It’s been two years since we used our passports—the last big international trip we took was a self-drive tour of Canada’s Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces. And while we have spent a lot of time exploring the vast lands of our northern neighbor over the past decade, nothing was as fun, unique or eye-opening as the Western Canada road trip we took from Edmonton to Saskatoon.
And with the borders opening up again, now is the perfect time to plan a trip to the lesser-known parts of Canada this fall or next spring while prices are still low.
Planning a trip to Canada
For the second time, we used Canada by Design’s custom trip-planning service to capitalize on all of our travel musts: the outdoors, urban adventure, street art and, of course, distilleries and breweries. We worked with our trip designer to schedule out stops and hotels, and given Canada by Design nailed it with our winter trip to Banff a few years back, I knew they wouldn’t disappoint us this time, either. Here are a few sample itineraries to give you an idea of how you can customize your own Western Canada road trip.
Canada by Design is run by Discover Holidays, a Canadian inbound tour operator specializing in designing and operating tailor-made travel itineraries nation-wide. A few benefits to using Canada by Design’s design team to help map out your trip:
- They will build you a flexible travel itinerary that works within your budget and is personalized to your own interests. On both trips we’ve done with them, they’ve planned a mix of moderate and luxury hotel stays for us, so you can go either route as your budget allows.
- The Travel Design team of Canada experts travel extensively and provide personal guidance and insight during the process based on their own experiences with the destination.
- They offer free quotes and competitive pricing thanks to long-standing partnerships with hotels, tourism boards and other vendors across Canada.
- You’ll have access to 24/7 travel support should you need it while in destination.
For our Western Canada road trip, we had eight days, seven nights on the ground. We’ve traveled pretty extensively along the west coast of Canada and through the Canadian Rockies, so our goal was to visit some lesser known destinations. You know we’re always in search of the gems that most U.S. travelers have never heard of!
This itinerary checked all those boxes. In retrospect, though, I would tell you to take half of this itinerary—either Edmonton to Drumheller and back, or Saskatoon and the surrounding lake region in Saskatchewan—and spend more time in each of these destinations or, ideally, double the length of your trip if you want to accomplish the whole road trip loop. Because in reality, if you’re going to recreate our very trip, you need 12 to 14 days to really do this area justice. It’s so vast, so ethereal, and you don’t want to feel rushed.
Know before you go
Your passport might have expired over this last year, so check on that first. And if you only have six months remaining before it expires, you need to go ahead and renew it before you travel. Many countries like Canada will not let you in if you have less than six months left on your passport.
When to visit Western Canada
Our Western Canada road trip took place in September, which was perfect—we escaped the mid-summer heat of the South and got a mix of brisk fall days and colorful foliage. If you’re wanting to avoid snow, you could realistically take this road trip from Edmonton to Saskatoon anytime between April and early October. If you’d like to take advantage of Saskatchewan’s 100,000 lakes (that is not an exaggeration!), you might consider a winter trip to go ice-fishing, snowmobiling, dog-sledding, cross-country skiing and see the Northern Lights (aurora borealis).
Our road trip itinerary from Edmonton to Saskatoon
We flew in and out of Edmonton; however, if you plan to center your trip in Saskatchewan, you can also fly directly into Saskatoon. In retrospect, I wish we’d booked our flight into Edmonton and out of Saskatoon so we didn’t have to drive the six hours back for our return flight. Your Canada by Design planners can help you figure out what routes are best for you.
Day 1: Edmonton
Our first day was spent traveling: from Nashville to Houston, Houston to Edmonton. It was an easy trip with one short connection. We arrived at Edmonton International Airport, and by the time we had cleared customs, gotten our bags, picked up our car and driven to the hotel, it was well after dark. Like traveling anywhere at this moment in time, I suggest you open yourself up to being flexible.
Where we stayed in Edmonton: Fairmont Hotel McDonald
This Landmark Heritage Grand Chateau Style Hotel has been around for more than a century and is located right in Edmonton’s downtown; our room offered glittering views of the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, as well as the private hotel gardens. We arrived under the veil of darkness so had dinner at the Fairmont Hotel McDonald’s Confederation Lounge & Patio, then a nightcap before turning in for the evening.
Day 2: Edmonton to Drumheller
Our morning in kicked off with breakfast at Little Brick Cafe, followed by a guided mural tour with Rust Magic of some of the 50+ murals the international street art festival has installed over the past several years.
This international street art festival has brought some of the biggest names in the mural world like PichiAvo out to install pieces in Canada, and the visual impact this two person-led organization has made on Edmonton’s urban landscape as a whole is truly inspiring to creative placemakers like us. We also spotted a piece of work by our friend Kris Kanaly, as well as discovered new favorite muralists like Jill Stanton and Deb. If you have the chance to take a tour, book it! It’s such a fun way to get your bearings in downtown Edmonton.
After our tour, we got in the car and drove to Edmonton’s trendy neighborhood of Old Strathcona where there are also murals galore and saw a few other icons such as an Okuda and a Cleon Petersn.
If you’re in Edmonton and want to see street art, you can use this mural map to do your own self-guided tour.
Then, we road-tripped the three hours to Drumheller, the gateway to the Canadian Badlands and Dinosaur Provincial Park. The city lies smack in the middle of the eroded Alberta Badlands, which many believe to be the world’s greatest repository of dinosaur fossils.
Until the 1950’s, Drumheller was a coal mining area; now it’s home to oil and gas wells and … a lively dinosaur-based tourist industry. Who knew dinosaur tourism in the Cenozoic Era was even a thing? We quickly learned as it’s hard to throw a stone in Drumheller and not hit a dinosaur. You think I’m kidding.
Where we stayed in Drumheller: Canalta Jurassic Hotel
The budget-friendly Canalta Jurassic Hotel was an easy central base for us for the two nights we were in Drumheller. If I had to compare it to a U.S. chain, I’d say it’s comparable to a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express: clean, comfortable, affordable.
Day 3: Drumheller
We spent our third day exploring the Canadian Badlands in all its rugged beauty, but first we took the morning to check out the town of Drumheller by foot. As I said before, this is a region that embraces its dinosaur heritage and won’t let you forget it.
I loved that about Drumheller: dinosaur installations everywhere! You know I love a good theme, and Drumheller is all about that dino life. It’s a cute, kitschy town and one kids would really enjoy. Heck, these childless big kids loved it, too!
After our morning in town, we dedicated the entire afternoon to perusing the Royal Tyrrell Museum. You need three hours minimum to even skim the surface at Canada’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the science of paleontology. The museum boasts one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs, plus plenty of educational programming.
After spending time in the museum, we went on a guided hike through the washed out sedimentary rock and spooky hoodoos, exploring areas deemed so undesirable by previous settlers that they called them “bad” land. We both were trained to scan the surrounding terrain for dinosaur bones, and once we started to truly see the shapes and forms arising out of the mud and the silt, it became impossible to not be infected with a little bit of the fever that ignites the passions of those who probe the mysteries of the ancient.
And from there? Straight to Drumheller’s brewery, Valley Brewing, for a flight of the local water. After all, if we didn’t find a brewery, did we in fact even go on a trip?
One thing we saved for the next visit is Dinosaur Provincial Park simply because it’s about 30 miles east of Drumheller and we wanted a day off from being in the car. Besides, there’s so much to do in Drumheller that it seemed a shame to be there only to leave again. If you have longer, though, definitely head to the park as this region was a prime dinosaur habitat 65 million years ago and ongoing erosion of the sandstone and mudstone landscape regularly exposes remains of the ancient creatures. New species of dinosaurs are discovered virtually every year in the Alberta Badlands, which are some of the world’s richest fossil beds.
Other attractions and hikes in Drumheller that you might want to add to your itinerary include:
- Homestead Antique Museum
- Atlas Coal Mine
- Horsethief and Horseshoe Canyon
- Orkney Viewpoint
- Rosedale Suspension Bridge
- Dino Walk
Day 4: Drumheller to Saskatoon
We got up early to start the five-hour drive from Drumheller to Saskatoon, the ideal launching point for the remote northern Saskatchewan, home to more than 100,000 pristine lakes. Note: We thought we would be losing an hour as Drumheller is on Mountain Daylight Time and Saskatoon on Central Standard Time, but we were wrong; the time stayed the same across time zones (meaning we arrived early, but better early than late!).
This drive took us straight through the heart of the Canadian Badlands and vast farm land. Saskatoon is most famously named after the berry we fell in love with during our visit and is rich with First Nations culture. It’s called “Bridge City” thanks to its eight river crossings, and the South Saskatchewan River is very much the city’s playground. Of all the new places we explored on this trip, I felt the deepest connection to Saskatoon and its people.
Saskatoon is full of world-class cuisine and international fare, so it made sense we’d make our first stop at one of the top restaurants, a Swedish eatery called Odla. It was there that we not only had our literal first taste of Saskatoon, but also figurative taste of the culture by dining with a group of locals along a communal table in very Saskatoon style. We were such fans of the restaurant, in fact, that we’d swing back by there for lunch on our way out of town three days later.
After lunch, it was off to contemporary art museum Remai Modern at River Landing, which blew our socks off for many reasons: the river views, the architecture and the innovative exhibitions. The Remai also houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of Picasso linocuts. We ended our museum visit with taking a short linocut class where we even got to create our own art to take home with us.
Our first evening in Saskatoon kicked off with beers with our new local friends at 9 Mile Legacy Brewing, a brewery with a great sense of humor and a wide variety of beer, from traditional pale ales and West Coast IPAs to oatmeal stouts to beer and some out-of-the-box brews.
From there, we ventured down the street to Ayden Kitchen and Bar for what was our best meal of the trip. Chef Dale MacKay whips up an inventive menu of globally inspired comfort food; that along with the insanely drinkable cocktails and moody ambiance made for a great night out on the town in Saskatoon.
Where we stayed in Saskatoon: The Delta Hotels by Marriott Downtown Saskatoon
Occupying prime real estate a block off the river, The Delta Hotels by Marriott Downtown Saskatoon couldn’t have been a better base for our jam-packed 24 hours in Saskatoon. It’s pet-friendly and right in the business district—walkable to almost everything—and if you aren’t scared of heights, you can request a room on one of the upper floors and be treated with views like this one from your hotel window. While we didn’t have time to check out the hotel’s highlights, I can tell you there’s an indoor waterpark, complete with two heated pools, a whirlpool and three-story waterslide, so this hotel is ideal for families for many reasons.
Day 5: Saskatoon
We started our day with breakfast at Hometown Diner, before setting out for a guided SUP tour with Escape Sports. If you know us at all, you know that we try to cram in (at least) one brunch a day while traveling, and Hometown Diner’s scrambles, omelets, breakfast sandwiches and pastries are top-notch. We skipped on the cocktails (rare, I know!) only because we were about to test our balance in windy conditions atop the river.
Though it was nippy out that day, we didn’t let that stop us from cruising down the North Saskatchewan River on paddleboards as our guide, the owner of Escape Sports, pointed out the native flora and fauna in the area. We bundled up and took to the water, eager to sail beneath the city’s many bridges.
If you’ve never been paddleboarding in boots and parkas, it’s a whole different experience and one that had me headstanding in the middle of the river nevertheless.
From there, we packed up the car and headed north to Prince Albert National Park by way of Maker’s Malt. The brainchild of a small collective of farmers who have decades of experience growing high-quality malt barley, Maker’s Malts is a craft-malting operation that supplies malt to the brewers and distillers in the region. What a genius idea, right?
After a quick lunch nearby, we continued onto one of Saskatchewan’s 100,000 lakes. It was still gloomy out, so we didn’t get the full view of Hanging Heart Lake as much of it was shrouded in fog, but we did take a peaceful cruise around aboard a pontoon boat as we kept our eyes peeled for eagles, beavers, elk and bears.
We also met a one-eyed fox on our way back out, who reminded me a whole lot of Ella, yoga poses and all.
Dinner that night was in the lake-side town of Waskesiu, buried deep in the boreal forest that makes up this part of the world.
Where we stayed in Waskesiu: Elk Ridge Resort
Just 10 minutes outside of the town, Elk Ridge Resort has three nine-hole courses snaking through the forest in addition to access to year-round activities in the Prince Albert National Park like fishing, hiking, boating, birding, hunting, backcountry camping, exploration and the thrill of being in a space that feels like the wild land that existed before time had a definition. The 1,500 square miles of land within its boundaries is a lush wellspring of wildlife and hosts creatures such as wolves, bear, caribou, elk, walleye, pike, herons, bald eagle and creatures such as otter, badger, fox and moose, to name a few.
Day 6: Saskatoon
We enjoyed breakfast at the lodge before heading back to Saskatoon, a drive just under two-and-a-half hours. We arrived back in time for lunch at Odd Couple, a family-owned spot that uses meats from a local farm to create Asian specialties like Tiger Shrimp Shanghai or Spicy Beef Lo Mein.
That afternoon we got a well-rounded look at Saskatoon’s libations: spirits, cider and, lastly, beer. The small-batch spirits at Black Fox Distillery & Farm are some of the most sustainably made in Canada. The owners John and Barb gave us a tour of the grounds, which includes pick-your-own flower beds as well as an unusual method of aging barrels of distilled spirits (under the open sky) that are just riveting once you hear the stories and ethos of the company.
Our tour ended with a gin tasting, and we fell so in love with the haskap gin, we brought a bottle home with us that we’re still slowly sipping through.
Next, we stopped at Crossmount Cider Co. for handcrafted hard apple cider. Crossmount’s facility is a field-to-cork cidery in every sense of the term: an adjoining 1,500-tree orchard consists of apple varieties developed at the University of Saskatchewan that are intended to be used in their dreamy blends of locally grown ingredients (their Flatlander Rosé was a particularly awesome standout).
Shelter Brewing Company’s downtown taproom was the last stop on our drinking tour of the afternoon, and its rotating taps that feature ingredients like yarrow, rosehips and juniper pair well with the cuisine from popular food truck Dylan and Cam’s Tacos. We shared a few tacos but mostly saved stomach space for our main event of the night.
The final stop of our long day was my most memorable experience of the entire trip. Wanuskewin Heritage Park is an ancient gathering place for First Nations people with ambitious long-term plans to honor the land and history by reintroducing bison, restoring the prairie and pursuing UNESCO heritage designation. The center offers group tours, educational programming, expansive conference spaces in the gorgeous interpretive center and guided hikes in the Opimihaw Valley.
We happened upon it on a very special night: a full moon dinner that began with a walk out to the site under the fiery glow of golden hours and concluded with a feast at sunset around fires, a beautiful singing session and a night sky storytelling by a Dakota Star Storyteller that sent chills of respect for what used to be here. We only scratched the surface of the indigenous cultures from this region of Canada by visiting Wanuskewin, but it’s the kind of tourism that we love, and if you can plan your visit for one of the special events, you will leave with a much greater understanding of Saskatoon and its people.
Where we stayed in Saskatoon: The James Hotel
We checked into The James Hotel late at night after our full moon dinner and only had sleeping time to enjoy this boutique hotel right in downtown Saskatoon that is the brainchild of hotelier James Peter Leier, a Russian-born entrepreneur who immigrated to Canada with his family as a child. It’s a lovely, pleasing space with comfortable, design-forward rooms and I hope to get to experience it again—for longer next time!
Day 7: Saskatoon to Edmonton
On our final day in Saskatoon, we had breakfast by the river in preparation to hit the road back to Edmonton and took a walk through neighborhoods of Saskatoon we’d yet to see during our planned activities.
Our drive to Edmonton took us through North Battleford, home to Fort Battleford National Historic Site of Canada and the Western Development Museum, which features agricultural equipment on display supplemented by demonstrations of 1920s farming techniques and a 1920s Saskatchewan town. We continued on the town of Lloydminster on the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta before eventually making it back to the Alberta capital.
When we arrived in Edmonton, we were scheduled to take a guided segway tour with River Valley Adventure Co. and explore the city’s urban scenery along the river. Alas, a train pile-up and nowhere to detour added two hours onto our drive time and we didn’t make it back to Edmonton until well after dark for one last evening at the Fairmont Hotel McDonald before catching an early flight back to the United States.
At the end of the trip, we left Western Canada with memory cards full of adventures and a burning desire to come back for longer—especially to spend more time in Saskatoon and really explore the surrounding Saskatchewan wilderness—to learn more about these gems that beckon to American travelers, just north of the border.
Any questions about planning a road trip through Western Canada from Alberta to Saskatchewan and back?
For other Canada travel inspiration, check out our past winter trips here:
- Taking My Mom to Canada: A Multigenerational Trip to Alberta
- Real-Life Narnia: A Guide to Jasper, Lake Louise & Banff in Winter
- On the VIA Rail: A Train Ride Across Canada’s Rocky Mountains
- Looking for a Winter Trip to Canada? Here are 5 Wonderland Getaways