From the towering Rockies to the wide-open prairies, hitting the road for an Alberta road trip is the ultimate way to explore the province. Places like Banff, Jasper and Kananaskis are deservedly popular, so savvy locals know that the best way to escape the crowds and explore the outdoors is by heading south.
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UNESCO sites, spectacular waterfalls, rolling foothills and quirky photo-ops are just a short drive from Calgary, making it possible to explore spots along the Cowboy Trail, the Crowsnest Pass and Waterton Lakes National Park in just a day or two. Here are some of the best stops on a southern Alberta road trip.
The Saskatoon Farm
This sweet spot is a great day trip for families, thanks to its U-pick, beautiful gardens and yummy dining options. It’s also a popular wedding venue.
The Saskatoon Farm is found on the banks of the Sheep and Highwood River near Okotoks, which is a 30 minute drive from Calgary. Owners Paul and Karen Hamer planted the first seedlings more than three decades ago, and the property now has shrubs, trees, plants, a greenhouse, giftshop, cafe and restaurant.
During the summer, grab a bucket and pick berries, black currants and sour cherries. Saskatoon berries usually ripen in mid-July, and the currants and cherries follow a couple weeks later. Throughout the year, pick up fresh juices, hearty soup and ice cream in the bakery, as well as homemade treats like scones, tarts, bread, cookies and pie. There’s also a restaurant, which is a great spot for a weekend brunch.
This small southern Alberta town is big on charm, which is perhaps best known for its antique stores and old fashioned candy shop.
Highway 2 goes right through the historic main street, which is lined with shops and cafes including Sentimental Journeys Antiques. Housed in the Keeley Building which was built in 1909, it’s had many uses over the years including as a hardware store, a meeting and social hall, and a residence for officers assigned to the nearby aircrew training base during the war.
Today, the brick building holds the antique store which has 9,000 square feet chock-full of furniture, fine china, books, old tools and trunks, and is a treasure trove for collectors.
Other things to see in Nanton include:
- Nanton Candy: Satisfy your sweet tooth with the likes of Whirly Pops, Candy Corn and juicy gum balls, at this candy shop that specializes in nostalgic, hard-to-find treats. They also sell cute collectibles and antiques.
- The Bomber Command Museum of Canada: This aviation museum was founded in the 1980s to preserve the town’s Avro Lancaster FM159, which is one of only 17 remaining in the world. There is now a large collection of rare aircrafts on display and restoration projects underway, including some used by the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the war.
Just outside the town of Nanton, there’s a turnoff heading west down Highway 533 toward Chain Lakes Provincial Park which has sweeping views of the rolling foothills framed by the white-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It eventually links up with Alberta’s Cowboy Trail (Hwy 22), and you might even spot deer or moose grazing in the woods.
Turn onto Highway 3, and a few minutes later you’ll see a sign for Lundbreck Falls, which is a hidden gem of sorts where a spectacular set of waterfalls pools into the canyon below. A day use area is located just down the road from the turnoff, and there’s an observation platform where visitors can see the powerful Crowsnest River plunge 12 metres over a cliffside.
In warmer months, follow the short trail down into the limestone gorge to see the turquoise falls from below and the beautiful arched bridge. Lundbreck Falls is phenomenal in winter, when sparkling ice crystals form on top and create a dazzling display.
The Burmis Tree
Continuing into the Crowsnest Pass, the next stop is just a minute down the road where you’ll find…a dead tree.
This quirky landmark may not look like much, yet it’s considered an important part of Alberta’s heritage. The Burmis tree is a limber pine that stood for hundreds of years before eventually losing its needles in the 70’s, and marks the site of a former town called Burmis.
Locals remain dedicated to caring for the spindly tree, which strangely enough is said to be one of the most photographed in Canada.
The Burmis tree can be seen from the road, and there’s a large blue sign explaining some of the history. There’s no official parking area, so safely pull over onto the shoulder of the highway if you want to get out.
The next stop is a quick one with an Instagram-worthy backdrop, found just another minute down the road at Leitch Collieries.
This former coal processing plant operated here between 1907 and 1915, and was once considered one of the most impressive mines in the Crowsnest Pass before spiraling into debt during World War I. Much of the abandoned site was sold off as scrap metal during the next war, and today only a shell of the site remains.
Photographers love it nonetheless, thanks to impressive architectural features like strong beams, large archways, brick walls and a wooden bridge. Visitors are welcome to explore at their own pace, and admission is free.
One of the top things to do in Crowsnest Pass is stopping at Frank Slide, which marks one of the darkest days in Alberta history. Back in 1903, a rockslide from nearby Turtle Mountain tumbled down on a small coal mining community called Frank, killing nearly 100 people and making it Canada’s deadliest rockslide to date.
You don’t even need to get out of your vehicle to see the destruction, since Highway 3 goes right through the piles of massive boulders that still remain to this day. An interpretive centre on site details the tragedy and the history of resource extraction and coal mining in Alberta, and there’s a 1.5 kilometre trail that winds through the huge rocks.
Globe Guide tip: If you want to tack on a quick, easy hike, head another 20 minutes west down Hwy 3 to Star Creek Falls. The easy one mile loop has views of Crowsnest Mountain, and leads to a set of waterfalls set into a 75 metre deep canyon.
The next stop on this southern Alberta road trip is the town of Pincher Creek, which has a dramatic landscape of vast prairies framed by the towering Rocky Mountains. It’s also the gateway to fun adventures, including hiking in Castle Provincial Park and windsurfing at the Oldman Dam.
Things to do in Pincher Creek or nearby include:
- Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village: This site was named after local frontiersman John George “Kootenai” Brown, who spearheaded the establishment and conservation of nearby Waterton Lakes National Park. It features two museums and 24 heritage buildings dating back to the 19th century, and is a fun place to learn more about the area’s history.
- Castle Provincial Park: Hiking trails, waterfalls, lookout points and campsites make this pristine area a fun getaway. For epic views, tackle the nine kilometre Table Mountain Trail which winds through sub-alpine forests, past a picturesque mountain creek and up to the top of the ridge for a birds-eye view of the peaks and prairies. After, cool off with a dip at Castle Falls.
Waterton Lakes National Park
The cute waterfront town of Waterton serves as the base for adventures in Waterton Lakes National Park, which is so far south it borders Montana’s Glacier National Park.
Known for its gorgeous lakes framed by soaring mountain peaks, the best way to explore is to head out for a paddle on the water or tackle the trails.
Some of the best things to do in Waterton are:
Cameron Lake: Rent a canoe, kayak, peddle boat or SUP and enjoy a sun-soaked day exploring the shoreline. The spring-fed lake is 16 km from town on the Akamina Parkway, and wildlife spotting includes the likes of deer, moose and bears.
Waterton Shoreline Cruise Co.: The M.V. International is the oldest passenger ship still operating in Canada, and takes visitors on two-hour scenic cruises around Waterton Lake. There’s also an option to get off and hike Crypt Lake or Vimy Peak, which makes this one of the top Waterton attractions.
Waterton hiking trails: One of the best Waterton hikes is Bears Hump, which has one of the best views in the park. The short but steep climb up Crandell Mountain takes about an hour, and the reward once you reach the flat top of the ‘hump’ are panoramic views of the Waterton Valley. Other popular trails include the Goat Lake Trail and Mount Galwey, and there are options for all ages and skill levels.
Cameron Falls: The set of falls is found right in town, and while they’re beautiful year round those who time their visit might get to see a natural phenomenon where they turn bright pink! It sometimes happens after a heavy rainfall, when sediment is stirred up that has a rose-coloured hue when the light hits it.
Places to stay in Waterton
Waterton is a great place to spend a night or two, and there’s a range of accommodation options from camping to lodge stays.
- The Prince of Wales Hotel: This iconic property was built in 1927 by the Great Northern Railway, and has a prized perch in the heart of Waterton. Rooms have a historic feel to them, and the afternoon tea is a favourite activity for guests. Click here to book
- Waterton Lakes Lodge Resort: Located right in town, some rooms are recently updated and resort amenities include an indoor pool and hot tub and ski/snowboard rentals. Click here to book
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Cap off your southern Alberta road trip by visiting Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s one of the province’s most historical treasures.
Found near Fort Macleod, it’s one of the world’s biggest, oldest and best preserved buffalo jumps, and the exhibition site details how the Plains People used the area for buffalo hunting, the significance of the cliff, and the work of archaeologists to preserve more than 6,000 years of Plains Buffalo culture.
While there’s an admission fee to visit the interpretive centre, access to the surrounding trails is free.
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