Calgary and Edmonton—becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, all while maintaining their western charm—Alberta is ripe for cultural exploration, too.
From the rowdy Calgary Stampede to the spiritual mountain lakes to the desolate northern parklands, where you can catch a rare glimpse of the world’s last remaining wild buffalo and, if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights—these are the places you won’t want to miss on your next trip to Alberta.
While skiers and snowboarders still hit the slopes at the former 1988 Olympic venue Winsport, Canada’s fourth largest city is no longer just a gateway to Alberta’s alpine attractions. In the summer, you’ll find locals and visitors floating on tubes down the Bow River that splits the city in two. While in the winter, penguins waddle freely at the Calgary Zoo, home to nearly 1,000 animals spanning 119 species. Across the river in the popular East Village, music lovers appreciate the 2,000 rare instruments housed at Studio Bell. Around the corner, the Calgary Central Library attracts architecture enthusiasts and bookworms alike for its collection of over 400,000 books stacked amid soaring cedar arches and winding terraces inspired by Alberta’s foothills and Chinook winds.
Creativity also abounds in the East Village’s many kitchens, where chefs and mixologists rewrite “Cowtown’s” culinary reputation as the beef-loving city where the popular Caesar cocktail—a savory mix of vodka and Clamato juice served in a celery salt-rimmed glass–was born.
Locally grown vegetables take center stage at the beloved Coup and Japanese-style Nupo (don’t miss the omakase and hidden eight-seat restaurant in the back). Cheap beer and Caesars are swapped for sophisticated cocktails at Bengali-style curry house Calcutta Cricket Club and Cannibale, a speakeasy concealed behind a full-service barbershop.
Still, Calgary hasn’t forgotten its western roots. Every July, you can find Calgarians shading the hot prairie sun with their cowboy hats while waiting in line for “stampede breakfast.” The complimentary pancakes are doled out by businesses across the city in celebration of the annual Calgary Stampede, a world-class rodeo known as “the greatest outdoor show on earth.”
Seventy-five million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the lush, subtropical environment just northeast of Calgary. Today, it’s an arid tundra known as the Canadian Badlands, and home to the richest dinosaur fossil collection in the world. Housing over 130,000 fossils and a 67-million-year-old T-rex, the Royal Tyrrell Museum is a must for dinosaur fans. As is a stop in the nearby former coal town of Drumheller, to climb inside the mouth of the world’s largest dinosaur. It may be the “Dinosaur Capital of the World,” but with its mystical hoodoo rock formations and dusty desolate canyons, you don’t have to be a science whiz to be wowed by the Badlands.
3. Banff National Park
No trip to Alberta would be complete without a visit to the picturesque sister lakes of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Set in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the latter attracts serious hikers to its surrounding strenuous trails in the summer, while Lake Louise is a more relaxed year-round affair, with its flat encircling path making for an easy stroll or cycle.
Sore muscle relief is available on the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain at the Banff Upper Hot Springs. For more impressive views, take the Banff Gondola up to the summit, where you’ll find an interpretative center, boardwalk, and locally sourced Canadian cuisine served 2,292 feet in the sky. The experience is offered year-round, but skiers and snowboarders will want to wait for winter to hit Banff’s pristine slopes. Adrenaline junkies can also find their fix climbing the Via Ferrata cliffs above Mount Norquay or traversing the frozen waterfalls of nearby Johnston Canyon.
Back at sea level, an hour-long cruise of Lake Minnewanka—also known as the “Lake of the Spirits”—offers Indigenous history and wildlife sightings on its placid shorelines. Stretching over 17 miles long, Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park, and more than a pretty picture—cold-water divers can explore Minnewanka Landing, a sunken resort town dating back to 1886. Spirit-chasers will want to head south afterward to visit the ghost town of Bankhead.
Where to stay at Banff National Park
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Book now: From $299 per night, expedia.com
With countless outdoor activities on offer—such as canoe rentals and forest bathing—the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise makes a convenient home base for exploring Canada’s first national park any time of year. History buffs will revel in Renaissance revival architecture dating back to 1890 while wellness-seekers take in the mountain air at an outdoor morning stretch session or pamper themselves at one of the spa’s 20 indulgent treatments.
4. Icefields Parkway
Arguably one of the most scenic drives in the world, the three-hour stretch between Banff and Jasper is a must to experience Alberta’s more rugged natural wonders. It’s worth braving the crowds midroute to marvel at the thick ice sheets and frozen rivers of the 10,000-year-old Athabasca Glacier—one of the six glaciers of the Columbia Icefield.
For a more capacious experience, head to the Glacier Skywalk at night to view the Icefield beneath a blanket of stars from the glass-floored balcony. Equally impressive are the methane ice bubbles that form on the surface of Alberta’s largest reservoir, Abraham Lake. Stops at Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls offer more opportunities to witness aquatic forces of nature.
5. Jasper National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest park in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park is teeming with fossils, flora, and fauna to explore. In the summer, a half-day canoe journey or relaxed boat cruise takes you out to Spirit Island, one of Canada’s most photographed destinations due to its remote location and the distinct emerald color of the surrounding Maligne Lake, while the six suspension bridges that soar above Maligne Canyon are a hiker’s dream. Ice climbers will want to wait until the winter, when the 50-meter-deep canyon transforms into a winter fortress of frozen ice floes.
For a more laid-back adventure, the Jasper Skytram transports you 7,000 feet above sea level to the summit of the Whistlers in a mere eight minutes. Spectacular sky views are also had at the Jasper Planetarium, where you’ll find the most powerful telescopes in the Rockies, and astronomers explaining the stars and Northern Lights, from the 50-seat outdoor domed theater. A short drive south will land you at Jasper Brewing Company, the first brewery in a Canadian national park.
Home to the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America, Edmonton River Valley, Alberta’s capital city embodies the province’s main draw—nature. The North Saskatchewan River that cuts through the heart of the city makes for a peaceful urban kayak or canoe, while the Valley’s more than 20 parks offer 100 miles of trails for hiking, cycling, and cross-country skiing.
When the harsh winter proves too cold for outdoor pursuits, head indoors to West Edmonton Mall. Housing the world’s largest indoor amusement park, indoor lake, and indoor wave pool, plus a zoo, skating rink, and over 800 shops—North America’s largest mall is a destination in its own right.
Calgary’s rival city also has an artistic side. In the vibrant Arts District, you’ll find an eclectic mix of Indigenous and contemporary art at the Royal Alberta Museum and Art Gallery of Alberta. With over 60 annual festivals, most notably the summer Fringe Theatre Festival (the largest and oldest of its kind in North America), the aptly nicknamed “Festival City” is a delight for theater buffs. The city’s growing dining scene sees Alberta beef reimagined nose-to-tail style at Rge Rd and drinks infused with juniper foraged from the Alberta Badlands at Strathcona Spirits, the smallest distillery in North America.
7. Elk Island National Park
Once numbering in the millions, Canadian bison—Alberta’s most emblematic animal—have dwindled to a wild population of less than a thousand. This “island of conservation,” located a 30-minute drive east of Edmonton, is the best place to encounter the remaining few, and the Northern Lights, at the light pollution–free Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve.
Despite its remote nature, the national park gets a glamping glow-up in the summer with luxury Geo Domes, complete with gas fireplaces and charcuterie delivery. The culturally savvy will want to head north to rest at the forthcoming Métis-designed boutique lodge at Métis Crossing, which also features Indigenous-led experiences—among them, wildlife tours and stargazing workshops—and hearty Canadian fare, like bannock, crafted by Indigenous chefs.
>> Next: Discover a Side of Indigenous Canada at Métis Crossing, Newly Expanding in 2022