Canada is home to 209 national parks and historic sites, 19 of which are in Alberta. These five top picks should get you started on your Alberta vacation.

In 2015, Parks Canada celebrated 130 years of protecting the country’s most important landscapes, ecosystems and historic sites. It all began near present-day Banff, Alberta, when a steaming, sulfurous hot springs was pulled under the fledgling country’s protective wing.

Today, that spring is known as Cave and Basin National Historic Site and it’s just one of 209 national parks and national historic sites across Canada. Parks Canada keeps 19 national parks and national historic sites in Alberta, showcasing the very best of what the province has to offer. The following five picks bring the best of Alberta’s natural and cultural history to travelers, carrying on Parks Canada’s mission well into its second century.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site of Canada – Banff, AB

It’s the water here that started it all: steaming hot springs that filled the dreams of three early railroaders with visions of European-style baths. But it was not to be – the trio was quickly derailed when the federal government swooped in to claim the land for the future Cave and Basin National Historic Site. Today, the popular Alberta hot springs and its surrounding wetlands are home to rare and endangered flora and fauna.

Cave and Basin is within Banff National Park, easily accessed through Banff townsite. From Calgary, it’s 1.5 hours west on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Jasper National Park – Jasper, AB

Banff’s rough-cut sister, Jasper National Park, is a rugged mountain paradise, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a prime place for wildlife sightings and wilderness hiking. But whether you’re an experienced hiker or you prefer easy hiking trails, Jasper has the both the thrilling backcountry trails and easily-accessed jewel-toned lakes to satisfy all who travel to this national park.

Jasper lies 5 hours east of Edmonton on Highway 16. For the best mountain scenery getting to Jasper, jump on The Canadian, VIA Rail’s thrice-weekly passenger train departing from Vancouver, Edmonton and other points across Canada.

Wood Buffalo National Park – Fort Chipewyan, AB

Encompassing over 44 000 square kilometers, Canada’s largest national park is also home to the world’s biggest beaver dam, viewable only by helicopter. Wood Buffalo National Park’s purpose is to guard the remaining wood bison herds in the northern boreal forest, and it also protects endangered populations of whooping cranes and peregrine falcons. Local Alberta native groups use Wood Buffalo’s land for traditional activities.

Nearby Fort Chipewyan and Fort Smith both receive flights from Edmonton. Wood Buffalo is an 11-hour drive north from Edmonton; roads may not be open during winter.

Bar U Ranch National Historic Site of Canada – Longview, AB

Alberta’s cowboy history lives at the Bar U Ranch, once one of the province’s major cattle ranches. Established in the 1880s in the southern foothills, the Bar U outlasted its contemporaries and was world-renowned for its quality horse and cattle breeding. Today the Bar U operates as an evocative, interesting and easy self-guided excursion giving visitors clear insight into the historic rancher’s way of life.

Bar U Ranch is an hour south of Calgary on Highway 22.

Elk Island National Park – Edmonton, AB

A short day trip from Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, Elk Island National Park is an aspen parkland oasis under wide, blue prairie skies – unless you’ve caught one of the area’s intense July thunderstorms. Peaceful hiking trails weave through woodland, making a visit to Elk Island an ideal way to escape the big city. Birdwatching, stargazing, and hiking the many walking trails are popular activities at Elk Island.

Elk Island National Park is about an hour east of Edmonton on Highway 16.

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