Road trip through Alberta

Our 8 day road trip through Alberta's Prairies, Badlands, and Rocky Mountains

by Emanuel Smedbøl

The road to Waterton, Alberta

A couple years back some friends and I teamed up with Travel Alberta and set off on an 8 day roadtrip. We travelled Edmonton to the Prairies, through Drumheller and the Badlands, to Waterton and the Cowboy Trail, and finally through Kananaskis Country to Canada's crowning jewel: Banff National Park. We saw roaring freeways and dusty dirt roads, bustling cities and faded ghost towns, turquoise lakes and deep red canyons, wide open prairie to rugged rocky mountains. We drank deep from the great variety of Alberta's breathtaking landscapes and took some photos along the way. Come along for the ride...

Edmonton skyline rising above the trees Glass Pyramids of the Muttart Conservatory, Edmonton Alberta Scenes from Edmonton: Restaurant and hotel Deep shadows at the Edmonton legislative buildings

EDMONTON

Landing in Edmonton, we stayed 2 nights on the hip and lively Whyte Avenue in the Old Strathcona neighbourhood. I had heard good things about the city and the neighbourhood more than lived up to it. Whyte Ave is the city's arts and entertainment district, with myriad shops and restaurants and theatres and festivals and farmer's markets and nightlife all packed into an intimate little stretch of historic brick buildings along a lush tree-lined street. It was very cute, very happening, and lent the city a rich and vibrant charm.

Nestled on the Prairie roughly 4 hrs east of the Rockies, Edmonton has a large park system, most notably its "ribbon of green," a 25km verdant river valley filled with lakes and trails and walkways. Dipping down into these lush valleys, it was easy to forget that we were surrounded by city. Another fun place to explore was the Muttart Conservatory, where large glass pyramids, a puddle, and city vistas provided hours of entertainment.

Nearby Elk Island National Park is a good place to see buffalo, and we watched in awe as the light turned gold and a looming booming big prairie storm raced towards us over the lake. It was a tantalizing taste of the wide open landscapes to come.

Lush aspen forests in Elk Island National Park, Alberta  Storm over Elk Island National Park Watching the storm roll in from Elk Island National Park

The drive to Drumheller was mostly through prairie, dotted with ranches, never-ending fields, little forests, and old farming towns. There is something enchanting about driving through wide open spaces—the landscape spreads out before you, timeless, immutable. You can't help but feel humbled by the expanse of land and sky. Having spent most of my life in forests and narrow mountain valleys I found the wide-open feeling of the prairies to be thrilling. I'm not used to seeing so much sky! And of course anywhere with abandoned barns is automatically my favourite.

Small town Alberta Exploring the abandoned barns on the Alberta Prairie Leaning barns in the prairies Hay bale lounge chair

And then, all of a sudden, like a jagged cleft cutting deep through the prairies...

Canadian badlands

T H E    B A D L A N D S

Canyons and Badlands around Drumheller, Alberta Suspension bridge over the river, Drumheller, Alberta High above the scarred Canadian Badlands Exploring the Badlands Sunset in the Badlands, Alberta Driving through the Badlands

The Badlands around Drumheller are truly spectacular. I had wanted to visit them ever since I was a wee kridlet, having once seen them featured in a movie. They were really really neat. The hard clay has eroded into fantastical fluid shapes—its as though the whole landscape was a gritty Gaudi sculpture, each new vista more improbable, more shapely, more satisfying than the last.

But even better still were the Badlands in Dinosaur Provincial Park. There were dinosaur bones scattered all over! So good. We took a guided tour into the conservation area at sunset, where most of the badland formations are intact and it was just the best thing ever. It felt like we were on another planet. I highly recommend it to everyone for all time.

Drumheller is home to numerous ghost towns and abandoned mines. We didn't have near enough time to see everything, but dang, such a rich and compelling place.

Took a tour of Dinosaur Provincial Park Strange clay formations in Dinosaur Provincial Park Stunning formations in the Canadian Badlands Sunset over the Badlands, Alberta

We were out and about exploring so much we barely had any time to walk around Brooks, the kinda charming kinda smelly cattle-processing town we were staying in. I snuck in a quick prebreakfast 6AM walk, admiring the old western, art deco, and 60s futurism-inspired architecture, and we were off! To Waterton.

One of my favourite kinds of landscape is where mountains rise up out of plains or meadow. The contrast between fertile flatland and roaring raring rugged rocky mountains hits deep, satisfying some innate visual longing I think most of us share. The drive east from Alberta's prairies has this in spades, and the road to Waterton is particularly stunning—there seemed to be barely any foothills at all, the mountains just rising up from the grassland like a vast barrier barring our retreat to the coast. As we approached the blue shelf of mountains a brief storm hit. It was perfect. The day was made.

Small town Alberta Brooks, Alberta Endless rolling prairie little abandoned house on the Prairie Storm on the road to Waterton National Park Where the prairie meets the mountains Jumping on hay bales in the Rocky Mountain foothils

WATERTON NATIONAL PARK

Waterton is a beautiful and idyllic place. The lake, the mountains, the town fox, the deer that casually stroll through people's front yards, the waterfalls, the stately old hotel, the red rock canyon, the wide valleys and towering granite, the bear-filled alpine meadows... everything. Waterton is perhaps subtler than Banff, quieter, but dang if it isn't just as impressive, just as gorgeous. The mountains here felt like giant, silent, slumbering things.

We milled about on the grounds of the grand hotel as a storm brewed down at the far reaches of the lake, slowly sweeping up the valley, obscuring the cascading layers of blue ridges behind a veil of fleeting grey. We zipped up our jackets and let the storm come.

First glimps of the Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Out and about in Waterton National Park Hiking up the Bear's Hump, Waterton Looking out over Waterton Lake from the Bear's Hump Cameron Lake In Waterton National Park, Alberta Friendly town fox in the mountains of Waterton Stately Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton National Park

We met up with local Alberta photographers Jeffrey Spackman, Mike Seehagel, and Chris Amat and did a couple hikes, first up to the Bear's Hump for an unsurpassed view overlooking the town and down the lake, then deep into the mountains to Goat Lake (Crypt Lake, our first choice, was closed due to lingering snow). Nothing compares to getting up into the mountains on foot. The slow reveal of the evolving landscape, the fresh mountain air, the pleasure and reward of being there. What a beautiful place.

Hiking the Goat Lake Trail, Waterton National Park, Alberta Mountain reflections, Goat Lake The trail through thr mountains, Waterton Sceninc highways through the Alberta mountains Sunrise over the Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton Early morning stroll through the town of Waterton, Alberta

COWBOY TRAIL

The road north from Waterton to Banff was equally grand, with picturesque rolling hills and ranchland and cowboys alongside the road. There old beaten up classic cars, cute little sheds, abandoned train cars. We took a quick detour up Crowsnest Pass to Frank's Slide, where an entire mountainside slumped, burying a mining town in 1903. The rubble pile is immense, black and jagged and ominous, a stark reminder of the power of the place.

Driving the Historic Cowboy Trail, Alberta Old truck on the Cowboy Trail, Alberta Abandoned shed on the Cowboy Trail

THE ROCKIES

Picking up some gas station sandwiches and a couple packages of Longview's famous beef jerky, we continued west towards Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Kananaskis Country. The Rocky Mountains are beyond compare, rising up like a giant rocky jolt, barren, buckled, layered, many seemingly ready to topple over. We were already hours behind schedule due to the many stops and explorations when, just minutes from Canmore and a hot fresh dinner, the weather opened up with bright golden sun showers, rays, rainbows, pink and purple skies. We were pulling over every 50m and scrambling up hills trying our best to take it all in, oblivious to our growling stomachs and the disappearing day. It was nearly dark by the time we finally rolled into town.

For a unique perspective we headed to Alpine Helicopters the following morning, flying over Spray Lakes and the snow-capped approaches to Mt Assiniboine. So much beauty to take in all at once. The entire landscape lay before us like a map, spread out, sweeping, waiting.

Driving into the Kananaskis Mountains Looking out over Kananaskis Country, Alberta The scenic Spray Lakes detour Sun rays in the mountains of Alberta Rainbow on the road into Canmore Sunset on the Three Sisters, Canmore Alberta Helicopter ride above the Rocky Mountains High above the Rocky Mountains Castle Mountain, Banff National Park Scenes from Moraine Lake and Lake Louise Canoeing Lake Louise, Banff National Park The road to Moraine Lake, Banff National Park Everything is A-OK here in the mountains Red train through the rocky mountains

It was hard leaving the Rockies with the knowledge that it was the end of our adventure and we were heading home. The trip had been spectacular fun. There was a lot of driving and we regularly pulled 16hr days on the road, but exploring and photographing such beautiful landscapes with a truckload of your friends is hardly taxing—its one of the most rejuvenating things I can think of.

It was a short drive from Canmore to the Calgary Intl Airport, but true to the spirit of the trip we drew it out, made it last. We stopped for old churches, for fields full of horses, for distant mountain views, for ice cream. Buy hey, it wasn't our fault. It's a beautiful place.

Looking back to the mountains, and the end of our Alberta road trip Back in the prairies The McDougall Memorial United Church Cowboy country, Alberta

Big thanks to Travel Alberta for hosting us!

Travel Alberta