• Johnston Canyon hike

    Johnston Canyon hike (Photo: Siobhan McClelland)

DON’T BE ONE OF THOSE tourists who sees a province through a car’s windshield. The best way to explore Alberta’s landscape is on two feet. From short, easy walks around blue-green lakes to demanding treks up muddy paths, these hikes have the best eye-candy the province can offer.

Crypt Lake – Waterton Lakes National Park
This popular six-hour hike near the Canada- U.S. border starts with a 10-minute boat ride across Waterton Lake. Once on dry land you’ll travel up switchbacks as you graduate 700 metres. Before reaching turquoise Crypt Lake, you’ll test your climbing skills as you hoof up a short ladder and shimmy into a 40-metre rock tunnel, making your way forward by holding a steel cable. Make sure you’re back in time for the return boat!

The Valley of the Ten Peaks – Lake Louise
During mid-summer, hikers cross meadows filled with wildflowers. In the fall, the larch trees turn a brilliant gold, looking magnificent in the sunlight. But the real payoff on this full-day, moderately difficult hike is the sight of the 10 mountain summits, all more than 3,000 metres.

Aylmer Lookout – Lake Minnewanka area
You’re about to enter grizzly country. This moderate to difficult 22-kilometre hike starts at Lake Minnewanka and ventures through spruce and lodgepole pine trees, delving into the furry beast’s territory. Don’t forget your bear spray — it’s mandatory on this trip. From the Aylmer Pass Junction, take the left trail toward Aylmer Pass. Follow the signs to Aylmer Lookout (once a forest fire lookout), where views of mounts Inglismaldie, Girouard and Aylmer await.

Bow Summit Lookout – near Banff
Don’t let the crowds scare you off. This sixkilometre hike is well worth the throngs of people at Peyto Lake. From there you’ll head uphill to a three-way junction: take the middle path and continue up the mountain. From the top, panoramic views of Peyto and Bow lakes and the rest of the valley are sure to delight.

Grassi Lakes – Canmore/Kananaskis
Climbers rejoice! This one-to-two-hour hike features views of waterfalls, shallow caves and people hanging off a rock-climbing wall. Skip the easy route and navigate the dense forest of the difficult trail. You’ll be glad you did when stunning views of Ha Ling Peak, Canmore and two stunning aquamarine lakes greet you. Watch out for chipmunks and squirrels, which target hikers’ packs for easy pickings for food.

Geraldine Lakes – near Jasper
You’ll be scrambling up steep walls and hopping across rocks on this challenging hike up the narrow Geraldine Valley. For advanced hikers only, the route also involves climbing beside waterfalls and bushwhacking across fields with not much to guide you other than occasional cairns or markers. Keep an eye out for porcupines, which have been known to nibble on hiking boots left at rest sites.

Lake Agnes – near Lake Louise
This three-hour moderate hike winds through forests, with scenes of Lake Louise and the Rocky Mountains peeking through the trees. Watch for horses and riders on the trail — if it’s muddy, the animals can slip and slide into you. Once you’ve reached the quaint, electricity-free teahouse, enjoy some homemade soup and hot chocolate. Those who want to continue up to the “Beehive” summit are rewarded with sights of Lake Louise and the Bow Valley.

Johnston Canyon – near Banff
Catwalks and staircases get hikers close to the limestone bedrock deep within Johnston Canyon. At the Lower Falls, a short tunnel gives hikers a close vantage point of the waterfalls, though not a dry one. Continuing past the Upper Falls, you’ll find the Ink Pots — mineral springs that are a constant 4 C, with a basin made of quicksand. It’s best to make the trek in the early morning or late evening to avoid the crowds at the waterfalls.

The Plain of Six Glaciers – Lake Louise
This full-day, moderate-effort hike pays off in a big way. From the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, follow the shore to the back of the valley. Have your camera ready to snap shots of hoary marmots and mountain goats. If the teahouse is open, snack on some homemade baked goodies and listen for thunderous avalanches rumbling down mountains. One more kilometre farther, at the lookout, you’ll see glaciers and peaks galore.

Great Divide Trail – Maligne Lake to Jasper
This strenuous, 55-kilometre journey will have you dropping calories while admiring dramatic landscapes, with 25 kilometres of the route above the trees. Wolves, mountain lions and woodland caribou make the area their home, so occasional animal sightings are expected. More likely, you’ll spot a grizzly bear off in a distant meadow. Book well in advance — this hike is very popular.

Best of the rest

Five additional hikes not to be missed

The hills are alive with the sounds of wildlife and the plains hiss with the sound of rattlesnakes. Whether you want to follow the same paths as the dinosaurs or watch for wondering bison, these five treks are worth a second look for adventure-hungry hikers.

1. Tunnel Mountain – Banff
Don’t look for a tunnel anywhere – despite the mountain’s name, there isn’t one. This short hike starts in town, where you head through the streets to Tunnel Mountain Drive. You’ll then travel 300 metres up along the trail, with pine and fir forests surrounding you. Say “hello” to the Aussie and Kiwi tourists heading down the trail as you make your way higher, admiring views of castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. At the top, sit back and enjoy the panoramic views of Banff, the Bow Valley and Mount Rundle.

2. Castle Mountain Lookout – Lake Louise
It’s a short, steep hike to the old fire lookout, with exhilarating views of the Bow Valley in both directions. If you’re up for the challenge, this 3.7-kilometre hike traverses through forest and alpine meadows filled with wildflowers when they’re in season.

3. Lake of the Falls – Nordegg
Only for the true hikers, you’ll spend three days travelling this 33.2-kilometre hike. When you need a break, try your hand at fly-fishing along the streams in the area. At night, enjoy stargazing as you camp beneath dark skies.

4. Coulee Viewpoint Trail – Dinosaur Provincial Park
It’s a short trail that can be completed in 20 minutes and is not for serious hikers. But if you’re in Dinosaur Provincial Park, this hike offers great views of the moonscape that is the Badlands. Keep an eye out for fossils – many dinosaur bones have been discovered in the park. And watch out for prairie rattlesnakes hiding in rock crevasses!

5. Wood Bison Trail – Elk Island National Park
If you’ve had your fill of family fun picnicking and relaxing at the Park’s Astotin Lake, head south of Highway 16 for a leisurely hike along a 16-kilometre trail. As you meander through aspen forest and marshes, keep your eyes peeled for the largest mammal in North America – the wood bison. Make sure you give bison a lot of space, especially if you see a herd. You also have opportunities to see elk, moose, deer, birds and small mammals.