You know what’s silly? Trying to book a trip to Alberta three weeks before heading there. Especially during the height of high season. Because of such silliness, the amount of time I spent contacting hotels was too damn high! — furiously shakes fist — Luckily, at some point it all sort of fell into place for us — whew — and we embarked on a 10 day road trip to the Badlands, Banff and Jasper. All in all, we put over 4,700 kms on the odometer. And we didn’t even kill each other! Nor did we have any of those silently deadly stink-eye moments. Must have been those homemade sandwiches we brought along.
As we began to share pics of our journey on the usual social accounts, a few peeps started to ask us about our itinerary. Thing is, we didn’t have much of one to speak of — Chuck and I tend to travel by the seat of our pants. However, I did jot down all the places we hit up, roads we drove, wildlife we watched and a few other goodies to share with you.
So if you’re thinking of planning a similar road trip, or wondering how much you can see in 10 days in Alberta, here’s how we made ours unforgettable…
Detour! Moose Jaw
We did a pit stop here because I’ve heard so many good things about this place. Well, maybe not good things, but I had been told what a dastardly place Moose Jaw was during the Prohibition era and, even before that, during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The city sits on top of a series of tunnels that were created by Chinese railway workers as a place to hide from white people who believed they were stealing their jobs. Those tunnels were then used as gambling and bootlegging dens in the 30s by the likes of Al Capone and other mafia baddies. That’s some bad-ass history you got there, Moose Jaw.
This place has charming storefronts and a few derelict buildings, which makes it a must-stop if you like to capture eclectic scenes.
The Canadian Badlands (two nights)
Medicine Hat is a lovely city and it’s always scorching hot every time I’ve been. It seemed an appropriate base to explore the Badlands, even if it was a bit of a distance to Drumheller. If doing this again, I would book closer to Drumheller.
Dinosaur Provincial Park: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is insane! You’re just driving along in cattle country, looking out at vast prairie fields as far as the eye can see, when suddenly, the earth drops into a huge canyon and presents you with layers of time and evolution recorded in its depths. This park is a great camping location, if camping is your thing.
Hoodoos: Rock mushrooms are the coolest. The hoodoos area is rife with visitors and rightfully so, you can climb around and up and down the rocks (except those protected famous ones). Everywhere you looked you could see kids and parents scaling every which way. Except me. I’m a clumsy wuss, so I didn’t climb too far, but Chuck sure did. He was shouting “woohoo” as he jumped from hoodoo to hoodoo. That was my attempt at being Dr. Seuss.
Star Mine Suspension Bridge: The Badlands are also home to some good ol’ mining country. Constructed in 1931, this 117 metre long bridge is a little wobbly, but not too bad. It’s worth the short stop before/after the Hoodoos.
Also, the highway (Hwy 10) that connects you from the Hoodoos to Drumheller is a beaut!
World’s Largest Dinosaur: A cheesy roadside attraction with a TON of people around it. We stopped. Snapped a pic. Left.
Royal Tyrrell Museum: A can’t miss museum in the middle of the Badlands. It was insanely busy when we arrived. Like a 100-people-waiting-in-line-to-get-in type of busy. But the line was fast and the museum is superb. I first visited this place a few years after it opened its doors in 1985. It’s so much more than I remember.
Spots we didn’t hit: Horsethief Canyon, Orkney Hills, Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Park and the Last Chance Saloon — there just isn’t enough time in a day.
Detour! Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
This was one of those stops that almost got nixed. We had been in the car so much through the Badlands the day before and we were hemming and hawing over whether we wanted to do a two hour detour to see this historic site before getting to Banff. At the last minute, we decided to just do it. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the site, but boy was it a special place. We walked a few of the trails around the old jump cliff and I snapped a bunch of pics of their great tipi. It is estimated that this spot was used for hunting bison for over 5,700 years by the native people of the North American plains.
For the rest of the trip, Chuck and I could not stop talking about the logo they created for this place. We felt sorry for that buffalo plummeting to its death.
Banff National Park (two nights)
Banff is always a good idea. Yes, it’s busy, yes it’s super touristy, but you can’t ignore the beauty that surrounds you around every bend in this special park.
Banff Gondola: Fact. This was my first gondola ride. Fact. I was a little bit nervous. Sometimes heights freak me out, sometimes they don’t. This time they didn’t. Instead, I was like a kid in a candy store as we went up, up, up towards the top of Sulphur mountain. The air might have been thin at the top, but the views were bursting with stunning vistas. We walked along the Banff Skywalk that took us along the summit ridge to Sanson’s Peak Meteorological Observatory before heading back down to civilization. Also: Great souvenir shop.
Vermillion Lakes: This was a nice little spot for a picnic lunch. There’s a small road tucked to the west of Banff that wraps around three lovely lakes.
Banff Lake Cruise: A sunny afternoon on a boat? Yes, please! This cruise took us over the turquoise waters of Lake Minnewanka. We learned that this body of water was once named Devil’s Lake and even better “Cannibal Lake.” That’s just bad branding.
The Trading Post: For me, no trip to Banff is complete without a visit to the Trading Post. There’s always cool things to check out. This time, I picked up a tea towel, natch, and an amazing aboriginal art carving, which features an eagle, whale, fish and seal. I love it so much!
Bow Valley Parkway: Why take the fast Trans Canada when you can take a beautiful road up to Lake Louise to connect onto the Icefields Parkway? This is a nice meandering drive and there’s a great chance you’ll spot wildlife. We saw two bears on our journey. A grizzly and a black bear.
Peyto Lake: On our way to Jasper, surrounded by glacier-topped mountains, we found one of the coolest photo ops. The lake was teeming with tourists, but if you angle your camera just right, it’s like they don’t even exist.
Spots we didn’t hit: Johnston Canyon, Lake Moraine and Lake Louise — we’ve been to these magnificent places before, but if you haven’t, you must. Put them at the top of the list.
Stop 3: Jasper National Park (four nights)
Neither of us had ever been to Jasper, so we decided to spend most of our time exploring it. This was a smart move on our part. Jasper is off the hook with pristine wilderness and awe-inspiring wonders.
Icefields Parkway: This is one of the most beautiful drives you will ever take. The stretch of highway that takes you from Lake Louise to Jasper is nothing short of breathtaking. No wonder Travel Alberta’s motto is “remember to breathe.” You really do have to remind yourself of that while driving the parkway.
Athabasca Glacier: It was a moody morn as we drove over — and stood on — a 300 metre thick glacier in the Columbia Icefield. That equals the height of the Eiffel Tower! At one point our Ice Explorer drove down an “I’m freaking out here!” 36 degree incline. What an icy rush!
Glacier Skywalk: That time I walked on glass 900 feet above a stunning glacier-formed valley. This new experience in Jasper is something to behold. The skywalk moves ever so slightly. All the better to make you slightly queasy.
Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls & Maligne Canyon: All are a short distance walk from the roads, all provide fantastic photo opportunities.
Maligne Lake: Worth the trip. On our drive to the lake, we spotted a baby black bear eating berries, a recently burnt forest (it was struck by lightning last summer), and a bald eagle perching on a dead tree. That was all before setting out to cruise down one of the loveliest lakes in Alberta.
Miette Hot Springs: We drove up and down and up the freshest smelling roads of the Fiddle Valley to the Miette Hot Springs and let all of our aches of the last eight days melt away in the natural hot springs waters. The water flows from the mountain at 54°C (129°F), so it has to be cooled before it enters the pools. Crazy, eh?
Jasper Lake & Patricia Lake: Turquoise lakes are just the norm in Jasper. We dipped our toes in many of them. Jasper Lake had everyone stopping on the highway to make a splash, Patricia Lake is close to the town of Jasper and an absolute gem.
Stay: When we walked into our cabin in Alpine Village we just sighed. What a cozy (and clean!) place to stay. The cabins are located along the Athabasca River. They made Jasper feel more like cabin country than resort town. I sighed sadly when we left.
Eats: We ate well in Jasper. I seemed to be on a bit of a meatloaf kick, because I tried an elk one at Jasper Brewing Co. (superb) and a bison and wild boar bacon one at Evil Dave’s (sublime). Also, the Bear’s Paw Bakery is extremely busy for good reason — amazing pastries and coffees.
Spots we didn’t hit: Gosh, I can’t think of any. Did we miss something?
Eagles and bears and elk, oh my! We saw plenty of critters in Banff and Jasper. The coolest moment was watching a grizzly bear lumber through the bush along the Bow River Parkway eating all the berries along the way. We were told that at this time of year the bears are eating approximately 250,000 berries a day. At one point, the bear bounded up onto the road and went to the other side and then we never saw him again.
Another great moment was silently watching an eagle sitting perched on the top of a dead tree with a burnt forest in the background. He was quite the regal eagle against that burnt grey backdrop.
That’s how we tackled Alberta in 10 days. If you have a favourite spot that we didn’t get to, please let me know in the comments! I’m always looking to add a new place to the bucket list. Or let me know if you’re planning a trip to Alberta and want some tips! Tip #1: Plan a road trip to Alberta.
A big thank you to Brewster for providing us passes to all their fabulous experiences: Banff Gondola, Banff Lake Cruise, Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure, Glacier Skywalk and Maligne Lake Cruise.