At the very beginning of summer 2017, between June and July, I travelled across Canada from Toronto, Ontario to Edmonton, Alberta to visit with my cousins for nearly three weeks. This was my first time travelling there, as well as going so far out of province (aside from a few trips to Québec as a kid). It was Canada 150 (the country’s sesquicentennial — meaning free entry to national parks and huge Canada Day celebrations on July 1st) and I missed my cousins a lot, so I figured, why not?
Not only did they take me around their own city to explore both like a tourist and a local alike, they also took me around the province to see all of the vibrant beauty that Alberta has to offer. I’ve made a list of some of my favourite places below, located in four of the main areas I visited: Edmonton, Jasper National Park, Banff National Park, and Calgary.
Art Gallery of Alberta
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a sucker for the arts; needless to say, the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) made the top of my list of must-see places in Edmonton. With both modern and pre-19th century art, as well as an Indigenous art gallery, I found myself easily slipping into the calm inquisitiveness that I feel in any temple for the arts. Plus, with its convenient downtown location, you can explore the vicinity either before or after your relaxing visit to the AGA.
Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village
Located just twenty-five minutes east of Edmonton along Highway 16, on the east side of Elk Island National Park, the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a “museum” of sorts in which tourists can wander amongst over thirty-five relocated and restored structures (including a mud house, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, gas station/mechanic, grain elevator, and three Eastern Byzantine churches, amongst many others). In this village, costumed role-players recreate exactly what the life of early Ukrainian settlers was like in this area of Alberta between 1892 and 1930. Not only can you go on a guided tour to commence your visit, you can hear real stories of both the hardships and victories of these pioneers by listening to “villagers” speak in their homes and workplaces. On our way out, we even picked up some authentic Ukrainian food, which was absolutely incredible and totally worth spending a bit of extra time to enjoy on a picnic bench under the shade of thickly foliaged, green trees.
University of Alberta Botanic Garden
The same location for which I made a video several months back, and certainly one of the prettiest sights in Edmonton, the University of Alberta Botanic Garden is brimming with beautiful flora and greenery. They feature several attractions, including the Kurimoto Japanese Garden and the Tropical Showroom bustling with lively butterflies. You can visit their website for more information and to help plan your visit. When I was there, they were in the midst of constructing a brand new section for the gardens, which was opening sometime soon. I know I’ll be heading back to see this addition as soon as possible.
Jasper (Commercial Centre)
The perfect spot for casual walking and shopping — all the while, enjoying the breathtaking view of the Canadian Rockies surrounding you — the main strip in Jasper is an ideal spot to visit. There are tons of cute little boutiques, neat restaurants, souvenir shops, and many places to book tours for various excursions in the area. My cousins and I spent an afternoon here and were not disappointed…there’s a lot to do and see!
Columbia Icefields & Glacier Skywalk
Start off your visit to the Columbia Icefields by venturing up Mount Athabasca first by car (where you park in the expansive parking lot), then buy your ticket inside the main building to get on the bus that takes you up the mountainside. This short trip lasts about five minutes or so, before you reach a second terminal and finally board the giant ice trucks like in the photo above. These great things bring you to the top of the glacier. Before you make your trip there however, make sure you bring some empty water bottles along with you to fill up from the flowing streams! Nothing beats the cool, refreshing taste of glacier water.
Afterward, bring your water along with you to the glacier skywalk, which is accessible via a bus from the same lot where you’ve parked your car. This 1 kilometre walkway leads its visitors along the perimeter of a mountainside toward a glass floor observation platform that stretches over a jaw-dropping 280 meter drop. As terrifying as it can feel, it offers an incredible view and equally amazing photographs waiting to be captured.
Miette Hot Springs
Utilized as far back as the 1800s by Canada’s Indigenous people (who used these springs to achieve optimal physical and spiritual well-being), the Miette Hot Springs have a long and interesting history. Miette boasts the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies, with water flowing from the mountain at a piping 54°C and cooled to a much more comfortable 40°C. The top five minerals found within the water are: sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, and sodium. When not relaxing in the beautifully warm waters of the springs (long past the point where your skin shrivels and your body is thoroughly warmed), there are quite a number of other things to do in the immediate area; Miette is also the perfect destination for a day of sightseeing, wildlife spotting, and hiking the high mountains of the area. There’s even a cute little café on the premises of the springs, that you can grab a bite to eat at!
As a young kid, I saw a photo of Lake Louise — its bright, turquoise waters enveloped by snow-capped mountains and a deep azure sky — and didn’t believe a place like that existed anywhere outside of a fairytale, let alone within the borders of my own country. Finally, well over a decade later, I found myself standing in front of the same lake, in person instead of through a picture. I realized that that photo had never done it justice, and was even more awe-struck than was as an eight-year-old. Again I thought, No, this is too beautiful to be real. But it 100% is real, and it draws you in breathlessly for a few moments before you can regain your composure and continue on with your appreciation of the area’s more minute details. There’s the gorgeous château you can stay at, which overlooks the lake, as well as canoeing and hiking opportunities to take part in both on and around those richly coloured waters (for more information on what you can do in the area, click here). I’m telling you, Lake Louise is a must-see.
A little bonus tip when visiting: Visit the lake before 9.00 am or after 7.00 pm to enjoy up the beauty without the annoying crowds.
Banff Sightseeing Gondola (Sulphur Mountain)
You can choose to hike up the winding trails to reach the top of Sulphur Mountain or, if that’s not your cup of tea (in our case, my cousin Kathy had just had knee surgery and my own knees aren’t the best to begin with), you can take the scenic cableway gondola up the mountains in around eight minutes. Once at the top, you’re able to move about the observation deck to gape at six gorgeous mountain ranges, yourself surrounded 365° by sheer natural beauty. There are places to shop and eat up in the central building as well, but I was quite content just leaning against the railings around the observation deck and staring dreamily out into the mountains.
One cool thing you can do though (which I did, because whatever, I’ll admit it, I’m super #basic) was get something at the Starbucks by the entry to the gondola — this is Canada’s highest Starbucks!
Banff Lake Cruise (Lake Minnewanka)
Another lake to sweep you off you feet, Lake Minnewanka’s crystal clear, turquoise waters make it the idea place to take part in a one hour cruise. With Kathy and Cassie seating themselves in the main part of the boat to hear our funny and good-natured tour guide talk about the history of the Minnewanka area, the remaining cousins and I parked ourselves just outside the seating area behind the closed door where all we could hear was each other (barely) and the motor of the boat (very much so). I spent my time alternating the absorption of the incredible view through my naked eye and from behind my camera lens, occasionally leaning against the edge of the boat to — you guessed it — stare dreamily out at the mountains surrounding me. It’s surprisingly easy to ignore the smell of petrol and loud roar of the boat’s engine when captivated by so much beauty around you.
It wasn’t until after the cruise was done and we all stepped back onto the dock, when Kathy and Cassandra told us all of the fun facts and about Lake Minnewanka (including the lake monster rumoured to live in its waters many decades agso) that we had otherwise missed during the cruise.
Taking place at the beginning of July each year, the Calgary Stampede is one hell of country party. In fact, my cousins even told me that the city of Calgary “celebrates” its annual stampede by allowing employees of even the stuffiest businesses to switch out their usual suits and ties in favour of blue jeans, huge belt buckles, and cowboy hats. Prepping to head out to the Stampede, I rummaged through my luggage asking my cousins, “What’s the most country outfit I can put together for this thing?” I didn’t have very much, so I put my hair in braided pigtails and hoped I somewhat fit the part I was playing for the night. In fact, in the spirit of it all, this city girl bought herself a cute little cowgirl hat once I entered the grounds — the same one in the photo above (taken at the pre-opening night of the Stampede, where admission and ride tickets are at their cheapest and the crowds aren’t nearly as stifling as the rest of the event). Having absolutely zero interest in seeing animals being mistreated in the form of rodeos and bull riding, I opted completely out of paying to attend any of that, and instead spent the evening watching country bands and cultural performances; shopping around the massive hall of vendors; and going on ride after ride with my cousin Cassie.
CrossIron Mills Shopping Centre
I’m almost certain that the outlet mall in Calgary, CrossIron Mills, is owned by the same company that runs Vaughan Mills here in Toronto. On top of the fact that outlet malls are already the greatest thing ever (hello, savings!), the fact that taxes in Alberta are so much lower in comparison to Ontario’s made the shopping experience that much better. It’s definitely worth setting aside a few hours if you have the time, to stop in to do a bit of shopping in Calgary.
Grey Eagle Resort and Casino
My cousins and I actually came here to see Kathy’s cousin’s amazing band, The Rojos. I had never been to a casino before, despite being able to for years now, and I actually really enjoyed it! I blew through $20 way too quickly and learned how addicting slot machines can be (and how difficult it can be to curb yourself from trying to “win your money back”). I was shocked that people are still allowed to smoke inside a public building though, but I figure it probably has something to do with it being a casino on Indigenous land…and something probably, with Albertan bi-laws.
One of the most action-packed, adventurous trips I have taken in my life thus far, exploring the beautiful province of Alberta alongside my cousins left me with an endless supply of memories that will be forever engrained into my mind. I can’t wait to return to Alberta again and again in the coming years, as I know that it’s breathtaking beauty is something that no one could ever tire of seeing.
Have you ever been to Alberta? How about the Canadian Rockies? Let me know in the comments!