Medicine Hat & Cypress Hills Provincial Park
Medicine Hat, 291km (180 miles) southeast of Calgary, is at the center of Alberta's vast natural-gas fields. (Rudyard Kipling famously described it as the city with "all hell for a basement.") To be near this inexpensive source of energy, a lot of modern industry has moved to Medicine Hat, making this an unlikely factory town surrounded by grain fields. In the early 1900s, the primary industry was fashioning brick and china from the local clay deposits. Consequently, the town's old downtown is a showcase of handsome frontier-era brick buildings; take an hour and explore the historic city center, flanked by the South Saskatchewan River.
About 81km (50 miles) south of Medicine Hat lies Cypress Hills Provincial Park, 316 sq. km (122 sq. miles) of highlands -- outliers of the Rockies -- that rise 450m (1,476 ft.) above the flat prairie grasslands. In this preserve live many species of plants and animals, including elk and moose, usually found farther west in more mountainous regions.
East of Fort Macleod, 105km (65 miles) north of the U.S. border and 216km (134 miles) southeast of Calgary, Lethbridge is a delightful garden city set in the deep, beautiful Old Man River Valley and a popular convention site (it gets more annual hours of sunshine than most places in Canada). Lethbridge started out as Fort Whoop-Up, a notorious trading post that bartered whiskey to the Plains Indians in return for buffalo hides and horses. The post boomed during the 1870s, until the Mounties arrived to bring order. Today, Lethbridge is a pleasant prairie city and Alberta's third largest, with a population of 66,000. For details, contact the Lethbridge Visitor Centre (2805 Scenic Dr.; tel. 800/661-1222 or 403/320-1222; www.visitlethbridge.com), open daily 9am to 5pm.
Though downtown is slightly disappointing in its lack of activity (many of the storefronts are vacant), the city has much to offer. Lethbridge has two good art centers that display regional and touring art. The Southern Alberta Art Gallery (601 3rd Ave. S; tel. 403/327-8770; www.saag.ca) has a number of changing art shows throughout the year; the gift shop is a good place to go for local crafts. It's open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and Sunday from 1 to 5pm. The Bowman Arts Centre (811 5th Ave.; tel. 403/327-2813) is housed in an old school and is the fine-arts hub of Lethbridge, with studios, classes, offices for arts organizations, and two galleries featuring the works of area artists; it's open Monday to Friday 9am to 9pm and Saturday 10am to 4pm.
The Sir Alexander Galt Museum and Archives, at the west end of 5th Ave. (502 1st St. S, tel. 403/320-4258; www.galtmuseum.com), is an excellent regional museum located in an historic former hospital. Exhibit galleries focus on the local Native culture, the city's coal-mining past, and the role of immigrants in the region's growth. Two galleries are devoted to the works of regional artists. The back windows of the museum overlook the impressive Oldman River Valley, with its natural park systems. It's open daily 10am to 5pm; admission is C$5 adults, C$4 seniors and students, C$3 children 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under.
The city's heritage as a frontier whiskey-trading center is commemorated at the Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Centre (tel. 403/329-0444; www.fortwhoopup.com) in Indian Battle Park (follow 3rd Ave. S toward the river). A replica of the fort -- the original was built by Montana-based traders of buffalo skins and whiskey in the 1870s -- stands in the park, with costumed guides providing horse-drawn carriage tours, interpretive programs, and historic reenactments. During July and August, it's open daily 10am to 5pm; the rest of the year, it's open Wednesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm. Admission is C$7 adults, C$6 seniors, C$5 students, and free for children under 6.
The pride of Lethbridge is the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden (tel. 403/328-3511; www.nikkayuko.com) in Henderson Lake Park on Mayor Mangrath Drive, east of downtown. Its pavilion and dainty bell tower were built by Japanese artisans without nails or bolts. The garden is one of the largest Japanese gardens in North America; Japanese-Canadian women in kimonos give tours and explain the philosophical concepts involved in Japanese garden design. From late June to Labour Day, the garden is open daily 9am to 8pm; mid-May to late June and after Labour Day to early October, it's open daily 9am to 5pm. Admission is C$7 adults, C$5 seniors, C$4 children 6 to 17, and free for children 5 and under.
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.