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).
The Icefields Parkway
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.
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).
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.