With forest fires raging in BC and the Calgary Stampede well underway, I decided to focus on the Western travel region of Canada.
BC and Alberta are the Rocky Mountain provinces sharing a spine of Canada’s part of this mountain range. I lived here collectively in my adulthood for a total of 19 years both as a student and working professional.
BC stands for British Colombia but us Canadians simply call it BC. This province joined the confederation of Canada in 1871 with promises that a railway be built to connect them with the rest of Canada. The tourist version still exists today as the Rocky Mountaineer with routes connecting Alberta and BC.
BC is also known as the ‘wet coast’ and is part of the Pacific Rim ring of fire so serious seismic activity is possible here. Victoria, on Vancouver island, is the province’s capital and Vancouver, on the mainland and BC’s most populous city, is where Greenpeace was founded. BC’s licence plate reads ‘Beautiful British Colombia’ and indeed it is.
The licence plate says it all and the natural beauty of BC is a huge draw. Ocean, islands, mountains and forests are features of the landscape here making outdoor activities a popular draw. City life, food and Indigenous culture also feature heavily in tourism. Experience the north by driving the Alaska highway (which coincidentally leads to Alaska). See the south with a visit to the Okanagan Valley and its many orchards and wineries and see my namesake, Kimberley, in the Kootenay region (apparently great skiing there in the winter). Visit any or all of the gulf islands, a number of which are accessible as a day trip from Vancouver. Kayak with the killer whales (something I have yet to do) in Johnstone straight, or just cruise the inside passage for a coastal view of Canada’s Pacific coast. Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte islands, is considered a must see for Indigenous culture. The Haida, however, are not the only Indigenous group in this province. The museum of anthropology at UBC (university of British Colombia) in Vancouver is a good starting point to learn about the other Indigenous groups here in spite of the controversy surrounding the housing of their totem poles in this museum. And of course there’s Vancouver island, a destination in itself where there is the province’s capital, an amazing stormy weather beach in Tofino and the Nanaimo bar trail for dessert foodies.
My recommendations for the minimum amount of time to explore are as follows. Adjust according to your budget, time available and interests.
- Whole province: 1 month
- Vancouver: 7 days (includes a day trip to one of the gulf islands and overnight trip to Whistler, site of the 2010 winter Olympic Games)
- Victoria: 3-4 days
- Vancouver island: 10 days
- Vancouver to Calgary: 10 days
Driving from Vancouver to Calgary takes about 11 hours with a distance of almost 1000km. Allow extra time for photo stops, driver breaks and construction. During inclement weather and forest fires, some highway sections may be closed. As a point of interest, going from Bennett in the north in a straight line to Fernie in the south is approximately 1700km.
Alberta joined Canada in 1905. It is sometimes called ‘oilberta’ due to the abundant oil reserves in its tar sands. Alberta is known for its stunning mountain scenery and turquoise blue glacier-fed lakes and the capital city is Edmonton. The province’s most populous city is home to the Calgary Stampede, the “greatest outdoor show on earth” (early July) while Drumheller, southeast of Calgary, is home to one of the world’s richest dinosaur deposits. And best town name goes to Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump in southern Alberta. This UNESCO world heritage site is witness to a hunting method for bison used by the Plains people of the region. Alberta’s licence plate reads Wild Rose Country.
Alberta is a popular winter destination in spite of the brutally cold prairie winters here. Calgary does experience chinooks though, a type of wind that blows in changing the temperature drastically. Twenty-four degrees in February? Yes please! Edmonton doesn’t get chinooks so you’re stuck with -30ºC and below. Winter sports and summer hiking are popular activities in the Alberta part of the Rocky Mountains. The highlights are Banff and Lake Louise in Canada’s first national park^ (about a 30 minute drive away from each other), the Colombia Icefields Parkway for glaciers, the town of Jasper with its breathtaking (and heart stopping!) skywalk and Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. And for the Trekkies check out Trekcetara, Canada’s only Star Trek museum, in Vulcan; live long and prosper, eh. For more mountains and a side trip to a bison paddock, visit Waterton Park in the south of the province. Wildlife exists in Alberta with bighorn sheep, bears (grizzly and black) and elk as the ‘big three’ in an impromptu Alberta safari. But keep your distance, for both your safety and the welfare of the animals. City life in Calgary and Edmonton is pretty casual with city museums and summer festivals the main attractions. The Indigenous groups unique to this area are quite distinct from those in the Pacific Northwest.
^Banff National Park established in 1885
- whirlwind tour of the highlights: 2 weeks
- leisurely tour of places of interest in the province: 1 month
- Edmonton: 3 days
- Calgary: 5 days with side trip to Drumheller & Head-Smashed-In
*And for the wellness traveller, check out the myriad hot springs in both provinces.