Besides the iconic Banff and Jasper National Parks on the Icefields Parkway, numerous other fascinating road trip destinations surround Alberta’s largest city. Before you go, ride to the Calgary Tower’s viewing area 627 feet above the city and picture what you’re about to see. If heights don’t faze you, stand on the glass floor section and watch the city’s bustle with a God’s-eye view. The tower is one of our five cool things to do in Calgary.
“Alberta,” the catchy official provincial song, says Alberta has it all. We can testify that it’s true. These are our favorite day trips from Calgary.
On the Albertan plains, you’ll go back to the future in Vulcan, the Official Star Trek Capital of Canada, and turn back time 3.9 billion years in the Drumheller Valley. In your mind, imagine bison’s thundering hooves running and crashing over the cliffs in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. Bask in the sunshine at Medicine Hat. Drive a highway where wildlife often outnumber people. Savor award-winning Gouda cheese at Sylvan Star Cheese.
Remember viewing the mountains from Calgary Tower? Enjoy the southern and western Rockies. Yoho National Park of Canada is on the Rockies’ western slope. Embrace Yoho’s quieter, less-crowded vibe. To the south, celebrate peace at the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
1. Vulcan, The Star Trek Capital of Canada
When the Canadian Pacific Railway founded Vulcan, an hour southeast of Calgary, officials named it for the Roman god of fire. From Roman times, the town leaped into the 22nd century and grabbed the planet Vulcan. On Star Trek, Vulcan was Mr. Spock’s home planet.
On our first Vulcan visit, we arrived after the Vulcan Tourism Trek Station had closed. Seeing the station and the Starship FX6-1995-A after dark somehow made the structures feel more real. Portraits of Star Trek’s stars are on a billboard next to the starship. Each portrait has a cutout around its head, enabling Trekkers to pose as their favorite character. During daylight hours, pack a picnic and eat at the table below the starship.
Inside the station, look for Star Trek props, actor and actress autographs. Find Mr. Spock’s bust a few blocks from the station and compare your hand span with his Vulcan salute. A mural portrays the series’s medical personnel and brave folks may enter the transporter. “Beam me up, Scotty!”
Pro Tip: Boldly go to the town’s annual Spock Days festival.
2. The Drumheller Valley: Dinosaur Capital Of The World
One and a half hours northeast of Calgary, the Drumheller Valley features dinosaurs, bizarre hoodoos, and the Atlas Coal Mine. Start your visit at towering, terrifying Tyra, the World’s Largest Dinosaur. At 86 feet tall, she’s 4.5-times larger than your average Tyrannosaurus Rex. After you recover from the sight, climb the 106 stairs to Tyra’s mouth.
Continue the dinosaur theme at Drumheller’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, one of our Best Places to Experience Dinosaurs In Canada. In the Palaezoic exhibit, a Dunkleosteus fish looks like a cross between a parrot and a snapping turtle. Watch out for the 69-foot long ichthyosaur resting in the Triassic Giant exhibit. A human would be only an appetizer for that beast. Allow at least 2 hours.
Going from dinosaurs to fossil fuels, see how Alberta powered its homes and industry in the 20th century. Site admission enables guests to tour the Atlas Coal Mine’s surface. To learn more, sign up for one of several tours. On the surface, ride the mine train, and learn how the mine processed coal. Climb the 125-foot gantry to the tipple’s top. Go below in the Underground Mining Experience. Please note the tours’ safety requirements and difficulty ratings.
Hoodoos pepper Drumheller’s landscape. Get personal with them in these badlands hiking options.
Pro Tip: Visitors swarm the area between May and August. Avoid the heat and crowds; visit in the off-season.
3. Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, Trochu
Dry Island preserved rich bone beds of Albertosaurus fossils, including some now on display at the Royal Tyrrell. Eons later, the Cree stampeded bison off the park’s 148-foot cliffs. The Red Deer River runs through the park, but the name Dry Island comes from the 722-foot mesa that towers above the river. Humans have never plowed the mesa’s top, and so it retains its native grasses.
The road descends steeply to the river and it turns treacherous during wet weather. At the river, unload a canoe and encounter the badlands from a totally different viewpoint. Watch for rocks, especially during the summer.
Trails are only loosely defined. Avoid the light gray bentonite clay in wet weather, it’s slippery. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it here.
In the fall, the flaming trees combine with the folded topography to turn the park into a spectacular landscape painting.
4. Medicine Hat
The sun shines brightly in Medicine Hat, Canada’s sunniest city, three hours southeast of Calgary. Calgary erected The Saamis Teepee to honor indigenous Canadians during the 1988 Winter Olympics. After the Olympics, Medicine Hat was awarded the giant structure. The teepee stands 20 stories high and is 160 feet wide. Ten storyboards explain the First Nations culture.
Some of the world’s largest sandstone boulders call Red Rocks home. Because the rocks formed at the bottom of ancient seas, sharp-eyed visitors may find fossil bones, leaves, and shells. Indigenous peoples camped there, leaving numerous artifacts.
The Medalta pottery factory once exported its wares throughout the world. Now it’s a time capsule preserving western Canada’s Industrial Revolution. Look for ceramics artists in residence and peruse their wares. My husband bought a Medalta bean pot for my Christmas present. It contributes to the tastiest soups ever.
5. Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site (And The David Thompson Highway)
Rocky Mountain House (RMH), 2.5 hours northeast of Calgary, was a magical experience. We entered the backside of the historic site because of a mistaken GPS. We tailgated within earshot of the North Saskatchewan River. As we walked toward the main entrance, RMH history unfolded before us. We viewed the trading posts as they occurred in history, then arrived at the Métis village. What a delight! We learned how to prepare a hide, cook a bannock, and make a drum. The historic site offers numerous camping options.
After we left RMH, we headed to the Icefields Parkway on Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway. Thompson was an early explorer who mapped more territory than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In our 2-hour drive, we met only one car. Instead, an elk ran beside our car and bighorn sheep and lambs cavorted beside Abraham Lake as if we weren’t there.
6. Sylvan Star Cheese Farm, Red Deer County
On your way to RMH, stop at Sylvan Star Cheese. After they moved to Canada from The Netherlands, the Schalkwyk family struggled to find quality Gouda cheese. So they crafted their own. It’s some of the best cheese we’ve ever eaten. Tour the factory 1.5 hours north of Calgary and buy some cheese. From Calgary, Sylvan Star is halfway to Edmonton, Alberta’s capital.
7. Yoho National Park of Canada, Field, B.C.
On the Rockies’ British Columbia side, visit Yoho National Park, 2 hours west of Calgary. Between Banff and Yoho, the road cuts through Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site. At the viewpoints, stop to watch trains disappear and reappear in the Spiral Tunnels. The easy 0.75-mile Walk in the Past trail leads to an abandoned locomotive.
Numerous waterfalls stream over Yoho’s cliffs. Start with Canada’s second-highest waterfall, the 258-foot Takakkaw Falls with its waterwheel. “Takakkaw” means “magnificent” in Cree. The 20-minute walk from the parking lot is mostly paved and easy until you reach the waterfall’s base. You may also hike to Laughing and Wapta falls. Canoe on peaceful Emerald Lake or stroll the gentle 3.23-mile lakeshore trail.
8. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, Waterton Lakes
Two and a half hours southwest of Calgary, the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park anchors the Rockies as they span the US-Canadian border. Waterton Lakes is the Canadian side of the peace park and is quieter without Glacier’s tourist hordes. The fabulous Prince of Wales Hotel is the park’s centerpiece. You must enjoy afternoon tea in the hotel’s Royal Steward Dining Room. Outdoors, hike, ride a horse, enjoy a boat tour, kayak, or paddleboard.
In the winter, Waterton Lakes is nearly deserted — by people. Wildlife is everywhere. Still, the park remains in business with these winter activities.
From May 15 to September 30, cross the border directly into Glacier National Park at the Chief Mountain Crossing. Alternatively, drive 2.5 hours southeast of Calgary to Cardston, Alberta, and visit the Remington Carriage Museum before entering Glacier’s east side.
Pro Tip: When planning a trip to Canada, remember that many seasonal attractions close or reduce their hours after Canadian Thanksgiving, the second Monday in October, through mid-May.
The Calgary area and western Canada are filled with forested mountains, glaciers, sparkling rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife: