Alberta is where the Canadian Rockies meet the Great Plains in a series of spectacular landscapes. The province is all about wide-open spaces. From the mountains to the Badlands, there are five UNESCO World Heritage sites and four national parks that protect the province’s natural wonders and abundant wildlife. Mountain towns like Jasper and Banff celebrate mountain culture, while both Edmonton and Calgary host a cosmopolitan character that’s growing in pace with the booming economy. And quintessential western Canadian culture shines through at the annual Calgary Stampede.
When’s the best time to go to Alberta?
Alberta enjoys the most sunshine of all the Canadian provinces, so it’s always a good time to visit. Spring is short and sweet, lasting only April to May, but this is when Alberta’s diverse wildflowers bloom in Waterton National Park. Summer is when Alberta is at its peak. The days are long, and warmer than most would expect. In Banff and Jasper national parks, it’s the time to explore the mountains by visiting Spirit Island or hiking above Moraine Lake. The Canadian Rockies are home to some of the world’s most scenic ski areas, and since they’re located in the great white north, the resorts enjoy long seasons that last from November to May. Winter enthusiasts may still prefer to visit between December and March, when it’s also possible to skate on Lake Louise or venture along the Malinge Canyon Icewalk.
How to get around Alberta
Both Edmonton and Calgary have international airports, with daily flights arriving from just about everywhere. Because Alberta is so large, and its attractions so spread out, make sure to fly into the right airport. The Alberta Badlands, the Cowboy Trail, and Banff and Waterton national parks are closer to Calgary, while Jasper National Park is closest to Edmonton. Another scenic way to arrive in Alberta is by train. VIARail’s Canada Line runs between Toronto and Vancouver, via Jasper and Edmonton. Rocky Mountaineer runs from Seattle and Vancouver to Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff, and Calgary.
Alberta is massive, but regional flight services are limited. While airport shuttles to Jasper and Banff national parks are available from both Calgary and Edmonton, it’s often easiest to get around the province by car. For the most part, roads are paved and navigation is easy, but make sure to check your fuel gauge before leaving rural towns, as it can be several hundred kilometers between service stations. The bonus, however, is fuel prices that are typically the most inexpensive in Canada. Throughout the summer, many visitors opt to rent RVs and stay at campgrounds in the Canadian Rockies. In the winter, make sure to request an AWD rental car with winter tires to make the most of driving on snow-covered roads.
Food and drink to try in Alberta
“I love Alberta Beef” stickers adorn pickup-truck bumpers throughout the province, and much of the local diet features hearty servings of red meat. But don’t go thinking it’s limited to beef, as farm-raised venison, elk, and bison appear on many menus. The province is currently experiencing a farm-to-table movement that takes advantage of its proximity to locally grown food. From downtown Calgary, it’s less than 20 kilometers to sprawling ranches. Craft beer is booming throughout the province, too, with the opening of dozens of microbreweries, including Jasper Brewing Company, the first-ever in a Canadian national park. As for cocktails, the Caesar is Alberta’s signature drink. Invented in Calgary, a traditional Caesar contains vodka, Clamato juice, hot sauce, and Worcestershire and is served in a celery salt–rimmed glass.
Culture in Alberta
Much of Alberta’s culture is celebrated in the province’s five UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks site protects the abundant wildlife of the Canadian Rockies, while the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, located in the southwest corner of the province, was formed to commemorate goodwill between the USA and Canada. At Dinosaur Provincial Park, 75 million years of fossilized history has been discovered in the dramatic landscapes of the Badlands. Wood Buffalo National Park is home to the world’s largest bison herd, and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump celebrates aboriginal culture by portraying how the Plains Indians hunted buffalo for thousands of years.
The Calgary Stampede is Alberta’s most famous annual event, drawing over 700,000 visitors to the province for 10 days each July. More than the just world’s richest rodeo, the event’s live music performances and Stampede Midway draw crowds equal to the rodeo itself. After the Stampede, the province sees many summer music festivals, such as the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Calgary’s Sled Island Festival, and Hinton’s Wild Mountain Music Fest. The Banff Mountain Film Festival brings adventure filmmaking into the limelight each October, while Jasper in January is dubbed the Canadian Rockies’ hottest winter festival.
Local travel tips for Alberta
- Wildlife viewing is easiest at sunrise or sunset, so locals hoping to spot a grizzly bear or mountain goat (or any of the dozens of species native to Alberta, like elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, or black bears) hit the road earlier than most visitors.
- The weather is unpredictable. Freezing-cold winter days turn mild when Chinook winds blow. And hot summer days can quickly turn cold, especially in the Canadian Rockies. Make sure to pack an extra layer, just in case.
- Speaking of weather, September is usually the most stable. Sunny days with surprisingly warm temperatures coincide with the end of tourist season, so don’t be afraid to visit in the low season.