Escape to Northern Alberta
Northern Alberta is so vast and so remote that it deserves its own itinerary. I’m not suggesting that if this is your first trip to the province you miss out on the action of the Calgary Stampede or the beauty of the Canadian Rockies, but instead this is an ideal itinerary for those visiting Alberta for the second or third time, or for Edmonton locals who are looking for an alternative to vacationing at a central Alberta lake resort.
In this 10-day strategy I assume you are camping, but there are enough motels en route to ensure everyone gets to enjoy this part of the province.
Head east from Edmonton to begin a counterclockwise loop of northern Alberta. Make a stop at the Royal Alberta Museum before leaving city limits to learn about the wildlife you may see out on the road (and the wildlife you don’t want to run into). A day spent in Elk Island National Park is almost guaranteed to include sightings of bison, elk, and moose. As dawn and dusk are prime wildlife-viewing times, plan on an overnight at the park campground.
As you continue toward Smoky Lake (or detouring to Vegreville if you need a photo of the world’s largest Easter egg), today’s highlight is Métis Crossing, an outdoor museum celebrating the culture of the Métis people. Drive north to Fort McMurray (book your campsite in advance if possible or camp out of town at Gregoire Lake Provincial Park).
Taking a Syncrude/Suncor plant tour is not in keeping with the theme of this nature-related itinerary, but seeing the development of the world’s largest known oil reserve is eye-opening. Besides, you can leave memories of the heavy haulers behind by spending the afternoon visiting the local bison enclosure or taking a kayaking trip along the river. Pack light for an afternoon flight to Fort Chipewyan and check into the Fort Chipewyan Lodge.
Today is spent exploring Wood Buffalo National Park. Employ the services of a local boat operator to motor into this vast wilderness accessible from Fort Chipewyan by water only. You’ll see plenty of birds and maybe wildlife including bears, bison, and wolves from the safety of a boat.
Return to Fort McMurray and begin the longest day of driving on this itinerary (around 480 km/300 miles) to Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park via the historic river port of Athabasca. While sunset in this park is an absolute delight, early arrivals can go hiking, swimming, or do absolutely nothing at all.
After a buffet breakfast at the Hearthstone Grill in Slave Lake, head to Spruce Point Park. Slave Lake is renowned by anglers, especially along the shallow southern shore, and Spruce Point Park caters to those looking to hook the big one. In addition to camping facilities, it offers boat and tackle rentals, as well as guided trips.
Continuing west through north-central Alberta, bird-watchers will want to spend time with their binoculars in the bird hides around McLennan, self-proclaimed bird capital of Canada. Soak up the lifestyle of early white settlers at Historic Dunvegan, which is also a good lunch stop. Spend the night at Grande Cache, enjoying an evening round of golf for a fraction of the cost of other mountain courses.
Today is spent on horseback traversing the mountainous terrain of Willmore Wilderness Park. Local outfitters supply the horse; you are simply along for the ride.
Departing Grande Cache early, you will have the better part of the day to enjoy William A. Switzer Provincial Park, which is also your overnight stop. Fishing, canoeing, or hiking—the choice is yours.
Rejoining the Yellowhead Highway at Hinton, you’ll immediately notice the increased traffic, but don’t sweat it—while your fellow travelers are bemoaning the crowds of the Canadian Rockies, you’ll have 10 memorable days of solitude behind you. Break up the four-hour drive back to the capital with a detour through Sundance Provincial Park or beach time at Wabamun Lake.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition