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Under Alberta Skies: hiking and history

At first glance, history and hiking go together about as well as high heels and marathon races. Traditionally, you either visit a museum or you go for a walk in the woods. You don’t do both.
under alberta skies cars
Antique cars can often be seen at the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site. Photo by Debbie Olsen

At first glance, history and hiking go together about as well as high heels and marathon races. Traditionally, you either visit a museum or you go for a walk in the woods. You don’t do both. But what if you could combine these two diverse interests? History buffs have it good in Alberta, and so do hikers for that matter. The province has historical sites that predate Stonehenge and thousands of kilometers of some of the world’s best walking trails. If you choose the right destination, you can combine a visit to a museum or a historical site with a wonderful walk or hike. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Drumheller Valley

The fascinating badlands landscape near Drumheller makes for an interesting drive and there are several excellent historical attractions in the valley. History buffs will want to check out the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site where they can learn about Alberta’s coal mining history, don a hardhat and go inside a real mine. The Royal Tyrrell Museum should also be on every visitor’s list. The world-renowned facility is dedicated to the science of paleontology and houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs. It is located within Midland Provincial Park and the trails through the park provide great views of the badlands. Take the Badlands Interpretive Trail, a 1.4 km loop trail, to learn more about the badlands. You might also want to walk through the hoodoos and stroll across the Rosedale Suspension Bridge. If you’re really feeling ambitious, take a walk through nearby Horseshoe Canyon. At some point, history buffs and hikers have to take a break and refresh. Enjoy some pub grub and cool drinks at the Last Chance Saloon in the ghost town of Wayne.
Cool Fact: Alberta is one of the top destinations in the world for paleontology and there are several dinosaur species that have “Alberta” in their name. Albertosaurus (a small tyrannosaur) is the most famous, but there’s also Albertaceratops (a horned, frilled dinosaur), Albertadromeus (a pint-sized ornithopod), and the small, feathered theropod Albertonykus. Edmontosaurus (duck-billed dinosaur) and Edmontonia (an armoured nodosaur) bear the name of Alberta’s capital city.

Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village & Elk Island National Park

The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a five-minute drive from Elk Island National Park and that makes it easy to explore history and take a nature walk in the same day. Both facilities are found about 25-minutes east of Edmonton.
The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is an open-air museum with more than 35 restored historic buildings and costumed park interpreters that tell the history of the early settlement of east central Alberta from 1892 to 1930. There’s a two-room school, several historical churches, a blacksmith shop, a working grain elevator and historical homes including a sod house. Each home depicts a specific era and has period appropriate furnishings, gardens and even heritage livestock. It’s like stepping back in time.
The concession has delicious Ukrainian food, so you might want to enjoy lunch or dinner before you head out to explore Elk Island National Park, Canada’s only entirely fenced national park and one of its smallest at 194 square km. The park is one of the few places where you can see plains and wood bison roaming freely and learn about the conservation efforts that brought these species back from extinction. There are eleven different hiking trails through the park and none have very steep inclines. With the densest population of hoofed mammals in North America, you might see plains bison, wood bison, elk, moose, mule deer and white-tailed deer. Other mammals like the tiny pygmy shrew, porcupine, beaver, coyote and the occasional black bear, timber wolf or lynx may also be seen. More than 250 bird species can be found in the park throughout the year including a healthy population of trumpeter swans. Other notable bird species include red-necked grebe, double-crested cormorant, red-tailed hawk, American bittern, American white pelican and great blue heron.

Remington Carriage Museum & Waterton Lakes National Park

It’s about a 40-minute drive from Cardston (where the Remington Carriage Museum is located) to Waterton Lakes National Park. Both attractions are located in the far southwest corner of the province.
The Remington Carriage Museum tells the story of horse-drawn transportation and has over 270 carriages and wagons, the largest collection of its kind in North America.  You’ll see everything from a lofty open landau used by Queen Elizabeth II to a lowly wooden tank wagon that was used to water streets. Be sure to visit the horses in the adjacent stable where you can see three different breeds – Clydesdales, Quarter Horses and Canadians.
Waterton Lakes National Park is a short drive from Cardston and there you can see stunning mountain scenery and take a cruise across Waterton Lake to Goat Haunt, the northern gateway to Glacier National Park. Last year, Waterton was heavily damaged by fire. Though the town was spared, the visitor’s centre was destroyed and many trails are closed this season. At the moment, the most accessible hiking trails are on the other side of the lake, which can be accessed via the cruise. If you bring your passport, you can enjoy several nice walks in Glacier National Park. (There’s a border crossing on the other side of the lake and you have to clear customs if you want to enjoy the hikes on that end of the lake, because they are technically in Montana. There’s a good possibility of seeing moose, and Goat Haunt entry point has a really cool passport stamp that is shaped like a goat and says Glacier National Park on it.) Serious hikers will be glad to hear that Waterton’s famous Crypt Lake Trail was undamaged by the fire. You pass four waterfalls, climb a steel ladder, crawl through an 18-metre tunnel and maneuver around a cliff using a steel cable on this thrilling hike.

Experience Alberta’s History Pass

Experience history all year long with this pass which provides access to all provincially-operated historical sites for one full year from the date of purchase. This includes many special events and interactive programs available at various sites throughout the year. The pass costs $40 per senior and is available for purchase at most historical sites or at any AMA office. For a full list of provincial historic sites, visit: history.alberta.ca.
Debbie Olsen is an Alberta-based freelance writer and co-author of the book, 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta.