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Under Alberta Skies: our hidden gems

Road trips are all about dreaming and discovering. First, you picture a beautiful landscape in your mind and then you make your way there to discover it for yourself. With some 27,525 sq. km.
Lesser Slave Lake6 Sunset – Greg Olsen
Lesser Slave Lake as sunset. Photo by Greg Olsen

Road trips are all about dreaming and discovering. First, you picture a beautiful landscape in your mind and then you make your way there to discover it for yourself. With some 27,525 sq. km. of protected land in more than 500 sites, Alberta is a nature lover’s dream destination that is best explored out on the open road.

Last summer, I had the chance to drive all over Alberta exploring nature hot spots while researching a book on the topic. Jasper and Banff are famous for a reason, but as I ventured off the tourist trail I was reminded just how gorgeous the entire province is. There’s beauty to be found in mountain landscapes, grasslands, prairies, lakes, boreal forests and desert badlands.

I was also reminded that some of the best things in life fly under the radar. They call these places hidden gems for a reason and exploring them feels like sharing in a special kind of secret. Summer is a great time to get out and see a part of Alberta you have not yet explored. Here are three suggestions to get you started.

Writing on Stone Provincial Park/ Áísínai’pi National Historic Site of Canada
According to Blackfoot tradition, this spot in the southeast corner of Alberta is home to powerful spirits. It was a place where young warriors came to fast and pray on vision quests. It is believed that some warriors recorded their spirit dreams as pictographs and petroglyphs – though tradition says the art was created by spirits. The park contains the largest concentration of First Nation petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the great plains of North America.

The unique landscape of sandstone hoodoos against the backdrop of the Sweet Grass Hills does have an undeniably mystical feel and it makes for wonderful photo ops. Park interpreters can take you on interpretive walks to see the rock art, you can walk along trails through the hoodoos or paddle down the river. There’s an interpretive centre and there are also interpretive programs that help guests learn about the plants and animals that live in this unusual terrain.

Hot Tip: The Campground is excellent and there is a sandy beach by the river. Bring a canoe or a tube and you can enjoy a float or paddle down the river.

Bighorn Backcountry/David Thompson Country
If you want to get away to the mountains and you don’t want the crowds, this is the place for you. The Bighorn Backcountry is a collection of twelve Public Land Use Zones that when combined protect more than 5,000 sq. km. of land. Located just east of Banff and Jasper National Parks, this region has wonderful mountain scenery.

This area is also known as David Thompson Country, because it stretches along the David Thompson Highway and is part of Alberta’s newest tourism region by the same name. It was named in honour of the British-Canadian fur trader, surveyor and mapmaker who mapped this region of Alberta along with about one-fifth of the North American continent.

Near Nordegg, you can tour the Brazeau Collieries Historic Mine, a registered national historic site. An interpreter will take you on a guided walking tour of the mine site or you can pre-book a ride-along trail tour if you have mobility issues.

Siffleur Falls is my favourite family hike in this area, but there are several other nice waterfall hikes including Crescent Falls, Ram Falls and Tershishner Falls. There are also lovely lakes like Goldeye Lake, Allstones Lake and Abraham Lake.

Hot Tip: There are plenty of campsites in this area, but if you’re not into camping, check out Aurum Lodge (aurumlodge.com), a lovely accommodation located near Abraham Lake.

Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park
Located 281 km north of Edmonton, Lesser Slave Lake is rimmed by some of the finest beaches in the entire province. The lake itself is so big (nearly 1200 sq. km.) that it would be easy to convince yourself you’re at the edge of an ocean. Regardless, it’s a great place to be on a warm summer day.

This region is a designated Important Bird Area and is home to the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation (borealbirdcentre.ca). Visitors might see tundra swans, western grebe and an incredible diversity of migrant songbirds. Be sure to visit the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory and take a stroll along the Songbird Trail.

You’ll see birds in every season here. There’s even a songbird festival each spring (May 26 & 27, 2018).
There are several nice hikes and viewpoints inside the provincial park, wildlife is abundant in the boreal forest and the lake is excellent for both fishing and swimming.

Hot Tip: Alberta Parks has a beautiful comfort camping building called “The Nest” that can be reserved in advance. It sleeps 10 people and would be ideal for a family reunion or larger group gathering. Individuals and couples looking for a smaller space might also check out Northshore Homestead (northshorehomestead.com). The property is surrounded by Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park and offers comfortable cabins with lakefront views. Guests may also be able to arrange a tour of the bison ranch and the museum that are located on the property.

Debbie Olsen is an Alberta-based freelance writer and co-author of the book, 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta.