Alberta is home to the Canadian Rockies, big nature, fun-loving cities, and vast buffalo-roamed prairies. That’s a given. But it’s also a place with plenty of alpine rivers to explore — on a backcountry canoe odyssey, guided kayak trip, river surfing outing, lazy afternoon of inner tube floating, or high-adrenaline white water rafting adventure. Match your kind of fun with Alberta’s most picturesque rivers. Even better, arrive in style on the train on a VIA Rail Rockies journey or visit during Calgary Stampede.
Try river surfing
Who needs the ocean? Join Alberta’s growing trend and learn how to river surf. The friendly folks at Rocky Mountain River Surfing take newbies first to downtown Calgary’s hotspot near the 10th Street bridge on the Bow River, and then to rugged Kananaskis Country on the postcard-perfect Kananaskis River. River surfing is slightly trickier to master than the ocean version, but fans say it’s well worth the effort. The pros promise “ridiculous fun” on the water while helping learners to strike the right combo of balance and focus. Lessons are two hours with wetsuit, board, and all other gear supplied.
See Edmonton from the water
Tour Edmonton’s pretty North Saskatchewan River Valley and its tiny isles from the water with eco-friendly Black Gold River Tours. Swim and sun on the sandy beach, go gold panning and look for petrified wood on the shore, and refuel with a BBQ lunch on an island. Black Gold takes groups of six out for excursions on its 22-foot jet boats with various packages, including fast boat rides, floating and swimming, or treasure hunting. Or, tour the river valley trails by canoe and then check out the surrounding trails on a bike or Segway.
Whitewater raft the Kananaskis
Bouncing down rapids and splashing down into dips in a big rubber raft is an absolute thrill, whether you’re nine or 90. The gorgeous, turquoise-blue Kananaskis River has just the right balance of movie-worthy mountain scenery, grade 2 and 3 fast water, lazy lulls, and abundant wildlife, plus it’s only 45 minutes west of Calgary. Choose a guide — Canadian Rockies Adventure Centre, Alberta Rafting, or Kananaskis Whitewater Rafting — and prepare to get dunked.
Paddle the Athabasca
Adventurer? Kayak or canoe the glacier-fed Athabasca River through the wilderness of Jasper National Park at your own pace, following the historic fur trading routes of the voyageurs and First Nations people on Alberta’s second-largest river. Pause at many historic sites along the way, fish for trout, swim, and tell stories by the campfire. Hire a guide or rent equipment and go on your own, but be sure to get detailed maps at the Parks Canada office in Jasper before heading out.
Hike the river canyon
Take in dramatic Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park from the trail; two trails, actually, both of which are extremely popular. Go in the early morning or at dusk to avoid the crowds for this day hike. Tackle the gentle uphill Lower Falls (1.5 miles round-trip) or continue climbing to the Upper Falls (three miles round-trip) as well. Cliffside iron catwalks, staircases, and a tunnel take you far into the river gorge and under overhanging canyon walls, particularly dazzling in winter when the falls freeze over. Tack on another two miles to reach the Ink Pots, several green cold-water mineral springs in a meadow near the creek — a quiet spot to pause for a snack or picnic.
Sightsee and float
If you like R&R with your sightseeting, float the Bow River in Banff National Park for snow-capped glacier vistas from the water at an easygoing pace. You’ll likely spy wildlife — elk, deer, bear, moose, osprey — and get a unique perspective on the landscape. Take a one-hour tour or book a custom outing for your family or group of pals. You can take an educational float trip to learn about the area’s ecology and history, or go at twilight to catch browsing animals and watch the sun set.
While you’re in Alberta, add a road trip to your itinerary and along the way and stop at a few wineries to sample what’s new in the burgeoning local wine scene.
Find more vacation to-dos at the Travel Alberta website.