Alberta is home to 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and most of them are located right in Southern Alberta. We’ve got all the info on what to expect at these stunning sites, plus tips on how to have effortless day trips to these world renowned destinations.
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UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Alberta
The majority of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Alberta are situated less than a two hour drive from the Southern Alberta city of Lethbridge.
These sites are recognized because they showcase the diversity of our planet thanks to their historical value and/or spectacular geological formations. Each site is spectacular in its own right and is as significant as the great pyramids of Egypt, Machu Picchu or the Grand Canyon.
Here’s a look at what to expect when visiting each of the 4 Southern Alberta UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Writing on Stone Provincial Park Áísínai’pi
An easy day trip from Lethbridge, this spot is special for many reasons. For many Indigenous Blackfoot People, it’s a sacred, cultural destination, as their ancestors roamed throughout this region for thousands of years.
Take a hike along the Hoodoo Trail, a self-guided interpretive walk (2.2 km one way) and you’ll come across rock carvings and pictographs etched into the sandstone cliffs. These cliffs and coulees were formed 85-million-years ago, after the melt from the last ice age eroded the soft sandstone rocks exposed in the valley.
The Milk River cuts through the Park, and it’s a one of those warm rivers you’ll regret not taking a swim in. Pack your bathing suit, hiking boots and picnic to make the most out of your day.
Dive deeper into the history of this landscape on guided tours and evening interpretive programs. More information can be found here or at the Visitor’s Centre, open from mid-May until mid-October.
From Lethbridge it’s approximately an hour and 20 minute drive to Writing on Stone Provincial Park Áísínai’pi.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
As you might have guessed from the name, bison were driven off the cliffs by Indigenous hunters for nearly 6,000 years. This is one of the world’s oldest and best preserved buffalo jumps, and one with significant archaeological deposits.
There’s many levels to explore inside the Interpretive Centre, dramatically embedded within the sandstone cliffs. Inside, you’ll find artifacts dating back 12,000 years, plus in-depth exhibits that delve into not only the geography of the region, but life for the early Plains Peoples pre-contact. Visitors can learn about the anatomy of the hunt and how traditional hunting and culture changed with the arrival of Europeans.
From the centre, it’s about a 3-minute walk to the ancient hunting ground. The landscape is stunning and beneath the cliff there’s a 1.2 km hiking trail. You’ll want to budget at least an hour and half to explore this historic heritage site which is open all year round, but several hours is better.
From Lethbridge it’s a 45-drive to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. If you’re headed back to Calgary, it’ll take you just under 2 hours.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
One of the most family-friendly destinations in Alberta, few places in the world have the sheer number dinosaur fossils and the diversity of dino species as Dinosaur Provincial Park does.
Back in the day (let’s call it 75-million-years ago), Alberta was a sub-tropical paradise with lush forests along the coastal plains. Turns out, this was the ideal climate for the preservation of dinosaur bones into fossils.
What’s really cool about exploring this site is what you might think is rock, is often not. There’s a standing joke that in Dinosaur Provincial Park you can’t throw a stone without hitting a dinosaur bone – and the stone you throw is likely one of those bones.
If fossil hunting is what you’re after, tag along with a palaeontology expert on guided tours. And if you’re into photography or simply want to up your Instagram game, take advantage of the golden Prairie light all the way into October.
The Visitor’s Centre is open until the end of October and by appointment only from November until April. From Lethbridge, it’s approximately 2 hours to reach Dinosaur Provincial Park by car. From Calgary you’re looking at 2.5 hours of drive time.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Situated where the Prairies meet the Rockies, Waterton is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also a designated United Nations Biosphere Reserve. Adding to its international pedigree, Waterton is one of the world’s first International Peace Parks, twinned with Glacier National Park in the USA.
But when I think of Waterton, I see it as an under-the-radar gem in Canada’s Park system, possibly because it is only fully open from May until Thanksgiving. Everybody knows about Banff, but few people realize Waterton sports just as many pretty peaks – many of which are less well travelled.
When visiting Waterton on a day trip the top things to do are:
- Rent bikes from Pat’s gas station and explore the townsite. Better yet, score eBikes and make your way up to Two Flag Lookout.
- Dash up to the top of Bear’s Hump. It’s a 30-minute grind to get to the summit, but the value for views ratio make it worth the sweat.
- Take the Waterton Cruise all the way to the end of Upper Waterton Lake. It’s a rare spot where you can venture into the USA without a passport. (Don’t get too excited. You’re limited to the shoreline of Glacier National Park and there’s no Target there.)
- Explore Red Rock Canyon. It’s crazy beautiful and fun to trek around – even if you’re not a hiker.
- Of course, if you have more time, I highly suggest the Crypt Lake hike, which is truly spectacular and only accessible by boat.
Other fun activities in Waterton are horseback riding and golfing on a stunning, affordable course.
From Lethbridge, Waterton is less than a 90-minute drive through the Crowsnest Pass.
Where to stay in Lethbridge
By basing yourself in Lethbridge, it’s super convenient to hit up all 4 of Southern Alberta’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We spent the night at Wingate by Wyndham. From this hotel it’s quite easy to hop onto the highway towards Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump or out to Waterton and Writing on Stone.
But we weren’t the only ones staying here! In the hotel lobby, I ran into a friend from University who was staying there with his 2 kids. (And he has family living in town! Then again, so do I…) It’s an attractive spot because this Wingate is majorly affordable, and guest rooms come with a microwave and mini-fridge. There’s a nice pool, waterslide and a hot tub that I hit minutes after checking in.
The best part? Every guest can tuck into a FREE, hot buffet breakfast. There’s eggs, bacon, fruit, hash browns and a cool pancake machine. Other Lethbridge accommodation options can be found here.
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Have you ever visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Which ones are your favourite?
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