To put it simply, Alberta is one of the best places for stargazing on the planet. For starters, this Canadian province boasts not only the world’s largest but also second-largest Dark Sky Preserves. On top of that, Alberta is the sunniest province in Canada, which translates into a whole lot of clear nights.
As if that weren’t enough, Alberta is home to Canada’s two most famous national parks, where Rocky Mountain peaks form a dramatic backdrop for stargazing. Last but certainly not least, Northern Lights dance in the Albertan sky regularly in almost every month of the year.
You can easily access several of the best spots for stargazing in Alberta from the province’s two major cities, Edmonton and Calgary. Others require some serious driving, but the rewards are commensurate. There’s just one thing to keep in mind: daylight lasts extremely long in summer in Alberta, so you’ll either need to stay up extra late, or opt for any other season.
1. Jasper National Park
The world’s second-largest dark sky preserve is also the far more accessible of the two. Jasper National Park is in the Rocky Mountains north of its more famous cousin, Banff, but Jasper eclipses Banff in sheer size, darkness of its skies, and possibilities for stargazing. Some of the best spots include Pyramid Lake, Medicine Lake, and Mount Edith Cavell. Jasper even has its own planetarium with the largest telescope for public use in the Rocky Mountains and an annual dark sky festival.
2. Elk Island National Park
The smallest national park in Alberta is also one of the province’s most accessible stargazing spots, located only 50km (40 minutes drive)40 km (30 minutes’ drive) from downtown Edmonton. Elk Island National Park belongs to Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, which covers a large area east of Alberta’s capital.
Characterized by its rolling landscape and kettle lakes, the park has plenty of wide open spaces perfect for an impromptu stargazing trip from the city. Just watch out for the bison; they don’t like when you get too close! Miquelon Lake and Cooking Lake–Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area are two other excellent stargazing spots within Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve.
3. Lesser Slave Lake
Canada, and especially Alberta, is known for its lakes. In fact, Canada has over 1 million of them, including more than half of the world’s lakes larger than 10 hectares in size. Lesser Slave Lake is surely one of those, at a staggering 116,000 hectares in size; it’s only “lesser” in size when compared to the even larger (but far less accessible) Great Slave Lake in Northwest Territories. Lesser Slave Lake’s north shore is totally remote and lined with wildland and provincial parks where there’s a good chance you’ll be the only stargazing human soul for miles. The lake is less than three hours’ drive from Edmonton.
4. Dinosaur Provincial Park
One of the best stargazing spots in southern Alberta is Dinosaur Provincial Park. Named after the fact that paleontologists have discovered numerous dinosaur species there, the park also boasts awesome stargazing possibilities just over two hours’ drive from Calgary. Spend the night in the park’s public campground, the only accommodation in the area. At dusk, the arid badlands landscape makes for an otherworldly stargazing setting. With no major cities anywhere near the park, it doesn’t get much better.
5. Cypress Hills
Cypress Hills is an “interprovincial park,” meaning it spans two provinces: Alberta and Saskatchewan. The southern part of these two provinces is considered the “sun belt” of Canada, with more days of sunshine (read: clear skies) per year than anywhere else in the country. Cypress Hills is an elevated landscape surrounded by prairies. As a result, the hills escaped glaciation in the last ice age and thus have a totally unique ecosystem. The elevation also makes for clearer skies, with several lakes and campgrounds in the park. The whole park is an official Dark Sky Preserve.
6. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
Just a stone’s throw from the United States border, Writing-on-Stone is one of the most unique stargazing spots in Alberta. In the daytime, gaze upon some of the best-preserved indigenous rock paintings in North America. Then at night, tilt back your chair in the park’s single campground to take in an expansive star-filled sky. Alternatively, gaze at the heavens while standing amidst the towering hoodoos (flat-topped rock formations created by the wind) in the park.
7. Waterton Lakes National Park
Alberta’s lesser-known and visited Rocky Mountain National Park may be more familiar to American visitors, as it is physically connected to Glacier National Park in the US, forming the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Besides the very small cluster of hotels and amenities in Waterton townsite, the park is mostly devoid of signs of civilization. For the best stargazing results, spend the night at one of the numerous backcountry campsites in the park.
8. Banff National Park
Alberta and Canada’s first and most famous national park also happens to be an excellent stargazing venue. From a lakeshore (or, at the height of winter, standing on the frozen lake itself) is ideal, with some of the best options including Vermilion Lakes, Two Jack Lake, Lake Minnewanka, and the gem of the Rockies, Lake Louise. For especially dramatic night sky views, drive the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93), a highly scenic roadway connecting Banff and Jasper National Parks, with many opportunities to stop and stargaze along the way. Just drive safely on this winding, high-mountain road, especially in winter.
Far less touristy than Jasper or Banff, but with the same dramatic Rocky Mountain views, Kananaskis is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and stargazers. “Kananaskis country” encompasses not one but multiple provincial parks, wilderness recreation areas, and crown lands. Dozens of hikes, a vast network of snowshoeing trails in winter, and campgrounds (front-country and back-country) tempt visitors to seek out the best views before and after the sun goes down.
10. Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park
Like Dinosaur Provincial Park, Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is a badlands area created by the Red Deer River, which carves a deep valley into the surrounding plains. But Dry Island is even more remote and less-visited, with almost no amenities, making it a great spot to escape civilization and gaze at the stars. It is an hour east of Red Deer, the city that sits at the halfway point between Edmonton and Calgary.
11. RASC Observatory
You don’t have to leave the big city to go stargazing in Alberta. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada runs an observatory at Telus World of Science in Edmonton, where you can peer at the sky through a huge telescope. What’s more, it’s volunteer-run and totally free! The observatory is open on clear nights until 10 or 11 PM, but only when the weather is above -10°C, including the windchill.
12. Rothney Astrophysical Observatory
From Calgary, you only have to drive half an hour out of the city to reach Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, which the University of Calgary maintains. The observatory is in the foothills between Calgary and the Rocky Mountains and is surrounded by conservation areas and indigenous lands. The observatory welcomes the public to use the observatory during special astronomical events such as eclipses, meteor showers, and so on.
13. Métis Crossing
Metis Crossing is an interpretive center dedicated to the culture of the Métis (mixed indigenous and French) people who live on the Canadian prairies. Besides learning about Métis culture, you can stay in a lodge or camp onsite and enjoy the quintessential prairie experience of stargazing from a campfire in the middle of nowhere. Métis Crossing is 1.5 hours northeast of Edmonton.
Like Dinosaur Provincial Park, Writing-on-Stone, and Dry Island Buffalo Jump, Drumheller features incredible badlands scenery, but it is the most famous and visited of them all. Most people come to Drumheller for its dinosaur attractions, including one of the best dinosaur museums in the world. But at night, vast Horseshoe and Horsethief canyons, just out of town, offer compelling stargazing opportunities, while you can’t miss the chance to photograph the Milky Way framed by Drumheller’s iconic hoodoos.
15. Wood Buffalo National Park
Did we save the best for last? You bet! Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest national park in Canada and second largest in the world – in fact, it’s bigger than around half the countries in Europe! It’s no surprise, then, that Wood Buffalo is the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve. Skies don’t get much darker (and Northern Lights brighter) than they do at Wood Buffalo. But to enjoy them, you’ll need to set aside a chunk of time; it’s a 14-hour drive (each way, stops not included) from Edmonton.
Alternatively, you can drive there from Fort McMurray, Alberta’s oil capital in the north, but the road is only open in winter, when it crosses numerous frozen lakes. Because it is so far away from anything, Wood Buffalo sees few visitors, making it all the more appealing for serious stargazers.
Have any questions about stargazing in Alberta? Let me know in the comments.