Moon Alberta was the first guidebook by a major travel publisher that was dedicated to the province. It was also my first guidebook (now in its seventh edition) and is also my home. In this time, I’ve come to know the province inside out, having traveled through every region for each update, and along the way to almost every town, park, and wilderness area. One thing that will quickly become apparent when you start planning your trip to the province is its vastness. In my guidebook I divide Alberta into the following manageable regions, each summarized below with its highlights.
Ya-Hoo! Welcome to Cowtown, where a little over 100 years ago a North West Mounted Police detachment set up camp and today you’ll find a world center for the oil-and-gas industry, with ultra-modern skyscrapers going up faster than any town planner ever imagined. While oil drives the economy, it’s a different type of energy you find during the second week of July, when the Calgary Stampede transforms the city into party central, Western-style.
East of Calgary, the Red Deer River has carved a deep chasm through the prairies. In doing so, it has unearthed one of the world’s most extensive dinosaur fossil beds, a place that UNESCO has declared a World Heritage Site, and one that is remarkably accessible. The region’s main town is Drumheller, home to Royal Tyrrell Museum, which should ideally be your first stop (unless you have children who spy the world’s largest dinosaur on the way into town).
Encompassing a wide swathe of the province south from Calgary, this region has a little of everything but is compact enough to be a destination in itself. In the west is Waterton Lakes National Park, laced with walking trails and blessed with dozens of scenic highlights. Just an hour’s drive from the park you are surrounded by prairie and attractions like the intriguing history of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump while further east are the delightful natural features of Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park.
West of Calgary
Before rushing west from Calgary to Banff along the TransCanada Highway, consider detouring through some of Canada’s finest ranching land and exploring a region of the Canadian Rockies that is in many ways as scenic as famous Banff and Jasper, but a lot less crowded and commercialized. The best way to appreciate the rolling ranchland is on horseback, but there are also specific attractions like Bar U Ranch and the annual races at Millarville that bring the Old West to life.
Banff National Park
Banff. The crown jewel in Canada’s national park system. But what is this park that was originally established as a tourist attraction really like? Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and the Icefields Parkway are just some of the park’s awe-inspiring highlights, while the town of Banff is the commercial hub. Visiting each of these spots is definitely part of the Banff experience, but the park extends well beyond the reach of the regular tour-bus crowd.
Jasper National Park
Beyond a simple sign at Sunwapta Pass that lets you know you’ve left Banff National Park and entered Jasper is a natural attraction that will leave you breathless—Columbia Icefield, the largest and most accessible glacier field in the Canadian Rockies. Continuing north, the Icefields Parkway eventually reaches the town of Jasper, where Maligne Canyon, Maligne Lake, and Mount Edith Cavell are highlights.
Highway 2 may provide the quickest route between Calgary and Edmonton, but tempting detours beckon east and west. On the mountain-side of the highway, rolling foothills are dotted with farming communities including picturesque Markerville and sites of historical importance such as Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. You can continue into the mountains proper, or veer east, back out onto the prairies. Plot your course carefully and hit highlights such as the Lacombe Corn Maze and Reynolds-Alberta Museum.
The provincial capital lies north of Calgary, with the downtown core rising from the north-side North Saskatchewan River. Attractions are spread throughout city limits, making an excuse to leave the confines of downtown. Best known is West Edmonton Mall, the world’s largest shopping and entertainment complex. But beyond experiencing the glitz of the mall, you should take in the displays of the Royal Alberta Museum, step back in time at Fort Edmonton Park, and wander the restored streets of Old Strathcona.
Northern Alberta encompasses half of the entire province, and a trip there is as much adventure as vacation. It’s a forested landscape, punctuated by roads leading to small service towns, historic trading posts, lakes filled with fish, and—most importantly for many people–the world’s largest known oil reserve. Fort McMurray, the center of the oil action, has quadrupled its population in the last decade, and is unique for its old-time boom mentality.