Chances are when you think of Alberta you don’t think of the province in terms of a paddling destination. Yet it has its fair share of rivers and lakes in both prairie and mountain settings. All routes and experiences outlined below offer something for the beginner through to the advanced paddler. Here’s a list of what I think are 9 of the best places to paddle in Alberta – whether it be in a kayak or a canoe.
Milk River, Southeast Alberta
The 1,173 km Milk River, named for its milky colour by explorers Lewis and Clark travels from Montana into Alberta and back to Montana again. In southeastern Alberta there’s an outstanding 73 km section of river that can be comfortably paddled in three days. Start in the town of Milk River (where you can pick up a rental canoe and hand over your car keys so it’s waiting at the end) and finish in beautiful Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
You need some experience to kayak or canoe the Milk River as there are occasional Class III rapids, some Class II and lots of Class I rapids. Go early in the season (June and early July) when the flow is good or you’ll end up dancing around boulders on part of the river called the Rock Garden. While campsites are hardly private, both the one at Gold Springs and at Poverty Rock offer some nice hiking and stellar views of the river. Bird life is excellent along the river. Expect to see loads of swallows darting in among the sandstone cliffs and Great-horned owl sightings are a distinct possibility. The final few hours of the trip in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park are very special as you travel through a hoodoo filled landscape.
Read: A 3 Day Canoe Trip on the Milk RiverCanoeing the Milk River through Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park
Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park
You’ve seen the photos of Spirit Island in Maligne Lake whether you know it or not. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the world because it’s so beautiful. Most visitors check out Maligne Lake via a tour boat but there is the option to canoe or kayak for a day or better yet on a multi-day paddling trip with a stay at one or two of the three campgrounds.
While Maligne Lake will take your breath away with its beauty, it’s a lake that needs to be taken seriously because of unpredictable wind and very cold water. There is one family-friendly campsite – Hidden Cove a 3.5 km paddle from the launch site, via protected waters but the other two require at least some experience. Fisherman’s Bay, near Spirit Island is 13 km from the launch site and the Coronet Creek Campground at the far end of the lake is a 21.3 km paddle. The further you paddle the more dramatic the mountain scenery becomes. This is a very POPULAR paddle so I’d recommend booking campsites the day they open – which is January 24 at 8 AM. Call 1-877-RESERVE.
Bow River – Castle Junction to Banff
There are no commercial paddling trips on the Bow River and nor is it easy to rent a kayak. But if you can score a couple of plastic kayaks through friends (or perhaps through the University of Calgary Recreation Centre) and you have a couple of cars then you’re in for a treat. Park one car near Castle Junction just north of the bridge and the other at whatever end point you choose but somewhere near Banff that is accessible. Go out and enjoy a full day on fast water with one major rapid. At times it’s a Class III but when I paddled it, it felt more like a Class II. Scout it beforehand. The rest of the day is a delight with mountains as a backdrop and lots of gravel beaches for lunch stops or rests.
Lac la Biche, Lakeland Provincial Park
The Lac la Biche canoe circuit is the only one of its kind in Alberta. Located in Lakeland Provincial in central Alberta, it offers a 38 km route over three lakes along with a couple of portages including a 3 km one at the start. (Fortunately portage carts are available.) Plan on three days to paddle the circuit. There is no moving water so strong beginner paddlers would have fun on this trip. Just beware of the wind as it can blow up suddenly. You’ll see plenty of wildlife and birds and the night skies are perfect for stargazing.
Red Deer River
If you’re a novice canoeist or kayaker the Red Deer River is a great choice – though really its a fun river for anyone to paddle. The river is gentle, warm and not very deep. In fact there are places where you have to drag the canoe over gravel bars. I recommend a weekend trip that starts at Tolman Bridge and finishes in a municipal park in Drumheller via a shuttle. There are other variations depending on how much time you have. Start in Red Deer and paddle all the way to Dinosaur Provincial Park if you have the time. What you’ll get on the river is a lot of badlands scenery, great birding, some wildlife and perhaps even some fossil finds the closer you get to Dinosaur Provincial Park. This is definitely a family friendly trip. Camp in either dedicated campgrounds or find a gravelly beach in the shade of giant cottonwood trees.
North Saskatchewan River
There are lots of ways to paddle the North Saskatchewan River, an important river during Canada’s fur trade. In theory you can paddle from Nordegg to the Saskatchewan border but most people pick a section of the river to explore. Years ago we paddled a 40 km section east of Nordegg. This section of river is beautiful – the colour, a stunning aquamarine. It’s not like that around Edmonton where it’s a muddy brown colour but in the Edmonton area it’s easy to arrange shuttles and do a day or a weekend trip. The river is classified novice to intermediate, except the Nordegg to Devon section where there are some rapids to run. Check out Edmonton Canoe for information on rentals and shuttles from mid-May until the end of September.
Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park
Canoeing, kayaking or even SUP is a great way to experience Elk Island National Park in the summer. You can bring your own boat but it’s also possible to rent at the Astotin Lake Recreation Area. Explore the islands or plan a picnic at Beaver Bay. A pair of binoculars comes in handy as the birding here is excellent. I’ve never seen so many avocets at one time.
Peace River, Northern Alberta
The Peace River traverses the central part of the province for over 1,000 km cutting through a landscape made up of boreal forest, prairie, grasslands and rolling hills. If you have only a day you can paddle in the vicinity of the town of Peace River and rent and organize a shuttle with Peace River Cabins & Outdoors but you can easily spend a week on the river too. The river is not a hard one to paddle as its Class I. There are no rapids or portages, just errant boulders, some shallow gravel bars and a variable flow rate depending on what is discharged from the W.C. Bennett Dam in BC.
I recommend camping at designated campsites as the alternative is lugging gear up steep, slippery banks – an exhausting and dirty exercise. The river is not well traveled so there’s a good chance you’ll have campsites to yourself unless you spend a night in historic Dunvegan, in sight of Alberta’s only suspension bridge. Wildlife is common along this river so be prepared to see black bears, wolves, deer and coyotes.
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, Banff National Park
For a quintessential, romantic canoeing experience rent a canoe at either Lake Louise or Moraine Lake and enjoy an hour or two surrounded by majestic mountains and glaciers while paddling turquoise coloured lakes. The only caveat is the experience is not inexpensive. You only have two options – rent from either the Fairmont at Lake Louise or Moraine Lake Lodge on Moraine Lake. If you’re not a guest of the properties be prepared to spend upwards of $100 an hour – but splurge because how often are you likely to do this?
Update: Since writing this I learned that you can use your own boat but you’ll have to transport it from the parking lot and put in on the shore of Lake Louise or Moraine Lake.
Are there any other places in Alberta you’d recommend paddling? I know in Calgary I’m happy to go out after dinner and kayak on the Glenmore Reservoir but I’d be interested in hearing about other lakes or rivers, even if they are in the northern part of the province.
Remember, if it’s Maligne Lake you’re interested in paddling, you must book campsites very early and you can only spent a maximum of two nights in each campsite. The other paddling experiences are easier to organize at the last minute unless it’s a long weekend and you need a canoe rental and a shuttle. Plan accordingly.
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