Sitting east of the mighty Rockies and the continental divide that it creates, the province of Alberta gently rolls out from the mountain front with fields of golden grass, wheat (verdant boreal forests in the north), with eagle-eyed travelers making the occasional sighting of a glowing gas well or an oil pumpjack along the way.
With a variety of jaw-dropping scenery, a heritage wrapped up in the mystique of the cowboy lifestyle, and tremendous wealth that has been generated by sitting above one of the world’s largest deposits of fossil fuels (coal, gas, AND oil), the province of Alberta is an excellent place to experience nature and enjoy the very best aspects of life that the new money earned by energy professionals can buy.
It starts with the world famous Canadian Rockies jutting above above the prairies and the low rolling foothills that precede it like a giant limestone wall, and continues with geological features carved by water and wind over millions of years, as well as the modern pinnacles of success that have been erected in places like Calgary over the past 100 years.
Arrive at the right time and you’ll have the opportunity to experience a massive celebration of the cowboy lifestyle that first drew people here 150 years ago at the Calgary Stampede. If you get here outside of that time, no matter: there are smaller, but no less rowdy samplings of that heritage at countless other rodeos across the province during the warm months of the year.
And no matter your opinion of the production and consumption of fossil fuels, learning about and visiting the past and present infrastructure of the oil industry and visiting museums concerning it will help you understand the other side of the argument, even if you don’t agree with it.
If you don’t check it out though, you’ll never truly know; even if it’s not a favourable experience, there’s plenty else to love about this province, as the beauty of its landscape and the overt friendliness of its people will prove to be more than sufficient in overcoming any negative perceptions you might have had about this place before coming here to experience it for yourself.
What To Do – Culture & History
Typically held starting the weekend after Canada Day, the Calgary Stampede is one of Canada‘s best known festivals, logging well over 1 million admissions over the ten day life of one of the nation’s biggest outdoor parties. Starting as simply a rodeo competition, it has grown over the past century to include a massive midway, citywide pancake breakfasts and wild parties, often hosted by corporations in the middle of the day (precious little work gets done in the city during this time), where the Patron, Grey Goose and Glenfiddich flows freely and credit card limits get breached and subsequently extended often as a result.
Due in large part to this massive display of debauchery and hedonism, the Calgary Stampede has been dubbed as The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth, so get ready to have one of the wildest times of your life if you are attending this event for the first time. One important thing to note is that accommodations get booked out well before this party kicks off, so arrange your place to stay months before you expect to arrive in Calgary.
If you’re wondering how exactly these major oil corporations ended up with so much money to burn, you will find part of your answer in nearby Turner Valley. This humble small town is home to Alberta’s first commercially viable gas field, giving rise to the energy industry in Southern Alberta.
An old gas plant near the town is designated as a national historic site, whose technological innovations at the time helped transform an abundant natural resource into products that could be sold for a lucrative profit, helping lay the foundation for Canada’s most prosperous province.
From here, check out the cliffs that comprise Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump near Fort McLeod, a natural feature that local Native peoples used for countless thousands of years to generate bountiful amounts of food for their tribe mates.
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, displays in the interpretive centre and along the cliff’s edge explains the intricacies of the hunt, which was rendered obsolete not by over consumption by the locals, but by random killing for sport by European settlers.
Continue on to Cardston, a town with a pair of attractions worth your attention. The Remington Carriage museum is home to the largest collection of horse drawn carriages in North America, with this place being mad remarkable by the museum staff and exhibits bringing the day of horse drawn transport to life in a fun and entertaining way.
The other draw here is the town’s gargantuan Mormon Temple, which was built by the town’s Mormon founders upon moving here from Utah in the 19th century. Entrance to the temple is forbidden to non-believers, but a visitor centre out front allows those that don’t adhere to this Christian sect to learn more about the temple, and the Mormon faith in general.
Heading north, head to Edmonton and drop by the Art Gallery of Alberta, one of the province’s most talked about modern structures. Playing host to some of the best visual art in Western Canada, as well as selected works from talented foreign artists, this structure also hosts film nights and other social events that combine high art with fine foods, wines and spirits.
After combing the capital city for its hidden charms, start making your way into the frontier country that comprises the Northern regions of Alberta. Lacking obvious draws beyond being standard small farming towns, many of these places have created giant sculptures/things, such as the world’s largest Easter egg in Vegreville, the world’s largest kielbasa sausage in Mundare, or the world’s largest UFO landing pad in St. Paul. There are many, many more of these roadside attractions, so stop in at a local tourism office during your travels in rural Alberta and ask around about these local oddities.
Finally, your northern journey will likely come to an end in Fort MacMurray, ground zero for Alberta’s latest oil boom. The development of the oilsands have attracted worldwide controversy, but being a traveler, learn about this geopolitical issue by seeing it for yourself.
Spend some time at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre to explore the process behind its extraction (albeit from the industry point of view), then journey about 20 kilometres north of town to experience the petrochemical laden moonscape that one of the older strip mines has left behind. Pose with unimaginably massive oilsands mining equipment (decommissioned and on display at a roadside pullout), and if you have some money to spend, take an approved tour into some of the operations that exist here. Whatever your opinion on the oilsands, doing all this is highly recommended to get some first hand perspective on the issue.
What To Do – Natural Attractions
Experiencing the nature that exists in Alberta will humble and astound you, and no other place will do this quite like the Canadian Rockies. Forming the western boundary of Alberta from the US border in the south to the point where the continental divide intersects the 120th Meridian (after the which the border swings north along it), this mighty chain of mountains has given rise to three national parks and two major provincial parks.
The most prominent of these is Banff National Park, which was the first national park formed in Canada after the discovery of commercially viable hot springs by transcontinental railroad workers. This park encompasses these hotspots, countless picturesque peaks, alpine lakes (don’t miss Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or Peyto Lake), and a full slate of hiking trails that will satisfy all skill levels.
Jasper National Park lies directly to the north and contains the largest icefield in North America (Columbia Icefield), and a lake with a timeless view (Maligne Lake) due to its genesis within a box canyon formation, while Waterton Lakes National Park far to the south is blessedly free of the tourist crowds, while offering a large centrepiece lake and a mountain front that rises like a gigantic wall before the prairies that proceeds it.
After spending a large amount time in the mountain parks, marvel at the power of Ice Age glaciers at the Big Rock, which is a glacial erratic that was deposited on the shortgrass prairie near Okotoks, a suburb that lies south of Calgary. Geologists have said that this massive 30 foot tall and 15,000 ton piece of quartzite rock was gouged out of Mount Edith Cavell, a prominent mountain that lies near the town of Jasper, which lies more than 455 kilometres away by road!
Outside of the Rockies, Alberta’s most spectacular natural sight are the Badlands, much of which is contained within Dinosaur Provincial Park in the province’s eastern portions. The soil that was deposited over millions of years in this area was of the more easily erodible type, and as such, it has been carved into canyons, strangely shaped hills, and bizarre sandstone formations known as hoodoos. Dinosaur fossils have been found with regularity in the area, which can be explore at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller.