A road trip is a great way to refresh and recharge and combines the best of getting away with the comfort of being home in just a few short hours. It would be impossible to list all of the amazing places to discover throughout Alberta, but here are some of our best recommendations for year-round road trips in central and southern Alberta and the Canadian Rockies.
After all, they say it’s not always about the destination, it’s about the journey.
You couldn’t do this drive often enough to be anything but awed by it. As you drift past the silent majesty of millennia-old glaciers, millions of tons of age-old ice draped over the looming, ancient peaks, you may as well leave your jaw on the dashboard, because around the next bend it’ll just land there again. Easily and without a doubt the most dramatic stretch of highway in the province, if not the entire country.
On the short stretch of Trans-Canada that links Banff to Lake Louise, there’s a little-traveled side route called the Bow Valley Parkway (or Highway 1A). It’s little-traveled with good reason, perhaps: It’s two lanes wind through rock and forest and probably double the travel time between the two points. But getting there, in this case, is half the fun. Little 1A wends off along the base of Castle Mountain, one of the truly massive local peaks, and getting underneath it offers the truest sense of its majesty. It’s also along 1A where you’re most likely to see wildlife — a giant elk grazing by the roadside, or maybe even a black bear (don’t even mention the bighorn sheep, which are as plentiful as squirrels). Sometimes the road less traveled does, in fact, make all the difference.
It’s a short loop from the town of Drumheller around the Dinosaur Trail, but inside it is some of the most spectacularly barren scenery to be found anywhere. As you circle the route around Horse Thief and Horseshoe canyons, carved by the Red Deer River, picture yourself sailing through a massive, shallow inland sea, swarming with marine dinosaurs twice the size of your car. Then look down into the dark, desiccated canyons, and think how long it took the river to carve deep and wide enough to reveal this ancient history. It can make you feel tiny, indeed.
When visiting Drumheller, there is no other place where you will find stuffed French toast as good as at the Heartwood Inn & Spa.
A short drive from Calgary, leave the path well beaten and enter Kananaskis Country through highway 40. You will be transported from the bald prairie expanses to the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Enjoy the scenery on highway 40 and turn off on the Smith Dorrien Spray Trail (#742). This gravel road is used for the “backdoor” access to Spray Lakes. The Smith Dorrien winds its way through moose habitat. As you cruise close to the tree line you’ll find mounds of snow, even in high summer. But save your gawking for the wildlife, as elk, moose, mountain goats, and the occasional bear pause to watch you rumble by.
On this scenic drive, you will experience varying topography as well as scenery. Start out on the Cowboy Trail heading north out of Calgary and experience the essence of Alberta’s ranch land through rolling foothills up to Rocky Mountain House. Connecting Rocky Mountain House to the east with the Icefields Parkway, the David Thompson Highway is a direct route into the heart of the Rockies’ high scenic drama. The foothills west of Rocky give way quickly to the hard-rock Mountains, which rise quickly in the west. The road is swallowed along the way, until you realize there are mountains ahead, behind, and all around you. The sense is of a massive, natural fortress that you’ve slipped inside.
Stay at The Prairie Creek Inn just outside of Rocky Mountain House.
The old Banff Highway extends out of Calgary via Crowchild Trail. Travel along this road through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to Highway #40 (Forestry Trunk Road) north to Waiporous Valley. Take your time as you witness stunning mountain views and Beaupre Lake on your left. Stay at the The Crossing at Ghost River with your group.
Traveling from the east, experience Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park and Elkwater region. The scenic drive from Elkwater over to Lethbridge and then south-west to Waterton Lakes is truly the best way to experience Alberta’s the historical significance of southern Alberta from the days of boot-legging, North West Mounted Police and First Nations peoples. As you venture further west, the landscape dramatically changes into mountainous grandeur. Venture past Waterton and you may see bison roaming the paddock.
A restful start to your trip begins at the Elkwater Lake Lodge (former member of Charming Inns of Alberta). Be sure to get some yummy goodies from the Lodge’s restaurant for the trip. The Crandell Mountain Lodge in Waterton is a welcoming end to your drive.