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Alberta's extraordinary natural environment features a wealth of protected areas, wildlife reserves, and archaeological zones. National parks, provincial parks, and nature preserves make up a significant chunk of Alberta's most beautiful and environmentally sensitive areas. Some are much more developed than others; the mountain parks are heavily touristed, and therefore quite strenuously policed.

The discussion below lists all of Alberta's national parks (four), but it couldn't possibly comprise all the provincial parks, wilderness preserves, and biozones in the province (for that, go to the province's parks website, www.albertaparks.ca). Rather, it details the ones that are the most accessible and most rewarding for visitors, including several of the largest and most biodiverse on the planet.

What to Bring -- Outdoor and adventure travel in Alberta requires some special gear, and it's a good idea to come prepared; though you'll have no problem buying all your gear in, say, Banff, you may not much like the tourist premium you'll pay. You can rent some equipment, such as crampons for ice climbing, but you'd be wise to bring most nontechnical items with you.

The most basic items for travelers who are doing any sort of light adventure, such as trekking, are (already broken-in) hiking boots (it's not a bad idea to take them in a carry-on or wear them on the plane, to avoid their loss), outdoor apparel such as fleece pullovers, and a daypack.

Essential gear for almost all travelers includes:

  • a sun hat and/or wool ski hat
  • sunscreen
  • water-repellent and cold-weather clothing
  • light trekking shoes or boots
  • several pairs of thick socks

Additional items for light adventure include:

  • good backpacking or climbing boots
  • a base layer (thermal underwear or wicking-quality shirt)
  • insect repellent
  • a pocketknife
  • toilet paper
  • a flashlight or headlamp
  • a mosquito net
  • a sleeping bag
  • energy bars or other trail snack foods
  • sports sandals or comfortable shoes for post-climbing and trekking, or for river and wet-weather wear
  • Flagyll (the recommended treatment for Giardiasis)
  • a water bottle or other portable hydration system
  • a good internal-frame backpack

More stuff for backcountry adventure travel includes:

  • food supplies and cooking equipment
  • a first-aid kit
  • a compass and whistle
  • a tent, camping stove, and cookware
  • adequate fuel
  • topographical maps of trails

Banff & Jasper National Parks

One of the most famous parks in the world, Banff -- with its jagged peaks, rushing mountain streams, glacier-fed lakes, and world-class skiing -- is also, not surprisingly, one of the most traveled.

Jasper, connected to Banff as the Rockies stretch north, is, for some, a welcome alternative to Banff's bustle. Where Banff's townsite is busy and sometimes aggressively commercial-seeming, Jasper can still feel quaint and bustling, though not overcrowded. Either way, once you're outside the townsites, these two parks together comprise 17,519 sq. km (6,764 sq. miles) of vigilantly protected nature area.

The parks are traversed by one of the most scenic highway systems in Canada, making seeing them both in a single trip a relatively simple and shockingly gorgeous experience; innumerable nature trails leading to more remote valleys and peaks are interwoven throughout.

Whichever destination you choose (if you choose), you'll find no shortage of incredible outdoor options. Whether it's a boat cruise on Maligne Lake in Jasper or hiking on high to the alpine plains above Johnston Canyon in Banff, it's easy for both towns to vanish quickly as you set out into the wilderness on the hundreds of kilometers of park-maintained trails.

Cyclists will particularly enjoy the Canmore Nordic Centre; situated just east of Banff's gates on Hwy. 1, the center, built for Nordic events in the 1988 Winter Olympics, offers a huge network of alpine bike trails in summer that will satisfy even the most ambitious cyclist.

Waterton Lakes National Park

For those seeking the road less traveled among the mountain parks, Waterton Lakes, tucked in the province's southwest corner, is it. Deer lounge on the front lawns of the few little homes in Waterton Townsite while bighorn sheep wander the main street. The occasional bear or cougar wanders through, too, the town folk say, but they're equally comfortable with -- or oblivious to -- the human presence.

The best tour to be taken in Waterton is undoubtedly on the H.M.V. International, an old steamer that takes passengers from Waterton Townsite south the full length of lower Waterton Lake and into Glacier National Park in Montana. The towering mountains and glaciers surrounding you on the journey are extraordinary.

Getting out on foot, try the Crypt Lake hike, which you start by ferrying across the lake. As you ascend the trail, you pass four waterfalls before arriving at Crypt Lake, which is nothing short of otherworldly.

On nearby Cameron Lake, you can also rent boats in summer to cruise the crystal blue waters. A massive glacier sits cradled in a mountain bowl at the far end of this small lake. You can paddle close enough to feel the chill of the melting ice.

Wood Buffalo National Park

When it comes to remote, no park in Alberta can touch Wood Buffalo, in the province's far north. It is the largest expanse of protected wilderness reserve in North America, and among the largest in the world. Straddling Alberta and the Northwest Territories, Wood Buffalo is largely a reserve of high boreal plain, serviced by a single road that skirts its northeastern edge from the Territories; there is no road access from Alberta at all. Much of the park is accessible only by water or air.

From Alberta, you can fly in on a chartered plane from Fort McMurray, or arrange passage by water via Fort Chipewyan on the Alberta side, where there's a park office.

Wood Buffalo is a wild place, to be sure. You'll find no places to rent bikes or boats, no restaurants, no shopping -- and no plumbing. As such, it's not everyone's cup of tea. But flying or ferrying to Sweetgrass Station, from which you can hike, camp, or canoe the high boreal plains in search of the last free-roaming wild bison herd on earth, is an experience that can't be had anywhere else.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.