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News >  Travel

Northern EXPOSURE

Rose Muenker Special to Travel

From jagged peaks and surreal blue lakes to wind-sculpted badlands and Blackfoot lore, Alberta’s UNESCO Trail features five remarkable World Heritage Sites – the modern-day successors to the legendary Seven Wonders of the World.

Close to 800 sites have been established worldwide by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, including 13 in Canada.

With the city of Calgary as the starting and ending point, we spent a week driving the scenic route that connects three sites on Alberta’s southern prairie: Dinosaur Provincial Park, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Waterton Lakes National Park.

Then we headed northwest into the Canadian Rockies, a fourth site, for another week. (The fifth, Wood Buffalo National Park, is in the far northern reaches of the province.)

As it stretches southeastward from Calgary, the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) traverses farm country striped with Day-Glo hues of green wheat and golden rapeseed.

En route to Dinosaur Provincial Park, we detoured to visit the Royal Tyrell Museum for an orientation to the creatures we would later see in fossil form. Its collection included a skeleton of an Albertosaurus, discovered in 1991 at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and an extraordinary re-created underwater world of five-eyed opabinia regalis and other strange marine creatures fossilized in the Canadian Rockies.

We followed country roads across flat terrain until, near Brooks, the bottom dropped out from under us, leading us into the depths of the badlands. We had entered Dinosaur Provincial Park. Ravines cut between bald, beige mounds rolling into the distance.

Camping inside the park put us close to trails through the cottonwood flats bordering the Red Deer River and into a maze of hills where 19th-century paleontologists first extracted dinosaur bones. The excavation of 39 species of dinosaurs and more than 300 complete skeletons is the primary reason for the park’s international renown.

On guided excursions into the restricted preserve, we experienced the awe this weird landscape evokes. Wind has sculpted sandstone rocks into towers, creatures and otherworldly shapes called hoodoos.

Standing water dries into viscous “jelly mud” that swallows shoes. When wet, the bentonite in rocks expands and hardens into bubbles, forming popcorn rock.

In the midst of this strange land, a bone bed containing hundreds of Centosauruses covers an area as large as a football field. On the guided Fossil Safari, participants find fossilized teeth and scales unearthed by erosion. Most of them are 75 million years old.

Visitors find themselves captivated for days by the park’s various programs and excursions.

Symbol of international peace

About 180 miles to the southwest, the prairies meet soaring mountains, without the interlude of foothills, at Waterton Lakes National Park. The climate and landscape resulting from this prairie-mountain interface nurture more than 900 species of flowering plants. In July, it transforms into a wildflower paradise.

Viewed on a map, the park looks like the tip of an iceberg, with huge Glacier National Park “submerged” south of the international border. Through the efforts of the Alberta and Montana Rotary International Clubs, the two parks formed the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park in 1932, now designated a World Heritage Site.

On a boat excursion, we saw the cut line on Mount Boswell that marks the 49th parallel, the longest undefended border in the world. Eagles crowned treetops. At the end of the lake, we strolled on U.S. ground at the remote ranger station of Goat Haunt, Mont.

On the return, a storm over “The Lake That Talks Too Much,” as the Indians call it, unleashed torrential rain and high winds. Compared to winter’s typical 75 mph winds, they were mere breezes.

Trails lace the park’s mountains, connecting key sites. Roaring waterfalls cascade down a sheer cirque into Cameron Lake. Even in midsummer, tiers of snow whiten the snaggletooth peaks.

In Red Rock Canyon, boulders with high iron content have turned rust-colored, creating a brilliant backdrop for mosses and perky yellow wildflowers. Beavers, moose and other wetland creatures gather at Maskinonge.

In town, wildlife rules. We watched people hurry their dogs across streets to keep them from being attacked by deer protecting their fawns. The park also sustains grizzly bears, elk and mountain goats.

As a preamble to the next destination, we drove through the park’s buffalo paddock to admire the huge prairie creatures.

Heritage preserved

On the vast plains near Fort Macleod, winds comb tall buffalo grass, Old Man River meanders and sacred Chief Mountain towers in the distance. Camouflaged in the cliffs of the Porcupine Hills is the five-level interpretive center of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

Throughout the summer, dancers entertain visitors at this World Heritage Site.

Members of the Blackfoot Nation danced to rhythmic drumbeats on the entrance plaza. A woman wearing a dress covered with metallic cones performed the healing Woman’s Jingle Dance. With the grace of a butterfly floating in air, a young woman enacted the Ladies’ Fancy Shawl Dance.

A headdress and bustle of pheasant feathers adorned a young man. Symbolizing a cock’s comb, two pheasant feathers bedecked his porcupine headpiece. Bells hanging from his waist jangled as he did the Old Style Prairie Chicken Dance.

By the end of the performance, the emcee had us shouting “Oki Napi” (hi, friend) and “Sugape” (really good) and joining in the Round Dance.

Inside, the center traces the evolution of communal buffalo jumping from ancient times to its abandonment in the 19th century. Exhibits depict the lifestyle, legends and beliefs of prehistoric plains people; describe how the buffalo jump worked; and show how hunting and the native lifestyle changed with the arrival of horses, guns and Western expansion.

Although the displays provide excellent interpretation, nothing compares to a private tour with a tribal member. Our guide, Lorraine Goodstriker, enriched the experience by relating tales about Napi (the creator), first in her native Blood tribe language and then in English, and sharing memories of her childhood, such as delighting in her grandmother’s chokecherry patties.

Atop the cliff, one can envision the drama as buffaloes were stampeded over the edge and labor was expended in preparing the food and hides, followed by ceremonial dances.

The Blackfoot revere the buffalo as sacred. Every year, a blessing ceremony honors the buffalo skull designed specifically for the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center.

Mountain highs

The Canadian Rockies tower northwest of Calgary. Contiguous national and provincial parks form a fourth World Heritage Site, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. The distance from the southern entrance near Banff to the northern entrance beyond Jasper is about 215 jaw-dropping miles of scenic beauty.

Amid this splendor are fabled hotels originally built for 19th-century tourists by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Turrets bedeck the Fairmont Banff Springs, reminiscent of a grand Scottish castle. The storybook image of Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise reflects in the incredible, milky blue-green waters of Lake Louise. And Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge hugs the shore of Lac Beauvert in a natural refuge.

During peak summer season, busloads of vacationers cram Banff’s streets and shops, with crowds diminishing the farther one ventures from town.

Atop Sulphur Mountain, we viewed a beautiful panorama of the village and Bow Valley. A cruise on Lake Minnewanka showed the impact of ancient glaciers. And a tour of Banff’s historic cave, mineral hot springs and bathhouse chronicled the early years of Canada’s first national park.

The experiences that etched our memories most deeply, though, were the guided hikes to lofty alpine vistas, fields of wildflowers and the serendipitous encounter with a ptarmigan and her chicks.

Slipping over the provincial border into Yoho National Park, we savored sunset from the shore of Emerald Lake and marveled at the creamy, gemstone-green waters. The layers of shale on nearby Mount Burgess encase marine fossils of bristle worms, sea stars and five-eyed, nozzle-nosed creatures that lived 500 million years ago.

A day hike up to the Iceline and Emerald Glacier put us literally and figuratively on top of the world, with a topographical “map” of peaks, glaciers and waterfalls unfolding around us. Below, Takakkaw Falls roared, spraying onlookers a quarter-mile away.

Heading north, we entered Jasper National Park. Along the highway, side roads lead to remarkable lakes colored with nature’s incredible glacial palette of blues and greens.

The star attraction among countless wondrous sights was the Columbia Icefield, composed of six main glaciers. As the humongous snow coach lumbered onto it, we entered a rugged world of rocks, snow and ice. Gouged with deep, narrow crevasses, the icefield visually screamed the dangers of venturing beyond on foot.

Back on the scenic route, we feasted our eyes on hanging glaciers, cascading water and thick, dark forests.

The railroad still brings vacationers to the laid-back town of Jasper. Rafting on the Athabasca River, excursions on Maligne Lake, hiking in Maligne Canyon and soaking in Miette Hot Springs connect visitors to the area’s natural beauty.

Topping all activities, though, is viewing black bears, often alongside the road.

On the return to Calgary, the weather changed to rain, fog and mist with intermittent sunlight, creating a different perspective. Mountains turned into ghosts as clouds hovered around their peaks. But the lakes’ distinctive teal, aquamarine and emerald colors stayed vibrant.

At the end of our journey along Alberta’s UNESCO Trail, we had driven 1,000 miles. Each and every one was memorable.

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