Much of the Albertan identity is derived from the land, from the prairies and badlands to the east to the jagged Rocky Mountains to the west. All in all, it's a remarkable collection of geographic features for an area of its size.

The Badlands

East of Calgary and stretching to the south is a unique collection of high plains and deep canyons riven by ancient waterways like the Red Deer River, which Albertans have taken to calling the badlands. The Lakota people called the region Makhóai?a -- -literally, "bad land" -- while early French trappers echoed the sentiment, deeming the region les mauvaises terres à traverser -- bad lands to cross.

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There's good reason for this. The plains stretch out in every direction, but drop off almost completely without warning into deep canyons too steep to descend into, thus forcing huge detours. The soil, clay and sand, is for the most part loose and dry, making it near-useless for agriculture, and subject to rapid and dramatic erosion.

For all these practical problems, the badlands are also starkly beautiful; hiking in Horse Thief Canyon, near Drumheller, for example, is an exceptional experience, one of preternatural beauty that makes you feel transported back thousands, if not millions of years. Good thing you're not, though, or you'd encounter thousands of flesh-eating dinosaurs for whom the badlands are famous: The Drumheller region is one of the premiere paleontological regions in the world, and contains one of the field's premiere museums in the Royal Tyrell.

The Mountains

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This, of course, is the main attraction: Towering peaks cradling massive glaciers, icy blue-green lakes, the rare air of high altitude that tastes as fresh and pure as the time before man. The Rocky Mountains, which stretch north and west through Alberta from Montana's border, are undoubtedly one of the world's greatest geographical features, and the province of Alberta has been justifiably committed to preserving its alpine zones for the enjoyment and benefit of the entire planet.

The three Rocky Mountain national parks -- Waterton Lakes, Banff, and Jasper -- are all UNESCO world heritage sites; and provincial alpine parks like Kananaskis do much to insulate the rolling foothills east of the mountains themselves from booming Alberta's rampant development. All of them are meticulously managed for maximum use with minimum impact: hiking trails, campsites, and guidance from the parks authority are all first-rate.

Still, you shouldn't expect to have much time to yourself in any of these regions. Gorgeous as they are they're extremely popular, especially in the summer months. If you don't want to brave the crowds, you might want to consider Waterton Lakes; no less spectacular than Banff or Jasper, but significantly less developed, Waterton is the wildest of all the alpine parks in the province. And it's hardly roughing it; quaint and rustic accommodation and a handful of good dining options make it a more authentic mountain experience than all the bells and whistles of Banff.

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The Heartland

Just east of the rocky peaks are the low-rolling foothills, and beyond them, the broad prairies. Before oil was king here, Alberta's identity was built on agriculture -- ranching and wheat farming in particular -- and for many a long-time Albertan the province's culture still flows very much from the cowboy way.

At any given time, there are roughly 6.5 million beef and dairy cattle on Alberta ranchlands; annually, the province produces about 7 million metric tons of wheat annually, its biggest crop (barley is second, at around 5 million). Agriculture employs about 75,000 Albertans -- only about 4 percent of the labor force, but as any farmer or rancher will tell you, it's a pretty significant 4 percent. "Farmers Feed Cities!" read the signs posted along Alberta's rural byways, and it's nothing but the truth: for all the glossy corporate sheen of Calgary and Edmonton, the vast expanses of farmland still dominate much of the provincial landscape.

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But it's the land itself that has helped to forge the Albertan identity. Images of lonesome cowboys riding range in the ranchlands of the foothills are as much a part of Alberta's particular mythology as anything, perhaps even more so than the recent oil boom. The land and its people are Alberta's history, and, as ranchers are reminding politicians and newcomers alike, an important part of its future.

In the headlong rush to development, long-time stewards of the land see Alberta's signature landscapes as threatened -- by sprawling subdivisions, superhighways, golf courses, you name it. Thankfully, there are still enough old-timers around to remind the newcomers part of the reason why they came to Alberta in the first place -- big skies, open places, and natural beauty. May it be ever thus.

The North

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It's ironic to some that the source of Alberta's vast wealth is far out of sight of most of the people who reap its benefits. A little more than 400km (240 miles) north of Edmonton sit Alberta's oil sands, a massive store of crude oil -- the world's second-largest supply, after Saudi Arabia -- just north of the rapidly expanding town of Fort McMurray. Here, one of the largest-scale industrial excavations in history is taking place, as thousands of tons of bitumen -- the oily muck in which the crude is trapped -- is trucked to separating and refining plants on-site to extract the oil.

The relative invisibility of the oil sands projects, some believe, is part of the problem. There's a growing sense in the province that, if only most residents could see the devastating effect on the landscape, then the headlong rush to rapid development might slow down some. So far that hasn't happened, but growing public opinion here, for the first time, favors prudence over haste -- not the Alberta way, historically, but perhaps a sign of better days ahead for conservation efforts.

The north, after all, represents much of the province's most pristine wilderness. North of Fort McMurray lies the Athabasca River delta, the second-largest such wetland after the Amazon, and a cradle of tremendous biodiversity. Where it empties into Lake Athabasca sits Wood Buffalo National Park, the wildest of any of the wilderness parks in the province, with only one gravel road skirting its edge. It's also home to the last free-roaming herd of bison on earth, all but eradicated during colonialism. The park is a throwback that way -- a preserved portion of the Alberta that was. But it's also a powerful testament to what could be lost should the breakneck pace of development continue.

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The Wildlife

Alberta veritably teems with wildlife -- some places more than others, though often it's just a matter of knowing where to look. On the prairies, it's in the ground, where millions of prairie dogs -- or groundhogs, if you prefer -- live much of their lives underground; or in the sky, where hawks, crows, owls, and ravens scan the flatlands for just such creatures -- to them, a meal.

As you approach the mountains, larger mammals start to appear: deer, bighorn sheep, elk, and mountain goats, and the creatures that feed on them, like cougars, coyotes, wolves -- and Alberta's signature fearsome creature, the grizzly bear. Massive and imposing, grizzlies can get to be as tall as 10 feet when on their hind legs; largely herbivorous, these massive creatures can (and will) eat almost anything if they get hungry enough, and their speed -- they can run as quickly as 30km (18 miles) per hour -- strength, and flesh-tearing teeth and claws make predation an easy option.

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They tend not to disturb humans -- as disinterested in bumping into you as you are them -- but a grizzly caught by surprise, or believing a threat exists to her cubs, is as dangerous an animal as exists in the world.

Farther north, in the boreal forests of the Athabasca delta, other large species, like moose, thrive on the rich wetlands. And, of course, the last free-roaming bison herd on earth is safe and sound within the bounds of Wood Buffalo National Park.

Alberta's northern boundary extends into the frozen tundra and taiga, which means migratory herds of caribou pass through its borders as well. And, of course, the northern lakes are home to many species of fish, such as lake trout and northern pike, which draw sport fishers from all over the world.

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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.