Destination Canada

10 Must-Have Experiences in Alberta

Blaze your own trail in Alberta, the wild west home of cowboys, dinosaurs, caves and jaw-dropping Rocky Mountain backdrops.

By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett
Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier at sunrise with The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise at the foreground.

Alberta’s five national parks and extraordinarily varied landscape—rolling prairie in the east, Canadian Rockies in the west, and lunar-like badlands in between—inspire wanderlust in every type of traveller. Whether winter adventures or world-class festivals and museums ignite your imagination, make Alberta’s 10-Must-Have Experiences the launchpad for an unforgettable journey.

Stargaze in a Dark Sky Preserve

Bask in the mind-blowing brilliance of a starry night sky at Jasper National Park, host of the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. Meteors, the Milky Way, and sometimes even the Northern Lights shine brightly above the 2,774,500-acre park, billed as the planet’s second biggest Dark Sky Preserve. Stargazing is best on clear nights, particularly in winter. To sleep under a blanket of stars, pitch a tent at one of the park’s campsites, which number almost 2,000.

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Go Fat Biking in Snow

Celebrate winter in the Canadian Rockies with a bouncy ramble on a fat bike. Equipped  with comically big tyres, fat bikes make pedaling in the snow easier (while still a calorie-burning workout) and outrageously good fun. In fat-biking hub Kananaskis Country, a network of over 51 parks west of Calgary, Kananaskis Outfitters hires out bikes for exploring the area’s more than 20 groomed trails. Explore Banff National Park by fat bike on a rental from Snowtips-Bactrax or Chateau Mountain Sports.

A woman and man enjoy a winter fat bike ride in Banff National Park, Alberta.
Fat Biking is a new way to experience winter in some of Alberta’s many parks.

Cowboy up at the Calgary Stampede

Channel your inner cowboy at Alberta’s signature festival, the Calgary Stampede. Held each July, the 10-day celebration of all things western more than lives up to its billing as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” Pull on a pair of boots and prepare for a wild ride: hundreds of rip-roaring events, such as chuckwagon racing, a world-class rodeo, high-flying motor cross shows, concerts, fireworks and a midway.

In addition to incredible Western experiences, the Calgary Stampede is proud to be Canada’s only city-wide party that includes hundreds of pancake breakfasts throughout the city and amazing music line-ups over the 10-day event.

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Drive the Dazzling Icefields Parkway

Slip behind the wheel for a 144-mile ride through a mind-blowing highlight reel of Canadian Rockies’ mountain majesty: jagged peaks, ancient glaciers, turquoise lakes, crystal clear waterfalls, grazing bighorn sheep, and thick larch forest. Considered one of the world’s most spectacular drives, the twisting two-lane Icefields Parkway parallels the Continental Divide between the postcard-perfect resort towns of Lake Louise and Jasper. From May to early October, stop at the Columbia Icefields Glacier Discovery Centre for a guided icewalk on the Athabasca Glacier.

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Meditate on a Mountaintop

Elevate your yoga practice with a Soaring Spirit Heli Yoga class high in the Canadian Rockies. A helicopter whisks yogis over waterfalls, glaciers, and lush valleys to an alpine meadow 'studio' for an hour or more of mindful hatha yoga (mindful breathing techniques and stretching, balancing, and strengthening poses). The fresh mountain air, rejuvenating energy of the sun, and spectacular Banff National Park panoramas spark the senses, enhancing your practice. A post-class gourmet picnic lunch helps prolong the Zen-like bliss.

A mountaintop Hatha yoga session in the Canadian Rockies.

Dig for Dinosaur Fossils

Play paleontologist at North America’s biggest dinosaur bone yard. Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks boasts the world’s highest concentration of Cretaceous fossils—remnants of the more than 44 species of dinosaurs that roamed the Canadian Badlands over 75 million years ago. Dinosaur bones, teeth, microfossils, and other prehistoric parts are preserved in the park’s protected fields. To hunt for fossils, book tickets well in advance for dinosaur digs, fossil safaris, and other guided interpretive programmes.

Gibbous moon and crepuscular rays over Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 90 minutes east of Calgary.

Dogsled Down the Backbone of North America

Zip along the Continental Divide on an adrenaline-pumping dogsledding expedition. Several tour operators offer husky pulled sled trips—from 30-minute rides to three-day excursions—along Alberta’s snowy Rocky Mountain trails. For a full-immersion mushing experience, sign up for the Cold Fire Creek Dogsledding Ghost of Cold Fire Creek tour. The four-hour trip retraces a wilderness route taken by trappers and prospectors, and offers opportunities to drive the sled and to water, unharness, and cuddle the dogs.

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Rock on in Calgary

Groove to a distinctively Canadian beat at Calgary’s Studio Bell. Designed and built to emanate light and music (220,000 glazed terracotta wall tiles enhance the acoustics), the nine-tower building houses the National Music Centre. The festival of a museum is home to three Canadian music halls of fame, three historic London recording studios, and 22 'stages' packed with interactive exhibits. Rock out on the drums. Sing in the vocal booth. See Elton John’s Tiny Dancer piano and thousands of other music artefacts.

Studio Bell, home of Calgary's National Music Centre, is an international hub for music and technology.
The National Music Centre includes a music-related museum collection and a performance centre.

Take an After-Hours Cave Tour

Light up Saturday night (from June to September) in Banff with an eerie Lantern Tour of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Considered the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks, the site protects an underground cave, bubbling hot springs, a historic 1914 bathing pavilion, and the endangered Banff Springs snail, only found here. Touring by lantern light adds an extra dose of intrigue to the Cave and Basin history shared by the narrator-guide: the 'ghost' of the site’s original caretaker.

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Experience Frozen Fun in Edmonton

Embrace the best of winter in Edmonton where frosty temperatures inspire festive celebrations. Cheer on the kortebaan (Dutch long-blade speed-skating sprint race) competitors and go for a sleigh ride at February’s Silver Skate Festival. Head to Red Bull Crashed Ice to see skaters dodge obstacles while speeding four abreast down a steep, icy track. At the family-friendly Boardwalk Ice on Whyte Festival warm up with a bowl of bison stew after conquering the ice slide and snow maze.

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Maryellen Kennedy Duckett is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel. Follow her journey on Twitter.

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