Most people don't come to Alberta with the intention of sticking to the cities. Blessed with extraordinary mountain terrain; beautiful rolling foothills; vast prairie land; and endless, big blue sky (most of the time), the province of Alberta cries out to be seen from the outside in.
There are wildlife to glimpse and diverse ecosystems to observe, and in the far north, there's the Athabasca, the second largest river delta in the world (after the Amazon), with wetlands that cradle more than 55 species of mammals and more than 200 species of birds. The national parks of Waterton Lakes, Banff, Jasper, and Wood Buffalo are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites and offer unique opportunities to explore nature -- albeit with wildly varying degrees of solitude.
Even urban Albertans often embrace the outdoors, so you'll also find plenty of opportunities for cycling in Calgary and Edmonton on an expansive and well-connected system of bicycle paths. In the winter, these paths can be used to cross-country ski, as well -- always an interesting sight amid the downtown skyscrapers.
Whether you're intent on adventure or just want to try something new, this is the place to get out of the car and stretch yourself. This section lays out your options, from tour operators who run multi-activity packages to the best spots to visit outdoors (with listings of tour operators, guides, and outfitters that specialize in each), and provides an overview of Alberta's parks.
Some of the earliest adopters in the annals of mountain biking were rabid cyclists in Alberta, and the province remains one of the hotbeds of the sport. The Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park (1988 Olympic Way, Canmore; tel. 403/678-2400) is probably ten times as busy in summer as in winter thanks to the adaptability of the ski trails to world-class mountain biking. More than 70km (43 miles) of trails are taken over by mountain bikers in summer, and Trail Sports (on-site) offers bike rentals, skill-building courses, and guided rides.
Mountain biking in the national parks is a little bit trickier, given the sensitive nature of the environment, not to mention the throngs of tourists that might be meandering the trails at any given time. Banff National Park has more than 190km (118 miles) of mountain-biking trails, but it's permitted on only a select number of the hiking trails. You are subject to fines if you are caught biking on a hiking-only trail. The park's website (www.pc.gc.ca/banff) has a good list of biking trails. The same is true of Jasper, where information, trail maps, and excluded areas can be found at www.explorejasper.com/recreation/biking.htm. And remember, be bear aware!
The Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise and Parkway 93A in Jasper Park are both good less trafficked roads for road bike touring. Bike rentals are easily available nearly everywhere in the parks.
The 1988 Olympic cross-country skiing events were held at Canmore, on the edge of Banff National Park. The routes at the Canmore Nordic Centre (tel. 403/678-2400) are now open to the public and offer 70km (43 miles) of world-class skiing.
Alberta's fast-running mountain rivers and streams, as well as its northern lakes, offer a great many opportunities for anglers. The north in particular, in the Peace-Athabasca delta, is a favorite; hundreds of remote lakes throughout the wetlands offer sport fishers ample opportunity to trawl for lake trout, northern pike, and walleye. Fly-fishers will want to cast into the Bow River and wade the rivers of the Crowsnest Pass.
Keep in mind that you need a license (C$26 for Canadians and C$71 for non-Canadians) to catch fish in Alberta. Most fishing outfitters in the province sell them, as well as many sporting goods stores. You also need a permit from Parks Canada to fish in Banff. They cost C$10 per day or C$34 for an annual pass.
In the national parks, you'll find tour operators (far too many to list here) that offer anything from hip-wading fly fishing in the rivers to trawling the mountain lakes. Be warned: Unless you're an experienced fly fisher or very familiar with the area, do not attempt to wade into the mountain rivers on your own. The water is ice-cold, and the current is unpredictable at different points in the river and at different times of the year. An imprudent wade in the wrong place or at the wrong time could easily kill you.
Lodge-to-Lodge Trail Riding in Banff National Park: See the park's backcountry without getting blisters on your feet. Instead, get saddle-sore as you ride horseback on a 3-day excursion, spending the nights in remote but comfortable mountain lodges. Warner Guiding and Outfitting (tel. 800/661-8352) provides all meals and lodging, plus oats for Silver.
White-Water Rafting & Canoeing
The Rockies' many glaciers and snowfields are the source of mighty rivers. Outfitters throughout the region offer white-water rafting and canoe trips of varying lengths and difficulty -- you can spend a single morning on the river or plan a 5-day expedition. Jasper is central to a number of good white-water rivers; Maligne Rafting Adventures Ltd. (tel. 780/852-3370; www.mra.ab.ca) has packages for rafters of all experience levels.
If you're thrilled by seeing animals in the wild, the Rocky Mountain national parks are all teeming with wildlife -- bighorn sheep, grizzly and black bears, deer, mountain goats, moose, coyotes, lynxes, wolves, and more. Aside from the Rockies, Elk Island National Park, just outside Edmonton, harbors the tiny pygmy shrew and the immense wood buffalo.
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.