Why Alberta is the ultimate winter holiday for off-the-beaten-track adventure

·7-min read
Esplanade Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta (Alamy/PA)
Esplanade Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta (Alamy/PA)

Alberta is famous for its pristine wilderness and postcard-perfect scenes of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains towering over glassy lakes.

It’s famously a summer destination for tourists and landscape photographers alike, but what Instagram doesn’t really tell you is that it can be difficult to get around in peak season, with some of the most iconic viewpoints – like Lake Louise – causing lengthy traffic jams and a fight for parking spaces.

That’s why winter is quietly becoming the best time to travel to the province. The region becomes an empty playground for adventure lovers when the temperature drops, offering adrenaline-thrilled winter sports and the spectacular frozen views. (Just be sure to pack your thermals and be prepared for a few blizzards.) Here’s how to spend a week exploring Alberta this winter.

Touch down in Edmonton

Street art in Edmonton (Liz Connor/PA)
Street art in Edmonton (Liz Connor/PA)

The capital of Alberta, and its second-largest city, is more than just an overnight stopover en route to wilder, more remote parts of the region. I spend three days in this vibrant urban city, easing myself into the adventure lifestyle and discovering a smart holiday destination in its own right.

Less than an hour’s drive from the city you’ll find Elk Island, a National Park where you’re guaranteed to spot majestic bison, elk, moose and white-tailed deer free roaming in its lands (admission costs £4.33 for adults and can be purchased at the entrance kiosk). The park has higher densities of hoofed mammals per square kilometre than any other area in the world, and it’s an important part of Canada’s bison conservation story.

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Edmonton itself is a young and creative city that’s sure to delight any urbanite, with great coffee, hyper-local foodie spots and Instagrammable street art. Food-wise you’re spoilt for choice, and it’s easy to spend your days eating and drinking your way from breakfast through to dinner and cocktails. Highlights include craft beer taproom Situation Brewing (situationbeer.com), hipster gin distillery Strathcona Spirits (strathconaspirits.ca), brunch haven Little Brick (littlebrick.ca) and boozy eatery Baijiu (baijiuyeg.com) which serves Asian-inspired small plates and very good cocktails.

Hole up in the JW Marriot in Edmonton’s hottest new downtown area, ICE District, for the entirety of your stay in the city. With design-conscious interiors, impeccable service and a destination cocktail bar, it’s the place to enjoy some luxury R’n’R before launching yourself into the Canadian wilderness.

Make Jasper your adventure base

Jasper Town (Liz Connor/PA)
Jasper Town (Liz Connor/PA)

It’s a scenic, four-hour drive from Edmonton to Jasper, the largest National Park in the Canadian Rockies with 11,000 square kilometres of untouched wilderness and one of the world’s largest accessible dark sky preserves. Here, you can appreciate twinkling constellations and, if you’re very lucky, the aurora borealis. If you’re keen to snap some of the night-time delights, I recommend taking a Night Photography Tour with Jasper Photo Tours (£86.53 for two hours; jasperphototours.com).

You’ll also need to hire a car to get around during your week in Alberta. Opt for a four by four with snow tyres, and you’ll need to be an experienced driver, as the roads can get rather hairy if the weather takes a turn.

Ice climbing (Liz Connor/PA)
Ice climbing (Liz Connor/PA)

Ice climbing is one of the more unusual winter thrills you can try in Alberta. Rockaboo Mountain Adventures offer day-trips (£129.75 per person for six hours; rockaboo.ca) that involve a hike through Jasper National Park to a hidden frozen waterfall, where you can safely have a go at heaving yourself up the rugged sheet of ice using crampons and ice axes. Exhilarating and terrifying all at once, it’s one of those incredible travel memories that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be talking about for years to come.

I spend another memorable day trip on an Ice Bubbles Tour with Pursuit Adventures (£72.11 per person; pursuitadventures.ca), hiking my way to the ice bubbles of Abraham Lake and the narrow canyon of the Cline River. In the winter, methane ice bubbles become trapped underneath the frozen lake, and it’s an incredible natural phenomenon to witness against the dramatic backdrop of Abraham mountain.

Jasper itself is a sweet little Alpine town with lots of cute shops and cafes to dip in and out of, and there’s even a wellness centre (jasperwellness.ca) with yoga and meditation classes. When it’s time to bed down, head to the Mount Robson Inn, a sweet little motel with outdoor hot tubs and views of the spectacular mountain ranges surrounding the town.

Ski and snowshoe in Banff and Lake Louise

Banff Town (Liz Connor/PA)
Banff Town (Liz Connor/PA)

I continue my journey south towards Banff and Lake Louise, a haven for anyone looking for a true Canadian adventure. Known for having some of the finest ski powder in the world, Banff is Canada’s first national park (named in 1885) and today is part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. The three-hour drive itself is regarded as one of the most scenic in the world, and it takes on a different kind of beauty in the winter, when everything is covered in a fresh sheet of snow.

The iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel is the place to stay in the area. The hotel is a luxury mountain resort that famously overlooks the frozen lake and its surrounding soaring mountain peaks.

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With an average annual snowfall of 13 feet, the snowy trails around Banff National Park are just the place to try snowshoeing, a giggle-inducing activity that involves wearing footwear that looks and feels like strapping on two mini skis (the hotel can arrange this for you at an extra cost; £37 for three hours). The idea is that the weight-distributing shoes stop you from sinking into the snow, but there are inevitably slips, skids and hilarious wipe-outs as you attempt to tramp your way through the harsh winter conditions.

I also try skiing at Lake Louise ski resort. With 4,200 skiable acres, Lake Louise is one of the largest ski areas in North America, with gentle slopes for beginners, right up to chutes, glades and gullies for experts. I rent my gear from the SkiBig3 Adventure Hub in the town, and while in store, you can book ski school lessons and purchase lift tickets (a single day lift ticket is £69).

Liz Connor skiing in Lake Louise (Liz Connor/PA)
Liz Connor skiing in Lake Louise (Liz Connor/PA)

With incredible views of the Rocky mountains and crisp blue skies overhead, the resort – which enjoys endless powder – is a memorable place to find your ski legs. Within a morning of tuition, I’m already navigating the bunny slopes with ease and itching to take on steeper challenges.

Elsewhere, Banff has its own sky gondola (£30 for a return journey) that takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, which offers panoramic views of the Rockies. If you can stomach the vertigo, make a booking at the Sky Bistro (banffjaspercollection.com) – a dining sanctuary in the sky with locally-sourced meats and produce, and an extensive wine list (mains from £18).

Before making the final drive to Calgary airport, a one-and-a-half hour car journey from Lake Louise, there’s one last winter challenge to take on – snow tubing. The adrenaline-fuelled sport involves sandwiching yourself into an inflatable rubber ring with up to three other people and holding on for dear life as you’re launched down a snowy hill.

Snow tubing (Liz Connor/PA)
Snow tubing (Liz Connor/PA)

Expect a fair amount of screaming and swearing, but plenty of laughs along the way if you choose to round off your trip with a visit to Mount Norquay (£22.50 per person for a two-and-a-half-hour session; banffnorquay.com).

Summer might be the most popular time to photograph Alberta, but winter really is the best way to experience it. Whether you sled, snowboard, snowshoe or tube your way around the landscape, it’s an exhilarating breath of fresh air that you’re sure to want to revisit for many more winters to come.

How to plan your tripBon Voyage (bon-voyage.co.uk; 0800 316 3012) offers an 11-night fly-drive holiday to the Canadian Rockies from £2,395 per person, based on two adults travelling. Valid for travel in February 2022, the package includes room-only accommodation, return economy flights from London to Calgary, some activities and 4×4 car hire rental.

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