Alberta’s adventure mountain towns


adventure mountain towns of alberta life outdoors blog cover

Yes, when it comes to cool mountain towns, BC is definitely hard to beat. But even though Alberta has far fewer mountainous regions than BC and fewer mountain towns, there are amazing places here to launch your mountain adventures. Alberta’s mountain towns are pretty awesome, scenic, with plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventure. 

Alberta’s adventure mountain towns are mostly in protected parks.

Alberta is mostly a prairie province, but it includes most the Rocky Mountains, east of the continental divide, into it’s borders. Most of the mountain areas are protected in the national park, so development and growth are strictly controlled. 

Canmore

The view of Canmore and the Bow Valley from Mount Allan.

Town Facts

Canmore, population 14,000, is located only an hour west of Calgary on highway 1. Access is easy, since Calgary has an international airport and the highways are wide. Canmore is on the eastern edge of the Rockies, at 1300 m with dry, cold winters and cool summers, and lots of sun year-round.

Why you should visit

Canmore is a year-round adventure town. It’s mainly a rock climbing mecca due to the proximity of well developed cragging areas and alpine routes in the area. There is tons of rock to climb! It’s also famous for ice climbing; numerous frozen waterfalls are abundant in the area such as the Ghost. Hiking is also very popular in here and there are tons of hiking trails leading up to summits. Mountain biking is growing, with trail building taking off at the Nordic Centre (the cross country ski area in town), and the new High Rockies trail located in Spray valley, only 20 km outside of town on Spray Lakes road.

Due to it’s high altitude location and the arid nature of the climate, the treeline is very high, allowing for really scenic hiking and easy access into the alpine.

When to go

Canmore is a year-round playground but when you want to go depends on what you want to experience. Depending on how flexible you are, you’ll find there is virtually no shoulder season as the valleys can be dry and warm in spring but there will be plenty of snow up high. Visit in the fall and winter for ice climbing, the early fall for hiking, the winter and especially spring for backcountry and downhill skiing, the winter for Nordic skiing, and the summer for rock climbing, biking and hiking.

Because of Canmore’s proximity to Banff National Park, the summers are very busy. If you’re trying to avoid the crowds note that July and August are very busy. Shoulder season, particularly September are recommended. Often, Canmore will experience what is known as an Indian summer, and summer-like conditions with the exception of cool nights will persist, making climbing and hiking ideal, and no crowds!

Where to stay

A popular tourist town, Canmore is full of hotels, inns and bed and breakfast style accommodations. There is one campground in town, but it’s mostly an RV park and right next to the highway, so it’s not recommended. Nearby campgrounds include the Bow River, Three Sisters and Lac Des Arcs campgrounds, all beautifully located within a short drive to town. To book one of these sites, go to the Alberta Parks website.

Banff

View of Banff and the Bow Valley from Mount Norquay ski area.

View of Banff and the Bow Valley from Mount Norquay ski area.

Town Facts

The town of Banff, though it’s located only 25 km west of Canmore, has a much different feel. This town has an extended, rich history, and is the birthplace of the National Park system in Canada. In Banff you’ll find more art, history and culture than in Canmore, and a more compact townsite due to building restrictions in the park. The population is steady at 8000 residents.

Why you should visit

The town is historic with a thriving arts scene, so a visit to one of the many museum or national historic sites is a nice thing to do. But outdoor recreation is definitely the main draw of the town, and Banff is the gateway to Banff National Park. The reasons to visit Banff are similar to the reasons to visit Canmore: rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing and hiking, plus, it’s a staging and information area for trips into Banff National Park. Read more about town-worthy activities here.

When to go

Like Canmore, there is not too much of a shoulder season, depending on what you like to do. Outdoor adventures are available year round. Banff is even closer to the big Three ski resorts of Norquay (just up the hill), Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise.

Where to stay

A popular tourist town, Banff has lots of choice when it comes to accommodations, and campgrounds too. Tunnel mountain campground is the closest, located just up the hill from town, and is open year round. This one is very busy in the summer. Other campgrounds in close proximity are Two Jack campground and the Two Jack lakeside campgrounds are located about 12 km from town. These are also busy and fill up fast in the summer. Book your campgrounds on Parks Canada.

Lake Louise

Take in the classic view of the Victoria glacier in Lake Louise.

Take in the classic view of the Victoria glacier in Lake Louise.

Town Facts

Lake Louise is a world-famous hamlet of only 1000 people. The town, built in 1890, was originally called Laggan and was a station along the Canadian Pacific railway route. Lake Louise really has it all in terms of mountain activities, it features world class skiing, including downhill, backcountry and Nordic, ice climbing, alpine climbing, hiking, backpacking, all within close driving distance. This town is very busy, particularly in the summer, but winter gets crowded with World Cup events and the Ice Magic festival.

Why you should visit

Experience the high mountains and have a chance at seeing wildlife too. Lake Louise is located in a wildlife corridor, so your odds of seeing grizzly or black bears are really high. Lake Louise is famous for it’s cragging area, called Back of the Lake, with excellent rock and lots of developed cliffs for sport and trad climbing. The hiking trails in the area are world class, along with the scenery. The crowds flock to Lake Louise, the weekends are very busy year round, but particularly in the summer. Shoulder season is great, and you can see the Larch trees turning at Sentinel Pass and other areas closeby.

You should also check out the famous Chateau Lake Louise, the iconic hotel built at the turn of the 20th century. Grab a classic photo here, but make sure to come very early in the morning to dodge the crowds. By early we mean early – before 7 am.

When to go

Lake Louise, at 1600 m, is high and cold; summers are short and cool and winters are long and cold. It’s actually classified as a subarctic climate. Summers usually have cool, frosty mornings, and it can snow any time of year. January is the coldest month with very short daylight hours. The town is beautifully situated near some very high glaciated peaks including Mount Temple (11,670 feet) Mount Victoria (11,364 feet) and Lefroy (11,230 feet), popular alpine climbs.

The skiing and ice climbing here are excellent, and you’re really close to some great skiing off of the Icefields Parkway, highway 93 North. There is also excellent skiing on Mount Niblock, Surprise Pass, Narao Glades and many more areas, all within a short drive. Of course, there is also the very popular Lake Louise ski resort for downhill skiing, and plenty of Nordic skiing, including skate skiing, at Moraine Lake road and the Great Divide Trail.

Where to stay

Lake Louise is full of high-end, luxury accommodations, but you’ll find reasonable prices at the Lake Louise Hostel. They have a few private rooms, but book early as all beds fill up fast. There is also a campground right in town, along the road to the famous Chateau Lake Louise. You can even stay in Banff or Canmore when visiting Lake Louise, there is much more choice in those two towns and accommodations are much cheaper. To camp at Lake Louise, make a reservation online with Parks Canada. Read more about the area on the Banff and Lake Louise tourism site

Jasper

Sunset on the Jasper Skyline trail.

Sunset on the Jasper Skyline trail.

Town Facts

Jasper is another beautiful mountain town. It’s located about 230 km north of Lake Louise along highway 93 North known as the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic drives in the world. Just the drive up to Jasper is stunning alone. The town is the commercial centre of Jasper National Park, and has a population of 4500. It’s located by the confluence of the Athabasca and Miette Rivers. Truly remote from any large city centres, the Yellowhead highway connects the town of Jasper to Edmonton, 365 km to the east and Prince George, BC, at 375 to the west. Unlike Canmore or Banff, the town is very far from any urban centres, so there is quite a few less crowds, since it’s too far for a day trip from Edmonton.

Why you should visit

There is lots to do in this town year round, and it has hotter summers and warmer lakes for swimming than Banff or Canmore. Backpack the famous Jasper Skyline trail, which takes you over 45 km on an extended alpine ridge, or head to Tonquin valley, then go for a swim in Lake Annette. The winters are cold, and the local ski hill, Marmot Basin offers discounted lift tickets in January. With many valleys closed for caribou conservation in the winter, backcountry skiing is possible further south on the Icefields parkway, or west towards Mount Robson and Valemount.

Jasper is very popular for ice climbing in the winter and hiking, backpacking or mountain biking in the summer. Mountain biking in Jasper has really taken off in the last several years, and there is lots of trail building going on in the area and plenty of mountain bike trails to check out. Most trails are flowy, cross country style, and there are new trails being built regularly, so go to the bike shop in town for the latest information. You can even rent a very nice mountain bike here at Freewheel or Vicious Cycle.

The fat biking craze has definitely hit Jasper, and it’s a great sport to eat up the off season! Since Jasper is mostly dry and free of snow well into November, it’s fun to hit the bike trails before the big snows hit. You can rent an awesome fat bike in town. Many locals fat bike year round.

When to go

Winters are very cold and dry, but if you don’t mind the cold, Jasper is also fun year round. Go in the winter for ice climbing, fat biking or skiing, and keep in mind that the skiing gets pretty good in the spring, March or later. Then you can fat bike until the snow melts and transition into summer. Jasper summers are hot and there are lots of warm lakes to swim in: something not very common in Alberta. There is plenty of rock and alpine climbing, and loads of hiking trails. September is beautiful as the crowds diminish but the weather stays warm. It’s a great town to enjoy in the off season.

Where to stay

There is lots of choice for accommodation, however it’s generally quite expensive (like Lake Louise) and there is a large amount of high end, luxury accommodation like Jasper Park Lodge, but there are two hostels, two large campgrounds nearby, and the Wapiti campground is open year round if you want to winter camp. There is also Snaring River campground a short drive from town. There are several campgrounds on the Icefields parkway, which are generally much less full. For information check Parks Canada for Jasper Park

Nordegg

Abraham Lake, near Nordegg Alberta. Image by Pat n Kat via Flickr.

Abraham Lake, near Nordegg Alberta. Image by Pat n Kat via Flickr.

Town Facts

Nordegg is a growing ghost town with a population of only 200 people. Historically a coal mining town, Nordegg reached it’s maximum population of 3500 residents in the 1950s. The town’s population is rising again and it’s quickly gaining popularity due to it’s beautiful location in the mountains and proximity to Banff and Jasper National parks.

Why you should visit

Unlike Banff, Jasper or Canmore, Nordegg is quiet. There are no fancy hotels or restaurants in this town, but you’ll find everything you need. There are lots of outfitters with wonderful, rustic lodging and great food. 

When to go

Nordegg is close to Banff National Park, so you can experience the park if you are willing to drive. Nordegg itself has great hiking trails, rock climbing (try Abraham slabs) and fly fishing. You can also horseback ride and hunt in the area, since it’s out of the National park. Year round outdoor activities are available. In the summer, hike, rock climb, fish, hunt or horseback ride. In the winter, ice climbing is very popular. You can also backcountry ski in the Park.

Where to stay

Stay at one of the numerous outfitters or lodges in town, or camp at the nearby Beaverdam campsite. To book, contact Alberta Parks. You can find out more about accommodations in the area on the travel Nordegg site and Nordegg living site

Waterton

Waterton townsite view from Mount Crandell.

Waterton townsite view from Mount Crandell.

Town Facts

The village of Waterton, located in Waterton Lakes National Park, is tiny and very cute. Only about 100 people make this a year round home. Waterton is famous for it’s extreme winds, which race down the lakes, at times gusting at 100 km/h. I don’t think I’ve been there once in the summer when the winds weren’t ripping! 

Why you should visit

The area is very popular for hiking. It has some of the best high alpine hiking trails such as the Carthew-Alderson alpine trail, and lots of beautiful alpine lakes to visit. Multi day backpacking is also great. There are a few scrambles, but the rock is generally loose in this area so rock climbing is not popular, and there aren’t any cragging areas.  

When to go

Waterton is mainly a summer destination, though winters are beautiful too, and there are hardly any visitors. In the winter, only two hotels remain open. Most of the roads are closed but you can cross country ski up the Akamina parkway. The best time to go is September, or mid-week in the summer if you can. Long weekends in July and August are very busy, but in September the town noticeably slows down, and the trails are still dry.

Where to stay

There are a few hotels, and three campgrounds in town, the Waterton townsite and Crandell. Book on the Waterton Parks site

Alicja

Alicja

Alicja is an economist, enjoys climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, cycling and gets out into the backcountry as much as possible. See all of Alicja's Blog Posts
Alicja
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