They don’t call it the “Alberta advantage” for nothing. This western Canadian province offers outdoor adventures that rival some of the world’s most iconic alpine locations—along with an array of unique experiences for adventurous visitors.
Stargaze at the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve
Light pollution is almost impossible to escape—in many places it’s left us entirely unable to see the night sky. Enter Jasper National Park, the world’s second largest DSP—dark sky preserve (the largest is also in Alberta, at Wood Buffalo National Park). Half of the iconic Banff and Jasper National Park duo, Jasper, nestled along Alberta’s western edge, is Banff’s wilder sibling, less visited and dark—very dark. Designated a DSP in 2011 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the preserve measures about 7,000 square miles, in which no light alters the view of the stars.
To get there, take the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper. Driving this 144-mile stretch that cuts right through the heart of the Rocky Mountains is a Canadian tradition. Alternatively, you can fly into Edmonton and hop on Highway 16, which will lead you directly to the park.
The town of Jasper itself is the only town in Canada to be entirely enveloped in a preserve, meaning you’ll get a great view no matter where you stay. If you want to make sure you’ve found the darkest sky, stay in a rented cabin as close to the southern side of the park as possible. For an out-of-this-world experience, travel to one of Jasper’s many lakes (like Pyramid or Medicine), which reflect the constellations. And consider visiting in October, when the annual Dark Sky Festival encourages visitors to “power down, look up.”
Walk the Bubbles at Abraham Lake
Bighorn Country—named for the native bighorn sheep—is home to one of Alberta’s best kept winter secrets. Man-made Abraham Lake is cold, bright blue (thanks to glacier sediment), and, in the winter, a window into a world of frozen bubbles locked under the ice. Thanks to strong winds off the North Saskatchewan River Valley, the lake surface is almost entirely free of snow, meaning you can get a clear glimpse of the perfectly formed methane bubbles, which provide a bit of a thrill thanks to their flammable nature. Don’t worry: The gas evaporates slowly from the top.
The lack of deep snow on the lake also means it’s ideal for winter hiking and snowshoeing. The lake is just a 20-minute drive off the Icefields Parkway but a world away from the crowds of Banff and Jasper and one of the least developed parts of the region. Be aware that there are very few nearby services, and it’s best to plan a day trip to the region from Calgary. Dress for the weather—winter conditions can be harsh and shift dramatically over time.
Ski the Wapta Traverse
The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) works diligently to maintain a series of backcountry huts across Canada, including five along Alberta’s Wapta Traverse. The Wapta consists of two ice fields that spread along the Continental Divide. Gliding up and over peaks and valleys, this is a ski mountaineer’s dream trip. The legendary explorer Conrad Kain made the first known crossing of the Wapta Traverse in 1910. The ACC arranges special packhorse tours between the huts in July of each year to celebrate his birthday.
Still, the best way to do the Wapta is in winter—and to become a member of the ACC. Their low annual fee gives you access and special evening rates for all the huts, as well as flexibility in how you’d like to plan your trip. The huts’ beds are first come, first served, so you may end up cuddling up on the floor to sleep. Skiers hop from hut to hut along the traverse and can visit the ACC’s newest, the Louise and Richard Guy hut, which is open only to Wapta skiers over the winter months. Call the Alpine Club of Canada’s head office in Canmore, Alberta, in advance to discuss your skill level and booking options before arriving.
Winter Camp at Dinosaur Provincial Park
Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site located east of the Rocky Mountain region, doesn’t rise into the sky like mountains. Rather, it’s a series of badland coulees that dip into the ground like a valley. Formed over centuries into soft sandstone, this part of Alberta is home to some of the world’s richest deposits of fossils and was part of the late 19th century's infamous Bone Wars, when paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Cope battled to discover and name dinosaur remains before the other. Soft spires of stone have been carved away from the rock over time, leaving visible bands and fossils in the rock. Visitors to Dinosaur Park often make their own fossil finds and take them into the nearby Royal Tyrrell Museum for inspection, or mark them off to be recovered later.
Its unique geography makes Dinosaur Park the ideal place for camping, even in the wintertime. The key is having the right gear (a strong winter tent, heavy sleeping bag, and many layers are all key) and coming fully prepared. Stock up on firewood, cooking supplies, and water in nearby Drumheller, and set up your tent along the edges of a coulee. With a fire going, it’s an inviting place to watch wildlife, hike and climb, and cozy up in a sleeping bag.
Border-Hopping Hikes at Waterton
Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park borders Montana and British Columbia, but it has a seamless, transborder feel. In winter, it’s one of the best places to find peace and solitude, as few visitors travel the two and a half hours south of Calgary. The park is also home to the stunning Prince of Wales Hotel, perched at the edge of Waterton Lake.
Because of its proximity to the United States, Waterton is known as an “international peace park,” as visitors are welcome to participate in guided hikes that cross the border between the two countries. Parks Canada and the U.S. National Park Service lead an eight-mile hike together along the lake and share the history of the park. To enter British Columbia, take the Akamina Pass trail and have a post-snowshoe picnic at the top.
Like Jasper, Waterton is considered more wild than the heavily traveled Banff, so keep an eye out for grizzlies in the park—Parks Canada posts bear safety tips at information stations and trailheads. Since Waterton is less traveled, ensure you’re up to snuff on winter safety and trip planning in case of avalanches and unexpected storms, which may delay your hike or snowshoeing adventure.
WinSport Canada Olympic Park
In 1988, the city of Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics. The legacy of those games lives on, partly through the infrastructure that brought winter sports within city boundaries.
The most prominent example of that is Canada Olympic Park (now known as WinSport), which has become a prestigious training ground for winter athletes around the world. The complex boasts a ski jump, skiing and snowboarding hill, skating rink, cross-country ski facility, tubing park, and bobsled and luge tracks that the public can learn to use. While much of the facility has been updated since those 1988 games, the goal is to introduce Calgarians and visitors to winter sports through affordable opportunities to give them a try. It also benefits from its cosmopolitan, central location—it’s surrounded by hotels, easily accessible by car and mass transit, and located along the Trans-Canada Highway, which leads directly to Banff National Park. Fans of the movie Cool Runnings, look out: The movie was filmed at Canada Olympic Park, and you’ll be flying down the same bobsled track as that famous Jamaican team.