There might not be another city quite like Edmonton. For starters, it’s the capital of Alberta with nearly one million residents in its metropolitan area; its downtown core has recently seen a boom; and, on top of that, it’s one of the northernmost cities in North America. Because of this, it’s not only easy to access (Edmonton is linked by major highways and an international airport, and it’s also possible to arrive by train), but it also means that an unlikely combination of opportunities await. Between First Nations history and Northern Lights sightings — there’s no denying that Edmonton is the Gateway to the North!

The North Saskatchewan River

The land that Edmonton is built on plays an important role in Canada’s history — but it’s also important to remember that the area was important long before Europeans arrived, as it was home to the Blackfoot Confederacy and Cree First Nations People. These people are still prevalent in the region, and their cultural traditions of winter survival are invaluable insights into what life was once like in the north. Travelers can learn more about Alberta’s Indigenous people by visiting the Royal Alberta Museum or by checking out the Amiskwaciy History Series.

Edmonton is located on the North Saskatchewan River, one of the largest in the nation. The river begins in the Columbia Icefields, near Banff National Park, and moves northeast through Saskatchewan, finally spilling into the Hudson Bay. This location allowed what is now known as Edmonton to become an important stopping point for Canada’s fur traders, their ships and boats meandering the glacial waters with cargos full of beaver pelts.

Today, the banks of the North Saskatchewan River are home to the River Valley Parks system. With 20 interconnected parks, it’s Canada’s largest urban parkland and offers activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing. But you can’t visit this northern water system without recognizing and paying homage to the past.

See the Northern Lights

It’s true, there are times when you can spot the aurora borealis just by crossing a city block in Edmonton. But still, it’s much easier, and more common, to enjoy them outside the urban center. One of the best areas to experience this dazzling display of colors is Elk Island National Park, which is just a quick, 30-mile drive from downtown.

The park is part of Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, where little to no light pollution exists, creating pristine conditions for witnessing the magic of the night sky. Seeing this colorful dance might just complete your getaway to the north, but do remember to pack some extra layers and your thermos! For up-to-date information surrounding the northern lights, be sure to keep an eye on Aurora Watch.

The Great Outdoors

Alberta is home to some of Canada’s finest natural scenery, with a captivating mix of prairies, mountains, and glacial lakes decorating its landscapes. And arguably the best part about Edmonton is its proximity to a very unique topography. 

Sitting 53.6 degrees north of the equator (Stockholm lies at 59.3, for reference), Edmonton’s frigid climate has formed and forged the neighboring boreal forests, aspen parklands, and flowing waterways. And because of the city’s relative remoteness, much of these lands have been protected and sanctioned as public lands. Though there are countless parks and preservation areas, some spots you shouldn’t miss include Elk Island National Park, Beaverhill Lake Heritage Rangeland Natural Area, and Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. And, one more thing to keep in mind: Jasper National Park is just a few hours to the west!

Bison, Bison, and More Bison

Only certain animals can survive northern Alberta’s winters. After all, with an average temperature of 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit (-10.4 Celsius) in January, only a few species have evolved to endure the relentless cold. But, upon your arrival in Edmonton, you will soon learn that there are none as durable as the bison. These hulking creatures (which can weigh as much as 2,500 pounds, roughly equivalent to a small car) are a big draw for those visiting the city. Elk Island National Park is a hotbed for bison, where hundreds can be found. Though they can be seen all over the enclosed park, popular sighting spots are the Hayburger, Tawayik, and Wood Bison Trails. 

But bison are not the only animals that you’ll see in Elk Island. There are also elk, as well as moose, white-tailed deer, beaver, lynx, coyote, and over 200 bird species, including herons, hawks, and swans. These species can also be seen in other nearby nature preserves and parks, so be sure to keep an eye out when heading into any outdoor setting.

Hockey, and There’s Football Here Too

Sport is a large part of Edmonton’s identity, especially in the heart of winter, when the temperature nosedives and the sky appears as one big snowflake. If you’re hoping to experience Edmonton’s unwavering passion for sport, look no further than the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and the CFL’s (Canadian Football League) Edmonton Eskimos — two teams that have left their mark on their respective leagues.

To start, the Oilers are one of the most storied franchises in hockey after the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers won four Stanley Cups in a six-year span back in the ‘80s. The present team is captained by another world renowned superstar in the form of 22-year-old Connor McDavid, who hopes to fill the newly-built Rogers Center with a few more championship banners.

On the other, maybe less familiar hand, there’s the Edmonton Eskimos, one of nine teams making up the Canadian Football League, which is currently in its 106th year. And much to the delight of Edmontonians, the Eskimos have also contributed to the city’s winning tradition, as they have 14 league titles to their name. For an unforgettable northern experience, spend a snowy afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium cheering on the green and gold.

Let us know about your northern adventure in the comments below!

Share this:
Brad Donaldson is a writer and editor proudly based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although his roots are in Canada, his desire to see more of the world frequently takes him away from home. His work, both as an editor and writer, has appeared in local newspapers and publications.