Alberta, Canada as Your Next Winter Getaway? Yes. Seriously.
Here's the thing. Canada can't escape the winter. So Canadians have made it as fun as it can be with some of the world's most gorgeous scenery (and no crowds).
Something snapped in me a few years back.
I was done with being cold. No more skiing. I arranged reporting trips in January and February to the southern hemisphere. I took it personally when my dog, hunched over, about to poop, would circle and circle, stop, waddle, and circle some more before (if I’m lucky) finally going as my hands freeze trying to open the doggie bag.
But then I saw bubbles.
I was in Calgary for the annual GoMedia Convention (a big shindig Canada puts on for the travel industry) in October and in an attempt to woo me, Travel Alberta showed me the frozen bubbles of Lake Abraham. While my guard was down, they asked if I’d want to visit … in the winter. I took the bait, and what follows is the trip they organized to convince me. It was a trip that was one of the best of my life and filled with unforgettable icefield drives, castle hotels from the luxury train travel era, fat-burning winter sports, world-class skiing—all without crowds. Thus, the third selection for our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World is Alberta ... in the winter.
The first and obvious reason to go this time of year is that the front range of the Canadian Rockies, more so than the American, is a Bierstadt painting come to life (which makes sense since he made some American landscapes up). Breathtaking feels trite as an adjective. The mountains look more jagged than their southern counterparts, and more scenic thanks to the large glaciers carving deep and wide valleys in between peaks. And in the summer, as a result, the hordes descend. But in winter, you’re often the only car on the road.
Heading out shortly after picking up my suburban something-to-prove status level SUV rental car, there are a number of options as the airport is a quick drive to the mountains. The first quick stop, however, was to Kananaskis Nordic Spa, for what I’ve now decided is the most civilized thing to do after a long flight. Refreshed, airplane bloat dissipated, and dead skin scraped off, it was off to one of the region’s best hidden gems—Mount Engadine Lodge.
To say that I am attached to my phone would be an understatement. The only reason that I even log relatively normal phone usage numbers is because I also love to read, which means I disconnect for hours at a time. So when I say that I deeply regretted not being able to take advantage of the complete lack of cell phone service at the lodge because needing the wifi for work, that’s saying something.
The lodge in winter is like something out of a children’s picture book—oozing coziness and charm with snow covering it in just the right way and perched on the bank of a valley opposite cragged peaks. The property is made up of the main lodge, cabins, yurts, and glamping (fancy) tents. We were in the glamping tents. Yes, just canvas between me and the Canadian winter. And yet with the stove in the corner crackling away, not even my toes were cold.
Breakfast and dinner give visitors a chance to experience Canadian culture, as family seating and a nearly entirely Canadian clientele in winter means you get immersed (one weird observation: people from Alberta think being from Washington, D.C. is exciting, which was new.)
During the day, everybody is gone, taking advantage of what is best about Canada this time of year—winter sports. So breakfast becomes a chance for people to chat over routes for skiing (downhill and cross country) and rattle our cages with tips for snowshoeing (don’t fall down face first because you might get stuck, suffocate, and die.) We also made the mistake of thinking an early start would be better, so when the first of a series of fantastic guides on the trip, Claude Faerden of Kananaskis Outfitters, showed up for our 8:30 kick-off … it was still dark.
I will admit I was a bit meh on the prospect of snowshoeing—people in the U.S. always seemed to react so unenthusiastically when I brought it up. Instead, it was pure joy for somebody who likes hiking, because while this is going to be gobsmackingly un-profound, once you start climbing uphill, even though you’re on snow, it feels, um, like hiking on normal ground? Virtually alone with our guide on Chester Lake (we only ran into humans on our way down), we were in nerd heaven as he pointed out animal tracks, broke down the science of lichen as food staple, and regaled us with bear tales. And the view up at the lake surrounded by nothing except for snow, pine trees, and and mountains is hard to beat.
More importantly, he encouraged us upon our return to the lodge to try out fat-tire biking, a popular winter activity in Canada that is exactly like what it sounds—bikes with fat tires that allow you to pedal across snow and ice, or even up a mountain side. We stuck to the nearby highway however, and going downhill—cruising along unaffected by the elements, snowflakes whipping past—was pure exhilaration. Going back uphill, on the other hand, was pure quad burn.
Appetite for winter sports whetted, and a night of exhausted snug sleep in the glamping tent refueling me, I was theoretically ready for the part of the itinerary that had me most afraid.
Despite the countless hours logged in a variety of planes, I’d never set foot in a helicopter. Hollywood action films were the likely culprits, but something about the machines just rang my rarely-rung anxiety bell. But my partner in crime, Alejandro, was insistent we go on the helicopter tour of the Rockies. So off to Alpine Helicopters in Canmore we went, and into one of their red, glass-floored helicopters for a 25-minute circuit of the front range.
Maybe one eventually becomes blasé riding in one of these things, but every ridge we crested felt like a hair length away. But enough about me, what did I actually see? Oh, just the Sundance Range which will make you want to don a cloak, grab a staff, and re-enact the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers walking peak to snow-covered peak.
Before I knew it, the ride was over, and we were back in the car. Another scenic drive lay ahead of us, but this time the final destination was undeniably the prize. It’s the hotel that gets people most excited about Alberta—the Fairmont Banff Springs.
The castle, as its employees refer to it, is one of the original grand hotels built to serve luxury train travelers. It was the property behind the Canadian Pacific Railway’s president William Cornelius Van Horne’s famous, if cheesy, declaration that, "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists."
Perched against the mountainside, the hotel is a hulking mass of stone and dramatic roofs that mirrors its surroundings. (For those looking for the classic shot, just type in “Surprise Corner” into Google Maps.) The hotel has quick access not only to two of the region’s best known slopes (Norquay and Sunshine), but is also best known for its spa (which, if aquatic relaxation is your thing, I’ll just repeat what one of the attendants said to me: “the free one allows all ages.”). One side note for lovers of quirk: the rocks with all the veins decorating the interior are Tyndall stone—the veins are what’s left of the little marine animals that burrowed in millennia ago, so sometimes fossils can be found in the stones.
Banff (45 minutes to an hour from the airport) is also often the starting point for lovers of the grand train properties (now run by Fairmont) who make a sort of circuit of the three in the region: land in Calgary, then head to Fairmont Banff Springs, then Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, then drive the Icefield Parkway to Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, and then fly home from Edmonton. Following a similar route (having picked up our skis in Banff), we hit the road to Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and then enjoyed what may have been the most fun day of the whole trip.
The most intimidating part about a return to skiing, for me, has always been the first disembarking from the chair lift. Descending down the little mound—veering without tripping and pulling off stopping after years of not maneuvering in skis while convinced everybody is watching seems a tall task.
Instead, we had lucked into another day of great guides, this time Tom from Lake Louise Ski Resort. I’ve decided that skiing with a guide is the only way to go, as we didn’t repeat a trail the whole day and never had to stop at intersections to check we were going right way. Instead, we could enjoy the fresh powder (it had snowed dozens of centimeters just before we arrived), the slope’s iconic views, and go down trails I wouldn’t normally, like the famed Rock Garden, that is, quite literally, rock moguls.
Back at the chateau, which is dramatically situated on the edge of a glacial lake, it was time for some R&R. Like the Banff hotel, the Lake Louise lodge is a nest of restaurants and shops; those looking for a romantic meet-cute should snag one of the tables under the arched windows at the Lakeview Lounge. Stuffed, rested, and a bit tipsy, we decided we hadn’t had enough physical activity and grabbed some skate rentals for some evening ice skating out on the lake. (This is also where visitors later in January can see the Ice Magic Festival’s famed ice sculptures.)
In the morning, up dark and early, we hit the road for one of the world’s most beautiful drives en route to Jasper—the Icefield Parkway.
In the hour before the sun rises, the sky is lit as if a dark-blue glass plate had been hit with a stage light. The mountains streaming past on either side just disappear at the top as the bluish light fades the snow covered peaks into the sky. The result is a sort of hazy palimpsest of a world around us, as if we’re looking for a secret entrance like Lord Asriel in A Golden Compass. After driving an hour or so, we make it to the Saskatchewan River Crossing, the site of our turn-off to Abraham Lake and the bubbles.
To see these natural wonders that have driven tourists desperate for an Instagram photo unlike any other (especially from East Asia), we’re tagging along with J.P. Fortin from Pursuit Adventures, not only because the lake is risky to walk on (inconsistent thicknesses), but also because the wind that rips across its surface can be terrifying (and the cause of people needing to be rescued). Fortin also knows what places are best for sunrise and sunset (if you time it right, you can get two of each) and where the wind has recently uncovered the clearest ice bubbles. (He is also full of cheeky asides, like how Mount Mitchner used to be called Phoebe’s Tit after a local prostitute). As for the bubbles, they’re bizarre. Created by the methane released by plants in the lake that freeze so fast they’re preserved, they float suspended in the ice that is, depending on where you are on the lake, pitch black, emerald green, or aquamarine.
The lake is not the only attraction—nearby Crescent Falls looks like a CGI combination of the Wall and the Night King’s throne in Game of Thrones.
After that, so we’re not driving in the dark, it’s back on the Icefield Parkway and on to Jasper Park Lodge—past glaciers and mountains whose snow-bedecked trees carpeting their slopes makes them look like silverback gorillas. Finally, we reach the lodge, made up of a grand central building and smaller cabins encircling Lac Beauvert. Sadly, we’re beat and the night sky isn’t cooperating—no Northern Lights or astronomy snowshoeing for us (it's a Dark Sky Preserve). Early on, we decide, we’ll have to come back.
But in the morning, we at least get a taste of what Jasper has to offer with a tour of Maligne Canyon with Maligne Adventures, the ravine cutting through the parks near town that is fed by a vast network of underwater aquifers. In the canyon, water bursts forth from the rock, creating dramatic waterfalls, some delicate, some gargantuan, frozen in place.
Then we hit the road again, completing the circuit with a drive out of the mountains and back to Edmonton. Once dubbed “Deadmonton,” the oil city was long seen as a rough and tough place not worth spending time in. But lately, the city and regional tourism operators have pushed hard for a re-thinking of the city. Sadly, exhausted from the whirlwind tour and with only one night before we flew out, we didn’t experience much of the city beyond a sampling (at the very cute and creative Bundok) of its now-well reviewed culinary scene.
And then, just like that, it was over. Back to Washington, D.C. with none of the fun and beauty that winter in Canada brings.