Edmonton’s position as one of the northernmost cities on the continent might turn some potential travelers away. But, believe it or not, there are benefits to being that far from the central network of civilization. Lovers of green spaces, for instance, never have to venture very far to find a natural oasis in Alberta’s capital. From ice skating to stargazing to speeding down a ski slope in a canoe (uh-huh, you read that correctly), here are some of the best spots and activities for nature lovers to add to their Edmonton itinerary.
Rising from the river valley that cuts through Edmonton’s city center, the four glass pyramids of the Muttart Conservatory may evoke images of the Louvre, but you’ll find much more than man-made works of art within. This is Edmonton’s premier horticultural site, housing more than 700 plant species across three different biomes (temperate, arid, and tropical), with the fourth pyramid acting as a “feature biome” that showcases rotating art exhibits. If you want to enjoy urban greenery without the hassle of lacing up your hiking boots or bundling up and bracing against the biting cold, Muttart Conservatory is the place to do it.
In each biome, you can escape the bustle of the city and meander peacefully along the stone walkways that guide you through the calming havens of plant life. And those over 18 are in for a special treat from 5 to 9 p.m. every Wednesday evening.
These weekly “Adult Only” nights offer new ways to experience the natural glory of the green spaces, such as exclusive tours, beer and wine tastings, board game nights, and group painting workshops. However you prefer to immerse yourself in nature, you’ll find your personal outlet at Muttart.
North Saskatchewan River Valley
Many urbanites have to drive hours outside their cities just to catch a glimpse of a leafy tree or hear the trickle of a stream. This is not the case in Edmonton. In fact, the North Saskatchewan River Valley — the largest urban park in Canada, with more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) of paved trails — cuts right through the heart of the metropolis.
Often referred to as a “Ribbon of Green,” the valley moseys diagonally across Edmonton, meaning that even if you’re typing away at a Starbucks or waiting for the bus at a public transit stop, you’re never far from a hiking trail or quiet park bench to relax for a moment and breathe in the fresh air.
All together, the valley is subdivided into 25 separate parks across the city, so wherever you are in Edmonton, you’ll always have a new spot to explore nearby.
Victoria Park IceWay
It’s easy to forget that ice skating is, at its heart, a form of transportation. Even figure skaters and hockey players, people who have spent their entire lives gliding across frigid rinks in winter towns around the world, have typically been confined to closed-off sheets of ice. They move beautifully, but they don’t actually go anywhere.
Edmonton had a different idea.
The IceWay, located downtown in the city’s Victoria Park, is a three-loop system of glistening ice paths that skaters can traverse at their leisure. Essentially a hiking trail that requires blades instead of boots, the Iceway winds through the park’s enchanting forests, creating a brand new type of skating experience, one that allows you to feel the rush of the wind against your face as you glide through the park’s gorgeous winter wonderland. Along the way, you can stop at warming huts that trap heat from the sunlight to let skaters take a break from the elements and cozy up before heading back out. And when night falls, rainbow lights illuminate the frozen pathways, putting the finishing touch on this magical outdoor experience.
Elk Island National Park
If you can’t find something at Elk Island that indulges your love for the outdoors, we don’t know what to tell you. Just 40 minutes east of the city, this national park is a year-round natural paradise home to moose, bison, elk (of course), 250 bird species, five species of amphibians, two species of fish, and one species of reptile across an eclectic countryside of lakes, wetlands, grasslands, and forests. Whether your personal style of outdoor adventure includes day-hikes, picnics, or overnight camping, you’ll find endless opportunities for tranquility here.
Animal lovers should add to their itinerary a drive around the Bison Loop, which winds through the park and offers ample opportunity to spot some of the 1,000 bison that call the sanctuary home.
You also can check out the Bison Eye View Tour to learn about how the park keeps these majestically shaggy creatures safe and healthy. With their thick coats, the bison love the cold, so you’ll have the best chance at seeing them if you visit during the winter. Foliage fanatics, on the other hand, should schedule their visit for the fall, when the park explodes in a flurry of autumn colors.
What’s more, Elk Island is part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, a 116-square-mile (300-square-kilometer) area that also includes the adjacent Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. The sanctuary is committed to reducing artificial light, making it an ideal area to gaze at the starry skies and watch for meteor showers and the Northern Lights. One of the more popular stargazing locations, Astotin Recreation Area, offers spots for tent and RV campers, as well as a series of oTENTiks (tent-cabin hybrids).
Lake Astotin is one of the largest and most accessible lakes in the park, so whether or not you’re fortunate enough to see the aurora, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for hiking, snowshoeing, ice skating, and canoeing.
University of Alberta
If stargazing is on your Edmonton bucket list but you don’t have the time or ability to leave the city, it might be time to head back to school — and by that, we mean scheduling a visit to the University of Alberta Department of Physics Astronomical Observatory. Public viewing hours are limited (12 to 1 p.m. and 7 to 8 p.m. every Thursday), but if you can fit it into your schedule, it’s well worth a visit, and admission is free.
Volunteers on-site will show you how to use the university’s telescopes, which offer breathtaking looks at the city’s expansive night skies. Even if you’re not able to catch a glimpse of the aurora, gazing into the star-speckled canopy above Edmonton will be sure to enchant you.
Flying Canoe Festival
When you’re the northernmost city in North America with at least a million residents, you can’t exactly shy away from the annual winter chill. In fact, Edmonton has learned to embrace it, launching the WinterCity Strategy — a series of initiatives designed to reclaim the wonder of winter. From ice skating, to sipping hot cocoa, to gathering around evergreen spaces and planning candlelit community events, the city has found ways to dive headfirst into the magical beauty of the chilly season.
One of the most exciting embodiments of this is the Flying Canoe Festival (or, Canoë Volant), held annually at the Mill Creek Ravine in central Edmonton. During this one-of-a-kind nighttime festival, teams of flannel-clad competitors participate in a race that involves throwing axes, cutting logs with two-person bucksaws, and as the festival’s title alludes to, coasting down ski hills in a hollowed-out canoe. Spectators can cozy up next to the bonfires that illuminate the spectacle and spend the time in between relays observing traditional artwork and performances. It’s the race itself, however, that best captures the spirit of Edmonton’s love of winter — in the face of frozen lakes, the city refuses to pack up their canoes for the season.
If you’d like to learn more about the unbelievable access Edmonton provides to the great outdoors, check out our guide on the city’s status as the Gateway to the North.