A wilderness adventure awaits – just minutes from the city
Day trips offer a multitude of hard-to-resist benefits. There’s no need to arrange flights, hotels or travel insurance. You don’t need a different currency or a house sitter. If weather threatens, you can reschedule the trip with minimum hassle.
I’ve always been a fan of this kind of travel. If I connect the dots on a map between the communities where I’ve lived, they form a jagged circle around Edmonton. At each place, I wondered, “What do visitors go out of their way to see here? What treasures exist within a day trip of home?” I found many of those treasures in nature and, eventually, took my research to a new level and wrote Day Trips From Edmonton.
Writing this book allowed me to take an in-depth look at what the Edmonton region has to offer, from historical sites to unique landscapes. A graduate of Biological Sciences Technology – Ecology (class of ’84), I was particularly keen to write about the natural areas surrounding the city. I’ve always been intrigued with how visits in different seasons bring fresh discoveries. Recently, I enjoyed seeing the signs of early summer – shiny green leaves unfurling and spring flowers transforming into berries – as I revisited these three sites.
Wagner Natural Area
30 minutes from Edmonton
Directions: head west on Highway 16 and turn south at Atim Road (Range Road 270) to reach the signed access road. You’ll find a parking lot about a kilometre west of the Highway 44 overpass west of Acheson.
The Marl Pond Trail at Wagner Natural Area is a microcosm of boreal forest. This easy, 1.5-kilometre self-guided walk leads through varied habitats including fens and marl ponds. Fens are characterized by peaty, alkaline soil on low land, wholly or partly covered by mineral-rich water. Within those, you can find shallow ponds where calcium carbonate forms marl, a whitish sludge.
Diverse plant species make this trail one of my favourites. You can find 16 of Alberta’s 26 wild orchids, as well as carnivorous plants such as sundew, bladderwort and butterwort.
The landscape changes as you go, and includes hummocks and hollows, muskeg, a coniferous forest, an aspen grove and an upland meadow – higher ground that doesn’t hold water. Look for spittlebugs on wild raspberries and tadpoles beneath the boardwalk. You might even spot a western (boreal) toad, since an isolated population is found here.
Locals call the area Wagner Bog. I call it the center of the mosquito universe. Carry insect repellent because if you miss even a millimetre of skin, every stinger on this 320-acre site will find you. If the weather’s been wet, wear rubber boots, but don’t stay away – the bog is even more interesting and lush when rain fills the hollows.
40 minutes from Edmonton
Directions: Both trailheads are accessible from Highway 60, southwest of the city.
For a longer walk, head southwest of Edmonton to the Devonian Trail, a seven-kilometre stretch between the University of Alberta Botanic Garden and Prospector’s Point.
Mary Louise Imrie, the first woman architect in Western Canada, generously donated this 36-acre property for public use in 1988. Completed in 2017, the gravel trail, with railings where needed, feels brand new and offers two starting points.
The easy, mainly flat portion begins at the Devonian Botanic Garden and runs parallel to Highway 60 at the start. You can also launch from the other end of the trail – a more challenging incline at Prospector’s Point, a day use park on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River. Named to highlight the local history of gold panning, this trailhead leads to undulating terrain on a high bank of the North Saskatchewan River.
A satisfying workout, the trail offers rewards that include views of the river and Devon Bridge. You’ll also appreciate a picnic table at the first lookout and lush plant life. Watch for wildlife, or signs of it. My sightings included a small animal den, hare trails, and funnel webs. I also saw the tallest sarsaparilla I've ever seen, higher than my knees. At the river, you’ll find the water slow enough for swimming.
Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park
30 minutes from Edmonton
Directions: Access the park from Riel Drive in St. Albert or walk to the boardwalk via St. Albert’s Red Willow Trail System.
If you enjoy seeing birds up close and happen to be pushing a stroller or have little ones in tow, the Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park has an easy walk for you. Its tidy boardwalk extends over Big Lake, an area that has been identified as an Important Bird Area, vital to a variety of waterfowl. Located along the western edge of St. Albert and Edmonton, the park was named to honour Alberta’s former Lieutenant Governor and create an Alberta centennial legacy.
The walk takes you through the John E. Poole wetland, which includes interpretive signage about the area’s wildlife. It’s fun to watch delicate damselflies flit over the shallow water and ducklings paddle through the cattails and reeds. Look down into the water for muskrat and beaver and look up to spot yellow-headed blackbirds, grackles and barn swallows. Plan to return during migration, and you might spot tundra swans.
A tip: keep your children and belongings close. I saw a lady hold her partner by the legs as he hung over the boardwalk to retrieve her keys from the water. If their nature walk had ended with lost keys, I expect this couple would have doubly appreciated the benefits of exploring sites within a short distance from home.
About Joan Marie Galat
A graduate of Biological Sciences Technology – Ecology (1984), Galat is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books that explore ecology, astronomy, mythology, engineering and other subjects.
Among her most recent publications is Solve This! Wild and Wacky Challenges for the Genius Engineer in You, published by National Geographic Kids.