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Of Canada’s 38 national parks, four of them are located in Alberta, and another is shared between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. These five Alberta national parks preserve some 63,000 square kilometers of wilderness space, an area larger than the country of Croatia, and four out of five of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The entire Canadian national parks system in fact began in Alberta, when in 1885 a hot spring discovered by Canadian Pacific Railway Workers was protected as the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. Two years later, it was expanded to become Rocky Mountain Park, Canada’s first national park, now called Banff National Park.
Today the five national parks in Alberta encompass a staggering wealth of wildlife, natural resources, and landscapes. These include towering peaks, immense glaciers, pristine lakes, thundering waterfalls, karst sinkholes, salt plains, vast swaths of boreal forest, the world’s two largest dark sky preserves (ideal for seeing Northern Lights), and the world’s largest herd of wood bison.
Unsurprisingly, these national parks feature prominently on my Alberta bucket list. Before you visit any of these national parks, don’t forget to pick up a Parks Canada Discovery Pass. The pass is valid at all national parks in Canada for one year and pays for itself after seven days spent in any national park.
So, without further ado, here are the five national parks of Alberta, in order from most to least visited.
1. Banff National Park
– 4M+ visitors per year
– Size: 6,641 km²
Banff is where it all began, so it’s only fair that it remains Alberta’s (and Canada’s) most visited national park to this day.
Banff National Park offers the quintessential Canadian Rockies experience, from dramatic snow-capped peaks & turquoise glacial lakes to historic castle-like hotels & some of the best skiing in the world. On top of that, you are practically guaranteed to spot some wildlife. Banff Townsite is the archetypal mountain tourist resort town, complete with maple syrup souvenirs galore and elk hanging out on the sidewalks.
See here for my recommendations on how to spend 3 days in Banff National Park.
Banff is located on the Trans-Canada Highway, about 1.5 hour’s drive west of Calgary. Rocky Mountaineer also runs luxury 2 to 4-day trains from Vancouver to Banff which travel in the daytime only so you can enjoy all the scenery along the way.
Banff National Park Highlights
- Banff Springs Hotel
- Cave & Basin National Historic Site
- Banff Park Museum National Historic Site
- Upper Hot Springs
- Banff Goldola
- Johnston Canyon
- Lake Louise
- Moraine Lake
- Peyto Lake
- Skiing at Lake Louise, Norquay, & Sunshine Village
- Spirits & cocktails at Park Distillery
2. Jasper National Park
– 2.5M visitors per year
– Size: 10,878 km²
Jasper National Park lies to the north of Banff, and the two are connected by the Icefields Parkway, said to be the world’s most beautiful drive. Jasper features Rocky Mountain scenery that rivals that of Banff, but spread over a larger area and with fewer tourists. Jasper townsite is more rustic and laid-back than Banff.
Comparisons to Banff aside, Jasper National Park has pretty much everything going for it: abundant wildlife, waterfalls & lakes at every turn, awesome hiking, and the most famous glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Jasper is also the world’s second largest dark sky preserves, so it’s a great spot to see Northern Lights. With its rustic charm, snowy landscapes, awesome winter sports, and more, Jasper is arguable one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas.
Jasper is a 3.5-hour drive southwest of Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta. You can also ride VIA Rail from Vancouver to Jasper in about 19 hours, which is more affordable than the luxury trains to Banff.
Jasper National Park Highlights
- Jasper Skytram
- Patricia, Pyramid, & Maligne Lakes
- Maligne Canyon
- Miette Hot Spring
- Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls
- Athabasca Glacier (Columbia Icefield)
- Skiing at Marmot Basin
- Beer at Jasper Brewing
3. Waterton Lakes National Park
– 400,000 visitors per year
– Size: 505 km²
Alberta’s third and far lesser-known Rocky Mountain national park is Waterton Lakes National Park. The park is located in the southwestern corner of Alberta and together with Glacier National Park in Montana, USA, it forms the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
What Waterton lacks in size compared to Jasper and Banff it makes up for in breadth of sights and activities. The park is particularly known for its colorful wildflowers and rocks. Hikers will especially love Waterton Lakes National Park, or anyone looking to experience some Rocky Mountain Wilderness without the tourist crowds of Jasper and Banff.
Waterton Lakes National Park is a three-hour drive south of Calgary or 1.5 hour drive from Lethbridge. It can also be accessed from British Columbia via Crowsnest Pass or Glacier Park in the United States via Carway Border Crossing (once borders between Canada and the US are opened to travelers, of course).
Waterton Lakes National Park Highlights
- Upper, Middle & Lower Waterton Lakes
- Waterton Village
- View of Prince of Wales Hotel
- Cameron Falls & Bertha Falls
- Crypt Lake Trail & Hellroaring Falls
- Red Rock Canyon
- Cameron Lake
4. Elk Island National Park
– 370,000 visitors per year
– Size: 194 km²
Elk Island National Park, just outside of Edmonton, is the smallest national park in Alberta and the only one that is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Still, the park plays a vital role in the international effort to conserve the bison. Over 300 wood bison, a species that once almost went extinct, live on one side of the highway that divides Elk Island, and 400+ plains bison live on the other. Visitors to the park are practically guaranteed to see the animals during their visit.
Besides bison, the park is home to elk, coyote, moose, porcupines deer, beaver, wolves, and black bears. For Edmontonians, Elk Island National Park is also a great place for a quick natural escape from the city, camping, or seeing shooting stars at night.
Elk Island National Park Highlights
- Bison Loop Road
- Tawayik and Astotin Lakes
- Camping at Astotin Lake or Oster Lake
- Watching for shooting stars or Northern Lights
- Hiking & wildlife viewing
- Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village (located just outside the park)
5. Wood Buffalo National Park
– 4000 visitors per year
– Size: 44,807 km²
The largest, remotest, and least visited of Alberta’s national parks is Wood Buffalo National Park. This national park is immense in size and shared by Alberta and Northwest Territories. It is the largest national park in Canada, and second in the world only to Northeast Greenland National Park.
Wood Buffalo encompasses a vast area of boreal forest, the world’s largest freshwater delta, the world’s largest beaver dam (850 meters long!), vast salt plains, and karst sinkholes filled with water that you can even swim in. The park is also home to a massive array of wildlife, including loads of bears and the world’s largest herd of free-roaming bison. It is also the world’s largest dark sky preserve.
Very few people make it to Wood Buffalo because it is so far away from everything; you’ll need to fly or drive 15 hours from Edmonton to reach Fort Smith, the main access point to the park. A second access point is Fort Chipewyan, which you can also fly to from Edmonton or drive to from Fort McMurray (road open in winter only).
Wood Buffalo National Park Highlights
- Salt Plains Lookout
- Watching Northern Lights
- Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival
- Karstland Loop Trail (seeing sinkholes)
- South Loop Trail to Grosbeak Lake
- North Loop Trail to Salt Pan Lake
- Camping at Pine Lake
- Canoeing in Peace-Athabasca Delta
As you can see, the five Alberta national parks offer an unrivaled plethora of sights, landscapes, wildlife, and experiences. Even most Albertans haven’t been to all five of them. Take you pick, but with so much on offer, be prepare to sign up for a lifelong addiction of coming back again and again.