It was the feeling of starting a new video game but skipping the tutorial. Suddenly you’re in the thick of it, bashing buttons and screaming, wondering what the hell you’re meant to be doing.
That was the first twenty minutes of my first solo road trip in Alberta. Suddenly on a motorway in a toy car with two pedals and mirrors in the wrong places, surrounded by four lanes of traffic all driving on the wrong side of the road. Using my left foot for the brake, so that it was an emergency stop every time I slowed. Inside, my inner monologue screamed over and over, YOU CAN’T DO THIS.
On My Own!
If you had told me one year ago that I’d be driving, completely on my own, in a foreign country, I wouldn’t have believed you. At thirty, I was only just getting behind the wheel for the first time; struggling to grasp the basic concepts that most people mastered aged seventeen. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to drive in England – let alone Canada. And yet here I am, just back from a week-long road trip around southern Alberta.
Turns out, this was the kind of terrifying, in-at-the-deep-end challenge I really needed. I needed to prove to myself that I am actually OK at driving. Ever since I passed my test, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that it was a fluke, that I’m actually a terrible driver, and that any minute now someone will come and take my licence away and say it was all a big misunderstanding. Successfully driving myself around Canada for a week was a validation. Turns out, I can do this!
This was one of my biggest challenges yet, but it was also a joyful, amazing experience – one with epic views, incredible stops, and some serious adventure…
A Solo Road Trip in Alberta, Canada
I picked up my car at the airport and dropped myself straight into the deep end, driving to Calgary without a clue what I was doing. Automatic cars are really different, and they feel weird. Having the rearview mirror on my right felt wrong; I kept looking up to the left and seeing nothing. My heart was thudding so loud I could almost taste the beat of it, as I held my breath and fought the shaking in my legs.
But, as ever, the fear of the thing was far greater than the thing itself. It’s just driving, after all. So I made it to Calgary, and a couple of days later I took off on my solo road trip. After a shaky first few minutes leaving Calgary, I found myself relaxing into it all. Singing along to my dodgy driving playlist and just enjoying the views rolling by.
That was it for the rest of the week. The fear subsided and besides the odd, quickly-recovered-from mistake, everything went smoothly. I faced a few challenges – like 50+ miles of dirt track in the middle of nowhere – and survived them all. This is the thing I love about solo travel. The way it gives me a chance to step up to the plate and prove myself. To test my limits, to discover exactly how much I can do all on my own. It might not seem like such a big deal to a lot of people, but for a nervous new driver, taking on a solo road trip abroad is a big step.
Badlands and Dino Bones
This solo road trip in Canada was absolutely perfect for me; a secret dino geek with a pterodactyl tattoo and a love of nerding out. Southern Alberta is rich with prehistory – fossils, rock formations, and dinosaur bones abound in the Badlands.
From Drumheller – with its insanely gigantic T-Rex statue towering over the town and the fossils of the Royal Tyrell Palaeontology Museum nestled amongst the striped red and brown sandstone hills of the Badlands – to the dramatic canyons and bizarrely shaped hoodoos of Dinosaur Provincial Park, the first few days of the trip centred almost solely around Alberta’s fascinating dino history.
Dinosaur Provincial Park is littered with fossils. Literally. Our guide picked up dinosaur bones, teeth, and other fossils as we wandered around on the Explorer’s Bus Tour, passing them around for us to hold. We even passed a group of archaeologists working on a new dig site. Larger fossils that haven’t been sent to the Royal Tyrell could be seen lying in the rock. And a huge gap in a grey hoodoo, like a missing tooth, revealed the spot from which a whole hadrosaur skeleton had been plucked from the rock. The hadrosaur lies just beyond, protected inside a hut which can only be visited with a park guide. Still more impressive fossils can be seen in the Royal Tyrell Museum, which is a must-visit – even if you have only a passing interest in dinosaurs.
First Nations and Frontiers
From the prehistoric Badlands, to the story of the First Nations, to the more recent history of Canada’s early settlers; there’s much more to Alberta’s history than I initially thought.
My solo road trip took me to Writing on Stone Provincial Park, a hoodoo-filled valley littered with carved pictograms left behind by the indigenous Blackfoot people. There are thousands of them, some several centuries old, telling the story of the Blackfoot and their traditions.
Over in Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, the visitor centre tells the story of one of the Blackfoot people’s most dramatic traditions. They’d rile up an entire herd of buffalo into a stampede and run them off the edge of the cliffs here in a mass killing ritual. Once all the animals were dead, they’d harvest everything – the meat, bones, hide – enough to see the tribe through the harsh Canadian winter. Nothing was wasted.
Despite wiping out a whole herd once a year or so, there’s no evidence to suggest that the Blackfoot had any negative effect on the buffalo population. It wasn’t until the settlers arrived that animals were hunted to the edge of extinction. It’s estimated that by 1889 the numbers had plummeted from 30 million to around one thousand.
Fur trading posts like Fort Whoop-Up were common on the Canadian frontier. Just outside of Lethbridge, this fort is a replica of the original, designed to give a glimpse of life on a fur trading post. It’s like stepping back in time to the Old West, providing a real insight into the early days of the Alberta we know today.
One of my favourite things about this solo road trip in Alberta was the diversity of the landscapes. In just one week I saw cities, the dry rocky Badlands, lush forested hills, and the dramatic peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
In Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park it was lush valleys, glittering lakes, and dense pine forests. I could have spent days there exploring the landscapes; nature at it’s most idyllic and soothing. Particularly after the parched looking Badlands.
But it was Waterton National Park that stole my heart. It’s like Banff in miniature; smaller, quieter, and far fewer tourists – filled with the kinds of landscapes you picture when you think of Canada; rugged snow-capped mountains overlooking sparkling glacial lakes.
This was where I had the biggest, scariest adventure of the trip; coming face to face with a black bear across a lake whilst hiking solo. Travelling and road-tripping solo is a daunting experience at the best of times, but throwing a bear into the mix was terrifying!
I’d done my research, I was prepared, and I knew what to do. But that didn’t make the experience any less scary! Once the bear had left, I retreated back along the trail – shouting and clapping as I went – until I found other people. A dad and his two kids walked back down the mountain with me – thank goodness for them!
Pretty rapidly, the experience had turned from a heart-lurching moment of fear to yet another funny story from my adventures. It was, in a more extreme way, exactly the same as learning to drive, or taking a solo road trip abroad for the first time. Scary for a few minutes, then just another story!
Why Alberta is the Perfect Place for Your First Road Trip
Whether you’re going it alone with a solo road trip, like me, or travelling with friends, Alberta is the perfect place for your first time! Driving abroad can seem like a daunting experience, so an English speaking country like Canada makes a great place to give it a go. Signs are in English, and you can ask locals if you get stuck.
Canada’s road laws are largely similar to the UK’s, and it’s pretty easy to get your head around the ones that aren’t. Yes, they drive on the opposite side of the road. BUT – it honestly only took me a few minutes to get used to it. After all, you just have to follow the cars in front! If you’re feeling nervous about driving on the wrong side of the road, don’t. If I can do it, anyone can!
In North America, automatic cars are much more prevalent. And when everything switches sides, it’s so much easier not to have to bother with gears! Renting an automatic gives you one less thing to think about. And once you get used to it, it’s way easier.
Canada’s roads are also pretty easy. Between cities, it’s often just one or two long, straight roads. So there’s not much navigating to do! Cities tend to be laid out in a grid, so they’re also fairly straightforward. While some historic European towns look absolutely terrifying to drive in, Canada is a dream. So if you’re a new or nervous driver heading on your first solo road trip, you really can’t go wrong with Alberta.
Chuck in some amazing views, tons of cool things to do, and some of the most varied landscapes I’ve seen in one province… and you have the perfect setting for a solo road trip!
More Info and Further Reading
My itinerary was based around this Buffalos and Badlands tour from Wexas. The tour includes flights, accommodation, entry tickets, and car hire. It takes all the stress out of organising your own Alberta road trip, but you can still explore at your own pace.
Check out some of my other posts about Alberta below…