Bring to mind the most beautiful bits of Canada, and chances are, you’ll find them in Alberta. Home to the lovely Lake Louise, Cameron Falls and the Smith-Dorrien Spray Trail, this province is among the most photogenic places in North America.
Perhaps one of the most picturesque times of year to visit is in autumn when the foliage turns amber and the first flecks of snow start powdering the peaks of the Rockies. While many come to Alberta for the pistes, these beautiful vistas are actually best enjoyed in the off-season, when the tourist crowds thin out. Given the distance between natural sites and the limited public transportation options between them, the easiest and most enjoyable way to get around in Alberta is by renting a car.
If you decide to explore this province from behind the wheel, this guide will help you cover some decent ground and tick off Alberta’s ‘greatest hits’ while leaving a bit of time for some serendipitous moose sightings.
Home to a host of talented chefs, artists and entrepreneurs, Calgary is fast becoming a seriously exciting place to visit and a destination in its own right. Nowhere else is this more evident than in Inglewood, a charming neighborhood with more hip independent stores than you can shake your avocado toast at.
Of course, you’ll find the usual melange of craft coffee joints, plant shops and vintage furniture stores. However, you’ll also find a floor-to-ceiling stash of collectable records, a store devoted to spices from around the world and a microbrewery masquerading as a psychedelic drinking den.
When you get peckish, 17th Avenue will have you covered for all your appetite’s desires. Head to Pigeonhole to gorge on perfectly crumbly cheddar gougères. Then take your lunch at Ten Foot Henry, a veggie-forward diner that makes eating green more delicious than you thought possible.
Finally, complete your food tour of Calgary at Una Pizza + Wine. If you live for cheese (or if you’re lactose intolerant but in denial), go for the 4-maggi, a thin-crust pizza that balances provolone, friulano, mozzarella and pecorino with a drizzle of earthy truffle oil and the sweetness of locally sourced urban honey. From there, it’s just a 20-minute waddle home to Hotel Le Germain Calgary.
A two-hour drive from Calgary will take you to the Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo Jump, where you can learn about ancient hunting methods that have sustained the Plains Native Tribes for nearly 6,000 years.
Another hour’s drive from here will get you to Waterton Lakes National Park, an area blessed with some stunning lakes, trails and waterfalls that beg to have their photos taken. Stay in the Prince of Wales Hotel, a picturesque property and a National Historic Site in its own right that backs onto magnificent mountain views.
Depending on your energy levels, you can spend the next two days either driving between the natural sites or hiking between them. But one of the best ways to experience the area’s natural beauty is to rent an e-bike. Riding a manual mountain bike is also an option, but only if you have thighs of steel and lungs to match. Wherever you go and however you get there, make sure to stop off at Cameron Falls and Red Rock Canyon.
From the Prince of Wales, head back out onto the road towards Peter Lougheed Provincial Park for the Centre Peak High Country Adventures, where you can swap the steering wheel for some horse reins for an hour. The guided horse ride takes you past some stunning vistas and is a great way to stretch your legs or to give the little ones a break from the car. From there, carry on until you reach Kananaskis Country, an adventure playground set in the Canadian Rockies.
With its focus on health and wellbeing, a stay at the Crosswaters Resort at Kananaskis will grant you access to its fitness, tennis and yoga facilities, as well as the discounted access price to the Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge’s Kananaskis Nordic Spa. In this decadent, outdoor hydrotherapy complex, you’ll find an array of plunge pools, saunas and steam rooms, as well as zip-up hammocks where you can nod off in a warm cocoon – even in sub-zero temperatures. The spa is particularly picturesque in late autumn and winter when you can relax in the steaming hot pools while admiring the landscape blanketed in snow.
No self-respecting itinerary of Alberta would be complete without Banff. The mountain range in this area is best known among skiers and snowboarders for its pristine, powdery snow. But even outside the winter months, during the off-season, there are still plenty of activities to be enjoyed. Canyoning, climbing and canoeing are some of the more adrenaline-laced sports available to adventure seekers. But those who are less wild and milder can take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain and enjoy the breathtaking views before tucking into a delectable dinner at the Sky Bistro.
Lake Louise, Alberta’s signature vista, is also not to be missed. Fed by the meltwaters from nearby glaciers, the lake takes on an intensely blue hue and is framed by Mount Temple, Mount Niblock and Mount Whyte; the whole scene looks almost as if it had been arranged to be put in a photo.
Travelers can spend weeks in this area alone, but two days is just enough time to take in the main natural sites while factoring in time to relax and unwind. A stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs will give you easy access to a number of hikes and the Willow Stream Spa, a sumptuous spa and the perfect spot to let your muscles and tendons unravel after 10 days of adventure. From Banff, it’s just a one-and-a-half-hour drive back to Calgary International Airport where you can board your plane and fantasize about your return.
And once the post-holiday blues settle in, you can find solace in the fact that there are plenty of other natural sites worth coming back for – Edmonton, Jasper and the Icefields Parkway to name a few. To help plan your repeat visit, head to Travel Alberta.