Alberta Pictures Guide, Canada

Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Hotel, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau Hotel, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Wingchi-Poon.

Why Visit Alberta?

Alberta is the most westerly province in Canada after British Columbia and shares the Canadian Rockies with British Columbia. It’s a rich province due to oil and ranching but still enjoys hosting tourists who come primarily from the USA, with UK visitors at number two.
One obvious incentive for American tourists to travel here is of course the proximity making an easy driving vacation (especially from the northern parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington states), but also the province leans towards English language in contrast to more easterly provinces where locals may prefer to speak French (the third largest group of international visitors to Canada are French).
However, the biggest attraction is unquestionably the staggeringly beautiful rivers, lakes and Rocky Mountains of Alberta’s National Parks, particularly Banff and Jasper.
The two largest cities in Alberta, Calgary and Edmonton, do their bit to attract visitors too with some off-the-wall summer festivals and events such as the Calgary Stampede (mid July) and Edmonton’s Capital EX (late July).

When to go there

The best weather in southern Alberta (where Banff, Jasper, Calgary and Edmonton all lie) is in summertime, July-August, though don’t expect average highs to reach much above 24C (75F) and perhaps considerably lower in the rockies. December-March you can expect average lows 0C (32F) – 6C (21F) but a random dry wind called the Chinook often raises temperatures suddenly.

Main attractions

The Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway's sensational driving route, Alberta, Canada

Icefields Parkway’s sensational driving route photographed by Adam Jones.

This is the main north-south route through the best sights of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Jasper and Banff National Parks. The Parkway is 230 km (143 miles) long, roughly a three-hour drive if you don’t stop but of course there’s little point in going if you don’t take in the astonishing beauty of the place at a more relaxed speed via a walk, horseback ride or kayak. Accommodation is available outside winter in Lake Louise, Jasper and at the Columbia Icefield, while Banff town is less than an hour’s drive away.

Activities available off the Icefields Parkway route include a tour and short walk around/on the Columbia Icefield glacier via a Snocoach; a 3 or 5 hour hike on the Athabasca Glacier that suits fitter folk better; and hikes around Peyto Lake, Crowfoot and Bow glaciers and Athabasca Falls.

Banff and Jasper National Parks

Banff town spread around Tunnel Mountain, Alberta, Canada

Banff town spread around Tunnel Mountain. Photo taken by RAF YYC from Sulphur Mountain gondola.

In the Rocky Mountains bordering British Columbia these two are Canada’s most spectacular national parks and Alberta’s primary tourist destinations. Banff is easier to get around and to reach than Jasper.

The Banff must-dos – if time is very short – are taking at least a walk on the shore paths of Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.
If you like hiking and have more time then do a more serious hike such as the stunning Plain of Six Glaciers Trail from Chateau Lake Louise to the base of Victoria Glacier. Alternatively get onto the water, these lakes are among the most magical kayak/canoe locations on the planet.

15 miles from Banff town on the way to Lake Louise (Lake Louise is the name of both the lake and the lovely small resort town nearby) stop off at Johnston Canyon, summer or winter, for a ‘fairytale’ walk on elevated paths through this narrow chasm, with tunnels, colourful rocks, bubbling streams and waterfalls.

If you are not a big walker then take the pricey but exciting Sulphur Mountain gondola from Banff town. You can save a lot of expense by walking down from the top and/or not eating at the rubbish restaurant at the top!

Banff town

Banff avenue in Banff town, Alberta, Canada

Banff Avenue in the town looking towards Cascade Mountain.

Banff town, inside the national park at an altitude of 4, 800ft (1, 463m), is surrounded by mountains and offers many tourist-oriented activities including natural hot springs, hiking, biking and climbing in the summer and a small and scary gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain where the view is stunning, but the cost is high ($30 pp) and the restaurant at the top is terrible.
Fit visitors can cut the cost by hiking down the trail to Sundance Canyon.
In winter skiing is popular at two nearby resorts, Sunshine Village and Ski Norquay.

More Banff National Park.

Moraine Lake, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Moraine Lake, Banff. Photo by Mike Boehmer.

Generally the best sights have crowds and parking problems in the summer, especially gloriously green/blue Moraine Lake, so early arrival is imperative. e. g. 9 am.
Lake Louise offers very much the same stunning views and pleasant walking trials as Moraine Lake.

Banff Activities

Some alternative Banff activities include climbing, camping, fishing, horseback riding, wildlife spotting, mountain biking and easing your tired muscles in hot springs. In winter – apart from the obvious skiing and snow boarding try skating, waterfall ice climbing, ice diving, snowshoeing and outdoor hot springs.

Via Ferrata, Mt Norquay

One newish and very popular activity is the Via Ferrata on Mt Norquay in Banff National Park. This basically a quite serious rock climbing trail aided by ropes supported by iron pegs, hence the ferrata name. It’s challenging but if you go with a decent tour and have a modest fitness level this could be one of life’s great experiences, you will be scared, you will be exhilarated, you will survive. You will come back for more. Four hours is the standard length and it’s not cheap but worth every dollar. We believe 12 years old + is the low-end limit.

Rat’s Nest Cave, Canmore Caverns

Another wild and scary adventure from those wild and hairy Canadians. This one is underground (after a 20m walk) and involves rappelling into a sensational, undeveloped cave system.

Getting to Banff

Calgary International Airport operates the nearest flights for Banff; frequent coaches and mini-buses do an airport-Banff town shuttle. The drive airport-Banff is 90 miles (145 kms) and will take about 2 hours.
Cars may be rented at the airport of in Banff town. Tourists must buy a national park pass at the Banff Park gate.
Driving from Edmonton to Banff will take about 4 hours as it’s 250 miles (400 kms).

Nice little Rocky Mountain activities

In addition to Banff and Lake Louise resort towns, there’s beautifully located Canmore in Bow Valley, 70 miles (110 kms) west of Calgary (in Kananaskis Country) that’s famed for ice climbing, regular climbing, caving, mountain biking and kayaking/canoeing.

Frozen Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park winter, Alberta, Canada

Athabasca Falls in Jasper NP. Photo by Chris Stubbs. Don’t ignore Canada in winter! For southerly folk it’s a dramatic and invigorating experience, especially if you’re properly dressed for the occasion.

Jasper National Park vs. Banff National Park

Jasper is bigger, less developed, less easy to reach and consequently the less popular of the two parks but still a rugged, beautiful, World Heritage Site with hundreds of miles of outstanding hiking trails and terrific white-water rafting.

Highlights are the huge Sunwapta Falls, an Athabasca Glacier hike, spectacular Athabasca Falls, a Mount Edith Cavell trail (steep but with breathtaking views within 1 hour of parking), a Maligne Canyon Ice Walk (in winter, short or long walks, a tricky and sometimes steep trail so walking poles are useful) and Miette Hot Springs for a good soaking after a hard day.

Jasper is 192 miles (370 kms) from Edmonton, 256 miles (404 kms) from Calgary and 500 miles (800 kms) from Vancouver.

More on Jasper National Park

Waterton Lakes National Park

The Prince of Wales Hotel nicely situated on Waterton Lakes, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

The Prince of Wales Hotel nicely situated on Waterton Lakes. Photo by Tanyasiri Kaewjaturat.

Waterton Lakes National Park is in southwest Alberta, bordering USA’s Glacier National Park in Montana. Waterton is open all year, but the tourist season is July – August. There are a number of attractions centred on Waterton Lakes National Park including fine hiking and biking trails, board sailing, fishing, horse riding, golf, hot springs, white water rafting and the usual winter sports.

Calgary

A kind of Houston-of-the-north, Calgary is a prairie oil town that offers tourists a popular zoo/Botanic Garden/Prehistoric Park; a Heritage Park (‘taste of the past’); the pleasant historic, busker-friendly and pedestrianised Stephen Avenue Walk; ‘the world’s greatest western extravaganza’ Calgary Stampede in the last week of July annually; and the primary starting point for exploring Banff National Park.

Edmonton

Edmonton in winter, Alberta, Canada

Edmonton in winter. Photo by E229.

Another rich, well developed Canadian city and the capital of Alberta, Edmonton’s biggest party of the year is July’s ‘Capital EX’ (aka Klondike Days), gives good access to Jasper National Park and offers North America’s biggest shopping centre, the 800 store West Edmonton Mall.

Alberta Wildlife

Bears – black and grizzlies, moose, elk, caribou (reindeer), coyote, wolves, foxes, lynx, bobcats, cougars, mountain goats, deer, bison, beaver, muskrats, bald and golden eagles, nodding donkeys, and more, more, more.

A moose at Cameron Lake, Alberta, Canada

While just about everyone wants to see a bear and Bighorn Sheep are the provincial icon visitors are quite likely to come across moose (mooses? ). Don’t be fooled by their dopey looks, they can be stubborn and cantankerous animals. Photo by Noblesteed.

The Calgary Stampede

Promoted as ‘The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’, is a combination festival, exhibition, and rodeo held in Calgary over 10 days every July. It is a massive event and famously the world’s largest outdoor rodeo.

Apart from the rodeos other Stampede attractions include stage shows, concerts, chuck wagon races, exhibitions and pancake breakfasts.

The spectacular – and cowboy oriented naturally – Stampede Parade through downtown Calgary takes place on opening day. Many tourists participate in the occasion by wearing western clothing. More Calgary Stampede.

Calgary stampede, Alberta, Canada

Calgary Stampede chuck wagon racing, one of many events matching excitable 4LD with insane humans. Photo by Resolute.

Main Festivals inAlberta

Mid July, Calgary Stampede, a 10 day world-class rodeo riot. A wild yet comradely festival enjoyed by the whole of ‘cowtown’, events include Chuck Wagon racing, rodeos, a spectacular parade, country music performances and free pancake breakfasts!

Last week of July, Edmonton’s Capital EX (formerly Klondike Days), 10 days of concerts, racing pigs, racing bath tubs, racing rafts and probably racing prices, though the pancakes are free.

August, Edmonton Fringe Festival, wacky theatre of all kinds.

January – February, Banff/Lake Louise Winter Festival.

For some precise dates see: English Speaking Festivals