A good walk can be a mini-vacation. It allows you to literally step away from your hectic life for an hour or two, to fill your lungs with good air, and to reconnect with the natural world around you. And, no matter where you are in Alberta, that world is beautiful indeed.
Photo Courtesy Parks Canada
Walking just might be the ideal fitness activity. It requires no gym membership, no expensive equipment, and no special abilities (assuming you don’t have mobility issues). All you need is a comfortable, sturdy pair of shoes.
I have always loved going for walks. As a kid, I walked with my parents. As a parent, I walked with my kids. I have hiked mountain trails with a 25-kilogram backpack, and patiently dawdled through urban parks with toddlers.
In my mind, the map of Alberta is criss-crossed with favourite places to walk. In the space of a few paragraphs, it would be impossible to even begin to list them. Instead, I’ll start you off with five of my favourites, representing a variety of regions, terrain and difficulty. After that, you’re on your own!
CALGARY: Weaselhead Flats
GETTING THERE: Parking lot at 66 Avenue & 37 Street SW
There’s something magical about escaping a city without leaving its boundaries. At Weaselhead Flats, get just a few steps away from the main parking lot and you’ll forget that you’re just minutes from downtown Calgary.
Weaselhead Flats encompasses the area where the meandering Elbow River spreads out into an inland delta as it flows into the Glenmore Reservoir. In the course of your walk, you’ll wander through wetlands, shoreline, deciduous forest, and a huge stand of white spruce – encountering distinct species of plant, animal and bird life in each area. Because the park borders on the countryside, you may be lucky enough to spot deer, coyotes, moose, or even a black bear.
A lovely paved trail and boardwalk loops its way through Weaselhead, but consider escaping onto the many side trails that branch off on either side – particularly when the main trail is busy, as it often is in fine weather. With the endless variety of available routes, and the changing seasons (including winter, particularly if you’re a cross-country skier), every Weaselhead visit can feel like the first.
EDMONTON: Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary
GETTING THERE: From Highway 60, travel 1.6 kilometres west on Woodbend Road (13.2 kilometres south of Highway 16A), and then south onto Sanctuary Road for 1.4 kilometres.
As a lifetime Edmontonian, I love my city’s vast network of river valley trails. When I was an at-home dad of two little girls, however, I discovered this hidden gem just southwest of town. We’d throw a few snacks into a daypack, jump into the car, and half an hour later we’d be on our own little nature adventure.
My girls loved the sanctuary’s main feature, a raised boardwalk through a marsh and around a large pond. We’d while away the afternoon sitting on the boardwalk and viewing platforms, dangling our legs over the edge, trying to glimpse some of the many species of waterfowl described on the interpretive signs, and – yes – eating our goodies. Later, we’d follow the sandy trails leading away from the wetland through grasses and wildflowers and into mixed forest.
Although we sometimes encountered another person or two on the trail, we usually had the place to ourselves. My kids grew into young adults, and we occasionally make nostalgic pilgrimages back to The Lee. It really feels like our place – a sanctuary, indeed.
ELK ISLAND NATIONAL PARK: Amisk Wuche Trail (Photo Courtesy Parks Canada)
GETTING THERE: About 16 kilometres north of the main park gates, just past the Astotin Lake turnoff.
Elk Island National Park may be overshadowed by its more glamorous mountain cousins, but it’s a walker’s paradise. A network of trails, from paved and easy to wild and challenging, offer options for hikers of every age and ability (some are even wheelchair accessible). I’m focusing on just one trail, but I have hiked most of them and would enthusiastically recommend them all.
“Amisk Wuche” is Cree for “Beaver Hills” and, true to its name, this 2.5-kilometre trail meanders through wetlands and up and over several reasonably steep climbs. You may even encounter live beaver along the way; in any case you’ll see plenty of evidence that they’re around. If you have kids with you, get them to look for lodges and chewed stumps as you cross several beaver ponds on floating boardwalks. Later, the trail winds over the surrounding hills, through birch, aspen and spruce forest, giving everyone a bit of a workout before you get back to the car.
In August, if it’s a good year for berries, saskatoon bushes along Amisk Wuche hang heavy with fruit. A trail with built-in snacks.
BANFF: Tunnel Mountain (Paul Zizka, Banff Lake Louise Tourism)
GETTING THERE: Parking lot and trailhead on the north side of St. Julien Road. In summer, an upper trailhead on Tunnel Mountain Drive provides a slightly shorter option.
This busy trail may not qualify as a hidden treasure, but it’s definitely popular for a reason. Well-maintained and relatively short (2.4 kilometres one way), it nevertheless offers spectacular views and a satisfying, somewhat challenging, climb with a 260-metre elevation gain. Assuming you’re reasonably fit, two hours should allow you plenty of time for photo stops along the way, plus a good break to enjoy the summit.
Tunnel Mountain gets its rather ironic name from a railway tunnel that was proposed in the 1880s but was never built. The trail starts off with a series of switchbacks up the forested hillside, and in almost no time you find yourself enjoying a panoramic view of the Banff Centre, the Bow River and the Banff Springs Hotel beyond. From there, the scenery only gets better. The trail jogs east along a rocky ridge, high above the Banff Springs Golf Course, with Mount Rundle in the distance. Then, at the top, park yourself on a rock and soak up the 360-degree vista, including a birds-eye view of downtown.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK: Sulphur Skyline
GETTING THERE: Park at Miette Hot Springs, and look for the trailhead to the right of the pool entrance.
This is my favourite half-day hike in the Canadian Rockies – and I’ve done a lot of them. It’s perfect for determined youngsters, active seniors, and everyone in between. Less-experienced hikers may find the climb a bit arduous (the 700-metre elevation gain makes it feel at times like a 90-minute StairMaster) but the payoff-to-effort ratio is unsurpassed. As long as you bring food, plus plenty of water (there’s none on the trail), you’ll be just fine. Best of all, the return trip (about 4.5 kilometres one way) is all downhill, with a hot springs soak awaiting you at the bottom.
The hike starts with a steady climb through a forested valley for about 2.5 kilometres, before branching right at a well-marked, T-intersection. Then, as you head up a long series of switchbacks, with benches thoughtfully placed along the way, the views get increasingly spectacular. A lovely meadow, dominated by a huge white boulder provides a great spot to rest up for the final push to the summit. (If you want to impress you companions, the boulder is called “glacial erratic,” carried there then left behind by a long-ago glacier.) At the summit, you’ll find yourself at one of the most breathtaking picnic spots on the planet, with the amazing Ashlar Ridge stretching far to the west, and a dizzying visual plunge down to the Fiddle River Valley to the east. Feel free to thank me later.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (Bruno Di Lalla)
Help! I just can’t stop at five. Here’s a quick shout out to Horseshoe Canyon (Drumheller), Beaver Boardwalk (Hinton), Bear’s Hump (Waterton), Waskasoo Park (Red Deer), Police Point Park (Medicine Hat), Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park (Lac la Biche), and Muskoseepi Park (Grande Prairie). And, I’m still just barely scratching the surface.
For more information about these and other trails in Alberta visit www.albertatrailnet.com