Alberta Mountain Forests

The precipitous eastern slopes of the Rockies are included in this ecoregion, which is centered on the Columbia icefield. Also common are hanging glaciers, alpine meadows, and waterfalls. At lower elevations are mixed forests of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and alpine fir. Big game is prominent, with bighorn sheep, elk, black-tailed deer, wolf, grizzly, caribou, and mountain goat. Also prominent are the two national parks on the eastern slopes, Banff and Jasper, the Siffleur and White Goat wilderness areas, and nine national historic sites. The Great Divide Trail extends the length of the ecoregion along the Continental Divide.

World Heritage Site

Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, Alberta and British Columbia, consists of seven parks chosen for classic illustrations of glacial geologic processes—icefields, remnant valley glaciers, canyons, alpine meadows, lakes, and waterfalls. Two of the seven parks in this designation are in the Alberta Mountain forests ecoregion: Banff and Jasper. In addition, there are nine National Historic Sites included within the boundaries of the two parks and are therefore within the World Heritage site.

Banff National Park, Alberta, is 6,641 km2, Canada’s first national park, is a land of mountain meadows surrounded by icefields and canyons. It extends from the Spray River in the south (N50˚43’ W115˚24’) to near the Columbia Glacier on Icefields Parkway in the north (N52˚13’ W117˚12’). Banff townsite and the Bow River downstream are in the North-Central Rockies forests ecoregion and described there. Lake Louise townsite is the second developed area within the park. Within the park is Minnewanka Reservoir (N51⁰14’ W115⁰29’), which is a hydroelectric storage reservoir discharging at TransAlta’s 36-Megawatt Cascade powerplant on the Bow River. North of Banff, the Bow Valley Parkway (Route 1A), extends from Banff to Lake Louise, passing Johnston Canyon (N51˚15’ W115˚50’), with two popular waterfalls, and Castle Mountain pinnacles (N51˚16’ W115˚54’). The Icefields Parkway (Route 93) extends northward from Lake Louise (N51˚26’ W116˚12’) to Jasper (N52˚52’ W118˚5’), passing Bow Glacier and 500-foot Bow Glacier Falls (N51˚38’ W116˚26’) and Columbia Glacier (N52˚8’ W117˚22’), the largest mass of glacial ice outside of the Arctic. At Sunwapta Pass, the Icefields Parkway enters Jasper National Park. Within Banff park, the North Saskatchewan Canadian Heritage River is designated for 48.5 km from the source on Saskatchewan Glacier (N52°13’ W117°6’) downstream to the park boundary (N52°0’ W116°40’). Icefields Parkway (Route 93) and Route 11 follow portions of this river. The Great Divide Trail extends through the park.

Within the Alberta Mountain forests ecoregion of Banff National Park are five National Historic Sites:

  • Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin National Historic Site (N51˚22’ W116˚17’) is a high-altitude hut built in 1922 and used as a base for mountaineers. The cabin is a monument to Swiss guides, who built the cabin based on rustic design examples from the Alps. Access is via a 13-km trail from Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park. From the hut climbers can ascend Mount Lefroy and Mount Victoria.
  • Cave and Basin National Historic Site (N51˚10’ W115˚35’) commemorates the birth of Canada’s national park system. Here a cave and hot springs were discovered in 1883, which led to an effort to protect the site as a national park. Access is from the Banff townsite.
  • Howse Pass National Historic Site (N51˚48’ W116˚58’) is on the Kootenay Trail, an aboriginal route between Alberta’s Saskatchewan River valley and the Columbia River Valley, used until 1810. It is in the northern portion of Banff National Park.
  • Skoki Ski Lodge National Historic Site (N51˚32’ W116˚5’) was built in 1931 for the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies. It is seven miles from the Icefields Parkway.
  • Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site (N51˚9’ W115˚35’) is the remains of a high altitude geophysical observatory overlooking the town site of Banff.

Jasper National Park, Alberta is the largest Dark Sky Reserve on the planet. There are 1,000 miles of trails. The park extends from the Athabasca Glacier in the south (N52˚11’ W117˚14’) to the Resthaven Icefield in the north (N53˚26’ W119˚30’). The Icefields Parkway (Route 93) extends northward from Lake Louise (N51˚26’ W116˚12’) to Jasper (N52˚52’ W118˚5’). There are more than 100 km of the parkway in Jasper park. Some of the highlights are 23-m-high Athabasca Falls (N52˚40’ W117˚53’) at km 30, Goat Lick at km 38, Sunwapta Falls (N52˚32’ W117˚41’) at km 55, which drops from a hanging valley; and Athabasca Glacier (N52˚14’ W117˚14’) across from the Icefield Centre at km 103. The Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center offers a cliff-edge walkway along the Sunwapta Valley, including the Glacier Skywalk, 918 feet above the valley below. From Jasper, a road leads to the north face of Mount Edith Cowell (N52˚41’ W118˚3’), where glacial moraines, Cowell Meadows, flowers, and Angel Glacier may be viewed. An aerial tramway rises from Jasper 1,350 m to the Whistlers (N52˚50’ W118˚7’). Medicine Lake (N52˚52’ W117˚47’) is the largest known sinking river in the Western Hemisphere. The lake drains by a sinkhole. Maligne Canyon (N52˚55’ W117˚59’) is a steep-walled limestone canyon nearby. On the northwest shore of Jasper Lake are the often-submerged Jasper Lake Sand Dunes (N53˚8’ W118˚0’). Miette Hot Springs (N53˚7’ W117˚44’) are the hottest in the Rockies at 53.9˚C. At the north entrance to the park is the Pocahontas Mine Site (N53˚12’ W117˚56’), the remnants of a coal mine that operated into the 1920s. Within the park, the Athabasca Canadian Heritage River is designated for 168 km from its source near Mount Columbia (N52°11’ W117°27’) downstream to the park boundary along Route 16 (N53°14’ W117°52’). The Great Divide Trail extends through the park.

Within the Jasper National Park portion of the Alberta Mountain forests are five national historic sites:

  • Athabasca Pass National Historic Site (N52˚23’ W118˚11’), commemorates the major fur transportation route traversed by early adventurers in the early 1800s. The first white man to cross the Rockies, David Thompson, used the pass in 1811, and it was a fur trade route to the Oregon territory for the next 50 years afterward.  The site is accessed from Jasper National Park via the 7-km-long road to Moab Lake south of Route 93A, then by trail for 49 km along the Whirlpool River, a three-day hike.
  • Jasper House National Historic Site (N53˚14’ W117˚52’), is a fur trading post built in 1813 on the north side of the Athabasca River off Route 16, where there is a plaque. There are three buildings from the former fur trade post, associated with fur trade routes across the Rocky Mountains. The post operated until 1853.
  • Jasper Park Information Centre National Historic Site (N52˚52’ W118˚5’) is across from the train station on Connaught Drive in the town of Jasper. It was built in 1913 as a park administration building. Its rustic design, with fieldstone, a steep roof, and various gables and porches, influenced the building design of the remainder of the Canadian park system.
  • Maligne Lake Chalet and Guest House National Historic Site, Alberta (N52⁰44’ W117⁰38’), is located at the park’s largest lake in a glaciated valley dammed by an end moraine. Built by an outfitter between 1927 and 1941, the rustic lodge reflects the prominent role the outfitters, guides, and railroads played in the development of the national parks.
  • Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site (N52˚53’ W118˚27’) is on Route 16. This major highway and rail crossing was also an early fur trade route across the Rockies from the 1820s to the 1850s.

Provincial parks and local sites

Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park includes four separate areas with a total area of 37,370 ha, three to the north of the Trans-Canada Highway (Route 1), and one to the south. The park includes lands in the Alberta Mountain forests and North-Central Rockies forests ecoregions. The south unit includes Mount Butler (N50°55’ W115°15’) in the south, Mount Rundle (N51°8’ W115°27’) in the northwest, and Jewell Pass (N51°3’ W115°6’) in the northeast. It is bordered by Banff National Park and Spray Valley Provincial Park on the west, Evan-Thomas Provincial Recreation Area, Valley Provincial Park, and Bow Valley Provincial Park on the east, and Bow Valley Provincial Park and Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park on the north. Other notable features include patterned ground on Mount Sparrowhawk (N50°56’ W115°16’), Mount Lougheed, and the Three Sisters. The northeastern unit consists of the former Yamnuska Natural Area (N51°6’ W115°7’) including Mount Laurie and is on Route 1A. The north-central unit is the Bow Valley area along Route 1 in the North-Central Rockies forest ecoregion, and the northwestern unit (N51°8’ W115°20) is to the north of Canmore centered on Mount Lady McDonald. It borders Banff National Park and Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.

Brazeau Canyon Wildland Provincial Park protects a 25-km reach of the Brazeau River from the Alberta Mountain forests ecoregion to the Alberta-British Columbia foothills forests ecoregion. The park is 5,039 ha in extent. The park includes steep-walled canyons and glacial meltwater channels adjoining Jasper National Park. The upper end of the canyon (N52°42’ W116°49’) adjoins Jasper National Park and the lower end of the canyon (N52°51’ W116°37’) is in the foothills forests. A separate tract of the park surrounds Muskiki Lake (N52°51’ W116°52’). Access to both tracts is via Grove Flats Road. Part of Marshybank Ecological Reserve is surrounded by the park.

Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park is 62,775 ha in 12 units along the Rocky Mountain front, three of which are in the Alberta Mountain forests ecoregion. The remaining nine units are in the North Central Rockies forests ecoregion. The park is known for blockfields, large, sheet-like expanses of weathered blocks covering bedrock on mountain plateaus and ridges. The Great Divide Trail extends through the park.

  • Unit east of Banff National Park in the South Ghost River watershed (N51°12’ W115°13’)
  • Unit south of Ghost River including Phantom Crag and Mount Costigan (N51°18’ W115°15’)
  • Unit north of Ghost River including Devils Head and Mount Oliver (N51°23’ W115°17’).

Douglas Fir Natural Area (N52⁰11’ W116⁰26’) is 320 ha on the east side of Abraham Lake. The area was set aside to recognize the relatively uncommon Douglas fir forest on the east side of the Rockies.

Ghost River Wilderness Area includes 15,317 ha of spruce-fir and alpine tundra with boulder fields encompassing the entire upper Ghost River watershed. It is bordered by the Banff National Park on the west and south and Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park on the north and east. Access is from Minnewonda Lake in Banff National Park. The southern portion of the park is near Mount Costigan (N51°17’ W115°17’) and the northern end is near Mount Oliver (N51°26’ W115°28’).

Kakwa Provincial Park is 170,890 ha in size, at the junction of three ecoregions (Alberta Mountain forests, Central British Columbia Mountain forests, and North Central Rockies forests) 70 km north of McBride. Access is by foot from the end of Walker Creek Forest Service Road, 85 km from Route 16. A continuous chain of national and provincial parks begins at Kakwa and extends southward to Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park in Alberta. The park is also the northern terminus of the Great Divide Trail, which extends 1,200 km south to Waterton Lakes National Park and continues in the United States as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail to Mexico. The park includes two peaks over 10,000 feet, Narraway waterfall, caves, Triassic fish fossils, and dinosaur track sites. Forests are sub-boreal. The headquarters is at Kakwa Lake (N54⁰0’ W120⁰11’).  The northern extent is along the Narraway River (N54⁰16’ W120⁰15’), the western extent is at McGregor River at Jarvis Creek (N53⁰59’ W120⁰42’), and the southeastern extent is at Intersection Mountain (N53⁰49’ W120⁰0’).

Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park is 64,928 ha 160 km southwest of Grand Prairie, accessible by four-wheel drive. There are 100 km of trails, linking three waterfalls, Lower Kakwa Falls (N54⁰6’ W119⁰42’), Kakwa Falls (N54⁰7’ W119⁰56’), and Francis Peak Creek Falls (N54⁰4’ W119⁰55’). Kakwa Falls is 30 m in height and Francis Peak Creek Falls features a natural bridge. Forests are of subalpine fir, Englemann spruce, and lodgepole pine. In the La Creche Mountains are krummholz trees.  The northwest (N54⁰10’ W120⁰0’) and southwest (N53⁰55’ W120⁰0’) extent of the park is at the British Columbia border. The southern extent (N53⁰54’ W119⁰46′) is the boundary with Willmore Wilderness Park and eastern portion (N54⁰1’W119⁰34’) is on Copton Creek.

Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve (N52⁰3’ W116⁰24’) is 3,439 ha on Route 11 east of Banff National Park protected as the best montane grassland-forest mosaic in Alberta. Trails lead to Siffleur Falls and Knight Lake.

Kootenay Plains Provincial Recreation Area (N52⁰4’ W116⁰25’) is a campground on Route 11 east of Banff National Park.

Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is 50,142 ha along Routes 40 and 742 south of Banff National Park. The park extends into both the Alberta Mountain forests and North-Central Rockies forests ecoregions. There are 23 glaciers and numerous U-shaped valleys. The park is bordered by Elk Lake Provincial Park and Height of the Rockies Provincial Parks of British Columbia on the south, Banff National Park on the west, Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park on the east, and Spray Valley Provincial Park on the north. Features of the park in the Alberta Mountain forests (western) portion are Black Prince Cirque (N50°42’ W115°13’), Chester Lake (N50°48’ W115°19’), and Three Isle Lake (N50°38’ W115°16’). The Great Divide Trail extends through the park.

Marshybank Ecological Reserve is 830 ha in two tracts. The reserve includes 12 plant communities, ranging from lodgepole pine to subalpine forests. Spruce and larch bogs are common. One tract includes Marshybank Lake (N52°47’ W116°45’) and the other is near the Brazeau River (N52°47’ W116°48’).

Rock Lake Provincial Park (N53ᵒ28’ W118ᵒ16’) is 1,662 ha along the Wildhay River corridor. Rock Lake itself is in a spectacular setting surrounded by mountains. It is the staging area for entrance to Willmore Wilderness Park and is 70 km north of Hinton off Route 40. The park is bordered to the north and south by the Rock Lake-Solomon Creek Wildland Provincial Park, and trails lead into the wildland park from Rock Lake.

Rock Lake-Solomon Creek Wildland Provincial Park is 34,683 ha in two sections, to the north and south of Rock Lake Provincial Park. The northern section is centered on Mumm Creek (N53°30’ W118°15’) and the southern section includes Moosehorn Lake (N53°22’ W118°8’) and Solomon Creek (N53°24’ W117°53’). The southern end is near Brule Lake (N53°14’ W117°52’). It is a refuge for the pygmy whitefish and also has diverse terrestrial habitats in the Boule Range and Hoff Range. Boule Rouche Peak at 2385 m is the highest peak. It is bordered by the Willmore Wilderness Park on the north and Jasper National Park to the west.

Scalp Creek Natural Area (N51°48’ W115°38’) is 717 ha east of Banff National Park on a tributary to the Red Deer River. The site contains unusual thermokarst, hummocky and pockmarked terrain amid grassland, wet meadows, Englemann spruce, and dwarf birch shrubland.

Sheep Creek Provincial Recreation Area (N54°4’ W119°1’) is a 10-ha tract on Route 40 north of Grande Cache on the Smoky River. There are no facilities.

Siffleur Wilderness Area is 41,214 ha adjacent to Banff National Park. There are hanging glaciers, alpine meadows and subalpine forests within the watersheds of the Siffleur and Escarpment Rivers to the south of Route 11. Most access is from the Siffleur Falls Trailhead. The north end coordinates are N52⁰1’ W116⁰20,’ the south end coordinates are N51⁰47’ W116⁰20,’ the west end coordinates are N51⁰57’ W116⁰37,’ and the east end coordinates are N51⁰52’ W116⁰12.’

Smoky River South Provincial Recreation Area (N53°53’ W119°10’) is a 91-ha tract with a campground on Route 40 at the Smoky River.

Sulphur Gates Provincial Recreation Area (N53°52’ W119°11’) contains spectacular views of the Sulphur River Canyon and the Smoky River water gap. It is a staging area for the Willmore Wilderness.

William A. Switzer Provincial Park (N53°29’ W117°49’) extends into the Alberta Mountain forests at its southern end. It is mostly in the Alberta-British Columbia foothills forest ecoregion. The park includes a chain of 5 lakes in meadow and wetlands complexes.

Spray Valley Provincial Park is 27,472 ha on Route 742 south of Canmore and Route 40 south of Kananaskis Village. The park is located in both the Alberta Mountain forests and North-Central Rockies forests ecoregions. It is bordered by the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park on the south, Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park on the east, Evan Thomas Provincial Recreation Area and Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park on the north, and Banff National Park on the west. The Spray Lakes Storage Reservoir of TransAlta Corporation is in the center of the park. The Reservoir was created by the Canyon Dam (N50⁰53’ W115⁰23’) and the Three Sisters Dam (N51⁰0’ W115⁰23’). Water is diverted through a series of generation facilities at Three Sisters, Spray powerhouse (N51⁰5’ W115⁰24’), and Rundle Powerhouse (N51⁰5’ W115⁰22’) before being discharged into the Bow River. The eastern portion of the park, around Fortress Junction on Route 40 (N50°47’ W115°10’) and the trailhead at Wedge Pond (N50°52’ W115°9’) are in the North Central Rockies forests ecoregion. The Great Divide Trail extends through the park.

Thompson Creek Provincial Recreation Area (N52⁰1’ W116⁰38’) is 117 ha to the east of Banff National Park on Route 11 and the North Saskatchewan River. It is a hiking and camping park. Trails lead to Thompson Creek Falls.

Two Lakes Provincial Park (N54⁰22’ W119⁰46’) is 1,567 ha accessible by gravel road `40 km from Grand Prairie on Route 666. There are four trails to scenic views. The lakes support osprey and loon.

Watson Creek Provincial Recreation Area (N53°4’ W117°16’) is 34 ha on Route 40 on the McCleod River, used for camping.

White Goat Wilderness Area is 44,457 ha adjacent to Banff National Park. It is noted or 3300-m peaks, snowfields, glaciers, alpine meadows and forests, mostly north of the Cline River and including the watershed of McDonald Creek. The east end is along the Cline River (N52⁰10’ W116⁰32’) and the west side is near Huntington Glacier (N52⁰15’ W117⁰5’).

Whitehorse Creek Provincial Recreation Area (N52°59’ W117°20’) is 23 ha on the McCleod River at Whitehorse Creek. The park is used as an equestrian facility.

Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park is 17,326 ha adjacent to Jasper National Park. Much of the park is above tree line. Whitehorse Creek is known for breeding harlequin ducks. In this area of the park is also Upper Whitehorse Creek Falls (N52°59’ W117°30’) and Fiddle Pass Trail to Jasper National Park (N53°2’ W117°30’). Cadomia Cave (N53°0’ W117°21’) is protected as a bat hibernaculum. Cardinal Divide includes a trail to mountain overlooks (N52°54’ W117°8’).

Wildhay Provincial Recreation Area (N53°31’ W117°57) is a 4-ha group camping area on the Wildhay River.

Willmore Wilderness Park is a 459,671-ha tract with 750 km of trails. The remote park is accessed at Rock Lake Provincial Park, Sulphur Gates Provincial Recreation Area, and Big Berland Provincial Recreation Area. The glaciers, peaks and raging rivers provide undisturbed habitat for mountain goat bighorn sheep, and grizzly. The Resthaven Ice Field extends from Jasper National Park into Willmore. The northwestern extent is at Cole Creek (N53⁰57’ W119⁰58’), the southernmost area is along the Jackpine River (N53⁰22’ W119⁰27’), and the southeastern extent is at Rock Lake-Solomon Creek Provincial Park (N53⁰26’ W118⁰18’). The Great Divide Trail extends through the park.