A rocky vista at Dinosaur Provincial Park (photo: Leigh McAdam/Travel Alberta)

Off-the-Rockies Alberta Hiking Trails

By Craig Moy

Each summer, the Rockies beckon outdoorsy Albertans to hike the region’s myriad beautiful, challenging trails. But the mountains are hardly the only place to go for good long walk. Nature lovers can score a great stroll in the southern planes, the northern forests, the Badlands and everywhere in between. So grab a water bottle and some energy bars, lace up your most rugged shoes, and set out on these excellent off-the-Rockies Alberta hiking trails. AMA members can pick up a 2017 Parks Canada discovery pass at AMA centres, for free entry into national parks in Alberta and across the country. You don’t need a car to enjoy the many benefits of AMA membership—just a card.

BADLANDS TRAIL
An easy stroll along this short interpretive trail nonetheless yields numerous rewards. The trailhead of the 1.3-kilometre-long route is just off the public loop road at Dinosaur Provincial Park, 12 kilometres outside the hamlet of Patricia. It runs adjacent to the park’s Natural Preserve, and as such affords great views of the hoodoo- and wildflower-filled landscape. Informative signage details the history and paleontological significance of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Good to know: For even more enlightenment—and a chance to see real dinosaur bones—pre-register for a guided tour through some of the park’s typically off-limits areas.

WOOD BISON TRAIL
One of the longest of 11 trails at Elk Island National Park, this 16-kilometre loop—accessed directly from the Yellowhead Highway, about 50 kilometres east of Edmonton—takes you through Aspen forest and intermittent marshland, and passes alongside a handful of smaller lakes. Its main attraction, however, is the opportunity to spot a significant variety of free-range wildlife, including moose, elk, deer, birds and wood bison—the larger and rarer of the two bison species inhabiting the park. (Do not, however, approach the animals.)

Good to know: By all accounts, Elk Island’s mosquitoes are sizable, so bring insect repellent. And pack water and snacks, too, as the trail does not have any early-return routes.

Alberta Hiking Trails Hoodoos Writing on Stone Provincial Park
Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park’s Hoodoo Trail can be particularly stunning in autumn (photo: Michael Matt/Travel Alberta)

HOODOO TRAIL
This 2.2-kilometre (one-way) trail showcases the diverse prairie landscape of southern Alberta—you’ll pass hoodoos, coulees, sandstone cliffs and more as you walk through the Milk River Valley. The trail is in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park: Look closely and you may spot the ancient First Nations pictographs and petroglyphs for which the park is named, though if this is your primary aim, you’re better to take a guided tour through the park’s restricted-access archaeological areas. Birders can keep their eyes peeled for dozens of species, including rare loggerhead shrikes, Sprague’s pitpits and ferruginous hawks.

Good to know: Hikers are advised to wear a hat and bring lots of water. There is little shade on the trail and the region’s climate is rather arid.

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DRY ISLAND BUFFALO JUMP PROVINCIAL PARK
We think it’s safe to call this natural area one of Alberta’s best-kept secrets. Roughly an hour’s drive southeast of Red Deer, the park sits on the north shore of the Red Deer River and so is a reliable place to spot waterfowl and wading birds like great blue herons. Actual hiking infrastructure is quite minimal, but that’s part of the charm: You can spend hours simply exploring the Prairie and Badlands landscape at random, with few other visitors to interrupt your views or your solitude.

Good to know: As there are no official trails here, you’ll want to ensure you’re a confident navigator before heading too far into the park. And be prepared for mud (if it has recently rained) and mosquitoes.

alberta hiking trails cypress hills interprovincial park trans canada trail
A peaceful perch in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park (photo: Jeff Bartlett/Travel Alberta)

TRANS CANADA TRAIL
Hiking the Trans Canada Trail is one of the best ways to explore a natural gem of southern Alberta, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The trail traverses approximately 32 kilometres of the park’s Alberta side, but an 8.3-km (one-way) stretch between the Reesor Lake and Spruce Coulee campgrounds offers the most varied terrain—you’ll amble through pine and spruce forests, fescue grassland and marshes—and impressive vistas, particularly from the Reesor Viewpoint. Keep your eyes on the ground, too: Cypress Hills is home to at least 18 species of orchids, many of which are rarely found elsewhere in Canada.

Good to know: You can start this section of the trail from either the Spruce Coulee or Reesor Lake campsite. The former is a 14-kilometre drive east of Elkwater—the main townsite within the park—while the latter is about 22-kilometres east of town. Both are accessed off of Reesor Lake Road.

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SIFFLEUR FALLS TRAIL
Though it’s technically in the mountains, this trail, about 62 kilometres west of the hamlet of Nordegg, isn’t particularly mountainous. The main section, a seven kilometre return trip to the Siffleur River canyon and 15-metre-high Siffleur Falls, rises only about 80 metres in total as it passes through open plains and aspen and pine forests. The Kootenay Plains landscape—complete with Rocky Mountain backdrop—is highly photogenic, so this trail does tend to get busy on summer days.

Good to know: Conditions on this trail are generally good, but caution is still advisable since the trail skirts the edge of a deep canyon.

alberta hiking trails wood buffalo provincial park salt plains
Overlooking the Salt Plains (photo: Darren Roberts/Travel Alberta)

SALT PLAINS AND SALT RIVER TRAIL SYSTEM
If you can make your way to the Alberta–Northwest Territories border, Wood Buffalo National Park—Canada’s largest national park—boasts a number of unique opportunities for nature lovers. Among these, the 370-square-kilometre Salt Plains are a must-visit. Artifacts of an ancient inland sea, the mineral-rich flats can be walked barefoot; you’ll enjoy a spa-like experience as you step amongst low-lying samphire and sea blight, and spot the footprints of foxes, wolves, bison, moose and cranes. Other well-maintained trails in the area, ranging from a few hundred metres to 8.5 kilometres, offer chances to see sinkhole lakes, wildflower-strewn meadows, karst terrain and more.

Good to know: Given the Wood Buffalo’s relative isolation, always check in at the visitor centre in Fort Smith, N.W.T. to get the latest trail conditions and other advice on visiting the park.