Parks, Valleys, and Natural Areas in Alberta, Canada

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Photography © Leigh McAdam

125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta(Firefly, 2018) by Leigh McAdam and Debbie Olsen, is filled with ideas for your next vacation. Find a National Park or hot spot for you and your family to enjoy. McAdam and Olsen have provided beautiful photos and plenty of ideas for you to choose from.

Jasper National Park – Maligne Valley

Carved by ancient glaciers, the Maligne Valley contains some of the most spectacular scenery in the Canadian Rockies and is home to a wide variety of plants and animals.

The Maligne Valley is one of the most geologically fascinating regions of the Canadian Rockies. Shaped by ancient glaciers, the U-shaped valley is more than 58 kilometres long and a little more than 1.6 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, and fea­tures two key areas — Maligne Lake Valley and Maligne River Valley. It’s also one of the best places in Jasper National Park for viewing wildlife. Watch for moose and bears as you travel along Maligne Lake Road.

Maligne Lake is the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies, and it was well known to the area’s First Nations. Mary Schäffer was the first non-native explorer to visit the lake and was credited with its discovery in 1907. Female explorers were rare in those days. She first travelled to the area with her husband, and together they worked on a book about the flowers of the Canadian Rockies. After his death, she returned to com­plete the work and discovered the lake; she returned again to survey the area at the request of the Canadian government. It was during that visit that she named the lake and several of the surrounding mountains and peaks. Schäffer named Opal Hills after the vibrant array of wildflowers in that area — look for heart leaved arnica, globe flower and western anemone as you hike the Opal Hills Trail.

You can rent canoes at the lake and enjoy a peaceful paddle or take Brewster Travel Canada’s 90-minute boat cruise to Spirit Island, one of the most photographed views in the Rockies. When Kodak introduced colour film they held a photo contest, and a picture of Spirit Island was the winner. The picture was displayed in their ad at New York’s Penn Station for many years and became one of the park’s iconic images.

Maligne Canyon is the highlight of the Maligne River Valley. Hikers can follow a 4.4 kilometre (return) pathway that winds along the canyon edge to spectacular viewpoints and over six bridges. Many hikers stop after the second or third bridge and miss the natural springs that can be found between the fifth and sixth bridges. The canyon is impressive in every season. In the winter, guided ice walks offered by several tour compa­nies provide a unique perspec­tive from the canyon floor.

Medicine Lake is another must-see site. It is also known as the disappearing lake. A unique drainage system causes the water level to fluctuate dramatically from season to season — sometimes disappearing altogether. First Nations people once believed that spirits were respon­sible for this astounding phenomenon.

There are several wonderful hikes that depart from or traverse the Maligne Valley, including the Opal Hills Loop, the Bald Hills Trail and the iconic Skyline Trail, one of the premiere backpacking trails in the Canadian Rockies. With 25 kilometres of trail at or above the treeline, this trail is well known for its scenic views. Maligne Adventures (maligneadventures.com) offers a hiking shuttle service that provides one-way trans­portation between the trail­heads of the Skyline Trail.

What Makes This Spot Hot?

  • Wonderful scenery, including spectacular geological features unique in the world.
  • Excellent area for spotting wildlife.
  • Maligne Lake is Jasper’s largest lake and the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies.

Address: Lat: 52.6654° N; Long: −117.5345° W (Maligne Lake)

Tel: (780) 852-6236

Website: parkscanada.ca/jasper

Open: Year-round

Waterton Lakes National Park

Where the prairies meet the mountains, this small Rocky Mountain park in the southwest corner of Alberta is big on scenery, wildlife and recreation.

The old saying “good things come in small packages” holds true when you look at Waterton Lakes National Park. At 505 square kilometres, Waterton is the smallest of the Canadian Rocky Mountain National Parks, but it’s also one of the most diverse parks in the national parks system.

Located in a region known as the Crown of the Continent, this park contains beautiful scenery and a vast array of flora and fauna. Over half of Alberta’s plant species can be found inside the park and there are more than 175 pro­vincially rare plants here, such as mountain lady’s slipper, pygmy poppy and mountain hollyhock. An annual spring wildflower festival celebrates the diversity of plant life in the park.

There is also an incredible array of wildlife to be found. More than 60 species of mam­mals, 250 species of birds, 24 species of fish and 10 species of reptiles and amphibians can be found in the park. Large predators include grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes and cougars. Visit the bison paddock just inside the park boundary to see bison grazing in their natural habitat. Wild­life is celebrated at an annual autumn festival.

In 1932, Waterton became part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, a symbol of peace and goodwill between Canada and the United States. You can take a two-hour cruise (watertoncruise.com) from the Canadian side of Upper Water­ton Lake to the American side of the lake. If you want to hike on the American side, you will have to bring a passport and clear United States Customs at the Goat Haunt port of entry. It’s common to see moose on the 4 kilometre Kootenai Lakes hike that departs from Goat Haunt.

There are many wonderful hikes in Waterton, includ­ing Bear’s Hump, Crandell Lake, Rowe Lakes, the Carthew-Alderson Trail and the famous Crypt Lake Hike. In 2014, National Geographic rated the Crypt Lake Trail one of the “World’s 20 Most Thrill­ing Trails.” This unique hike features a 15-minute boat ride across Upper Waterton Lake to the trailhead at Crypt Landing. You’ll pass four waterfalls, climb a steel ladder, crawl through an 18 metre tunnel and maneuver around a cliff using a steel cable before you arrive at beautiful Crypt Lake. 

Did You Know?

In September 2017, a massive wildfire swept through Waterton Lakes National Park. Thanks to the incredible efforts of firefighters, the Waterton townsite was spared, but there was damage to other parts of the park. The visitor centre and the east gate warden station both burned down and Crandall campground was significantly impacted by the fire. The bison paddock was also damaged. While it is devastating to lose infrastructure, fire is a natural phenomenon that plays a vital role in renewing the forest ecosystem. The flora and fauna will return. Those who visit in 2018 should call ahead to ensure the areas of the park they plan to visit are open.

What Makes This Spot Hot?

  • Fantastic mountain scenery and a wide array of year-round recreational opportunities.
  • Excellent conditions for spotting wildlife; the prairies run up the sides of the mountains, making for easy viewing from roadways.
  • The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was the first park of its kind in the world.
  • A boat cruise can take you from Waterton into Glacier National Park in Montana, USA.

Address: Lat: 49.0603° N; Long: −113.9085° W (Parks Canada Visitor Information Centre)

Tel: (403) 859-5133

Website: parkscanada.ca/ waterton

Open: Year-round

Beehive Natural Area

Established in 1987, this natural area protects old-growth forests and the headwaters of the Oldman Rover.

There are only a few places on our planet where you can stand in the middle of a big landscape and grasp a sense of your own smallness. In such moments, you can see beyond the mundane tasks and pressures of everyday life and find your own place in a vast universe.

The mountains and old-growth forests of Beehive Natural Area provide a habitat for rare and sensitive species in a larger-than-life landscape. The spruce-fir forests have been there for about 1,000 years. Individual trees can be as old as 300 years, but the forest is more than just a collection of really old trees. An old-growth forest is a complex system of intercon­nected species. The protection of old-growth forests is vital to the survival of these species and to the health of our planet. Species like the pileated wood­pecker and the northern flying squirrel count on old-growth forests to survive.

At 6,734 hectares, the Bee­hive Natural Area contains a variety of habitats. In addition to the old-growth forest, there are lodgepole pine forests, grasslands, alpine areas and meadows. Rare plants and animals have been found in a number of areas. Some of the rare and sensitive species that might be seen include the grizzly bear, Canada lynx, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, common nighthawk, pileated woodpecker, yellow angelica, lance-leafed grape fern, Rocky Mountain willowherb, and blunt-fruited sweet cicely.

This natural area is a summer range for elk and contains lambing sites for bighorn sheep. Birding is popular, and wood warblers, rosy finches, Hammond’s flycatchers, Clark’s nutcrackers and white-tailed ptarmigans are often spotted. The Great Divide Trail runs through the treeline of the natural area, and crosses the Oldman River at its northern boundary.

 What Makes This Spot Hot?

  • Stunning Rocky Mountain scenery that includes the Beehive Klippe landform.
  • Diverse habitats, including old-growth spruce-fir forests believed to be more than 1,000 years old.
  • Home to rare and sensitive species.

Address: Lat: 50.0649° N; Long: −114.6488° W

Tel: (403) 382-4097

Website: albertaparks.ca/ beehive

Open: Year-round


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