Top Rural Experiences in Wood Buffalo
While much of the population of Wood Buffalo is based in Fort McMurray, some of the region’s most amazing experiences are to be had by venturing to the Municipality’s seven rural communities: Anzac, Conklin, Draper, Fort Chipewyan, Fort Fitzgerald, Fort McKay, and Janvier. Depending on the season, jump in the car and check out some of these rural Wood Buffalo experiences:
Drive the Winter Road to Fort Chipewyan
If you have a taste for adventure, a trip north to Fort Chipewyan via the Winter Road is a uniquely northern Canadian experience. In much of Canada’s north, roads built across frozen rivers, lakes, and deltas connect communities like Fort Chipewyan to regional centres like Fort McMurray. Wood Buffalo has a few winter roads that operate each winter, and the Fort Chipewyan Winter Road is the only one entirely within the region. This road has been built annually since the early 1980s, and is the gateway to Fort Chipewyan, Lake Athabasca, Fort Fitzgerald, the Northwest Territories, and UNESCO World Heritage Site Wood Buffalo National Park. It’s about a 280 km trip (one-way) from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan that can vary in length depending on road conditions, but make sure to bring your truck and not your sports car – the road is subject to changing conditions so vehicles with high ground clearance, 4-wheel-drive, and winter tires are strongly recommended. Along the way, you’ll cross numerous frozen rivers, see vastly different landscapes through the Boreal forest and Athabasca River Delta, and potentially encounter the animals of northern Alberta. The road is usually open from December to March, check with the RMWB’s Winter Roads Hotline before travelling on 1-866-743-6111.
Stay in a Remote Fishing Lodge
If your dream is to snag a trophy walleye, wrestle a monster pike or land a Northern Alberta laker, fishing Alberta’s North is sure to get you hooked.
While many of these lakes and rivers are drive accessible, others offer the unique experience of fully outfitted lodges or rustic and isolated camps. Up north, you’ll find stellar fishing for pike, walleye, perch, lake trout and Arctic grayling. Most of the lakes and rivers are accessible from the main highways. If you are looking for something more remote, there are some only accessible by jet boat or float plane.
For a complete list fishing and hunting lodges in our region visit: fortmcmurraytourism.com/explore-wood-buffalo/fishing
Learn More About the Aurora Borealis
The “Northern Lights” are named for the Roman goddess of dawn – Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind – Boreas. The Northern Lights glow and dance in the night sky. The Cree call it the “Dance of the Spirits”. In Fort McMurray and the Wood Buffalo Region, we enjoy some of the most spectacular auroras to be seen.
Auroras often appear as curtains of light that stretch across the sky. These spectacular wave-like light patterns – usually made up of fluorescent greens, sometimes including faint red – can change in seconds or remain in the same for hours.
What is the science behind this amazing magical sight? An aurora is the result of the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere). The charged particles come from the magnetosphere and solar wind and, on Earth, are directed by the magnetic field into the atmosphere.
Learn more about the with Northern Lights Outdoor Excursions Alberta (nloea.com), which offers tour packages featuring true northern Canadian adventures. Packages include two or three viewings of the Aurora Borealis and include a sky map tour, night time photography and exploring the night sky with a telescope and learning about the science behind this phenomenon. A host of optional outdoor tours and activities are also available and tour dates are offered throughout the winter and spring. They are a locally owned Fort McMurray company, with many years of hospitality experience, as well as a deep involvement in the Fort McMurray market and throughout the Wood Buffalo region. Together with our multilingual guides, we offer a team of experienced professionals, all dedicated to the comfort of each and every guest.
Visit the Athabasca Sand Dunes and Richardson Backcountry
One of the most exciting and spectacular things to do in our own backyard is to visit the Athabasca Sand Dunes and Richardson Backcountry which are located around 200 km north of Fort McMurray. It is also often referred to the area of Six Lakes. To get there from Fort McMurray, you drive approximately 100 km to the staging area of the winter road to Fort Chipewyan.
Here, wind and sand combine to create Alberta’s moving desert and your destination for nature based outdoor recreation and adventure. Shifting up to 1.5 metres a year, these powerful dunes bury forests and fill in lakes, leaving behind a flat, barren plain. The sand dunes and the surrounding landscape of forests, lakes and marshes make the area an outdoor adventurer’s paradise.
The Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve is surrounded by the Maybelle River Wildland Park and protects the largest of these active sand fields. Within its boundaries are impressive natural features: 12 metre tall sand dunes and 60 metre high kames among the largest in the world.
For those looking for a weekend of backcountry hiking, the area provides scenery unequalled anywhere else in the province. For ATV enthusiasts, the Richardson River Sand Dunes Access Trail offers hours of adventurous riding. Located west of the Richardson River, the trail follows the eastern perimeter of the Richardson River Dunes Wildland Park. The park itself is a protected area and motorized access in the park is prohibited. The Access Trail into the Richardson River Sand Dunes is well marked during the summer months.
The Richardson Backcountry is also ideal for camping and fishing enthusiasts. Rustic, lakeside campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. These are user maintained sites with no major facilities and visitors are required to pack-out what they bring in. Anglers are also asked to check local fishing regulations before casting a line.
Come out and enjoy what Alberta’s Sahara has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.
Explore Reclaimed Land in the Heart of the Oil Sands
Located about 40 km north of Fort McMurray, you’ll find a couple of terrific hiking trails that offer you the chance to see what happens after the shovels and trucks of the oil sands stop working, and almighty nature takes back control. Driving north out of town on Highway 63, the Syncrude Interpretive Loop features a couple of different attractions that highlight the reclamation efforts of Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada to return former mine sites into the forests, marshes, and lakes they were before development. Suncor’s Crane Lake Trail is the first stop on the Syncrude Loop, and is marked by signs on the highway and two large metal bird statues guarding the entrance gate. This flat walk is only a few kilometres in length, but it highlights numerous different ecosystems found in the Boreal forest. Crane Lake is an excellent place for birdwatching, with occasional beaver and turtle sightings as well. Further around the Loop, Syncrude’s Gateway Hill trail system offers 4.5km of trails to explore Syncrude’s first certified reclaimed area. These mixed forest trails have a little bit more elevation to climb than at Crane Lake, but they offer views of Ruth Lake, marshes, and other ongoing reclamation projects near Syncrude’s base plant complex. They are also a terrific place to see fall colours in September. Dogs are welcome on both trails!
Camp under the stars at Crow Lake & Gregoire Lake Provincial Park
One of Alberta’s newest provincial parks can be found just off Highway 63, about 120 kilometres south of Fort McMurray just beyond Mariana Lake. While Crow Lake may not be as well known to northern Alberta campers as Gregoire Lake Provincial Park or the parks around Lac la Biche, you’re missing out if your ideal camping trip includes a canoe, kayak, or fishing rod. This lake winds its way through the surrounding hills, offering peaceful waters to paddle through as no motorized boats are allowed on the lake. Adjacent to the Provincial Park is Crow Lake Ecological Reserve, a larger protected area with even more lakes to explore via canoe or kayak. For those not looking to get out on the water, this area is a great place to see moose, bears, wolves, and beavers, along with numerous species of birds. This park is also an excellent place for dark sky viewing, whether for stargazing in the summer months or Aurora Borealis in the winter. Its location roughly halfway between Lac la Biche and Fort McMurray means that there is very little light pollution in the area, creating outstanding astrophotography opportunities. The campground at Crow Lake has 30 unserviced sites, with well water and vault toilets available in the park. A hand launch for paddle-powered boats is also adjacent to the main campground.
Gregoire Lake Provincial Park
If you are looking for a place to go to the beach or camping with the convenience of being close to the city look no further than Gregoire Lake! Gregoire Lake is also known as Willow Lake and is part of the Athabasca River Basin. It is located in the wetlands of northern Alberta, adjacent to Highway 881 near Anzac, between Fort McMurray and Lac La Biche.
With its brand new facelift this year and reopening, you have basic amenities at the new store and brand new washroom and shower facilities. Sites are nicely situated in mixed forest near the lake, and are suitable for tents or RVs. Explore the lake and mixed wood forest on mountain bike, by boat or canoe, or on foot. Relax at the beach, playground for the kids and swimming area, or try your luck fishing.
To reserve campsites (May to October only) or for more park information, visit reserve.AlbertaParks.ca or call 780-743-7437.
Spend the Afternoon at Maqua Lake
Another of the many Alberta Parks protected areas in the Wood Buffalo region is Maqua Lake Provincial Recreation Area, located about 27km outside Anzac and 55 km south of Fort McMurray via Highway 881 and Stoney Mountain Road. This beautiful lake ringed by lush Boreal forest sits on Stoney Mountain, and provides an excellent location for an afternoon of family fun and outdoor activities. The lake itself is calm and perfect for boating or swimming, though motorized craft are prohibited on Maqua Lake. The lake is not actively stocked with fish, but there is potential to catch something for those with luck on their side. There is also some hiking available in the area for those looking to skirt the shores of the lake or explore the thick forests of Stoney Mountain. No overnight single-person camping is currently available at Maqua Lake, but there are 2 group camping areas that can be reserved via the Alberta Parks website, the group camping features firepits and vault toilets, but no electrical hookups. If you’re looking for a quiet place close to Fort McMurray to go for a paddle, somewhere to relax and enjoy the afternoon sunshine, or a more private place for your next group camping trip, Maqua Lake may be your new favourite destination.
To book group camping sites or for more park information, visit reserve.AlbertaParks.ca or call 780-743-7437.
Paddle a Canadian Heritage River and Go Back in Time
Fort McMurray’s existence as a thriving community today is owed to the very special location of where the city has grown from. Sure, the naturally occurring bitumen in the sand under our feet is valuable today, but in the early days of European settlement here, it was the confluence of mighty rivers that made this place so important. The Athabasca River, with its impressive size and remarkable spring ice breakup, often gets all the attention over the Horse, Hangingstone, and Clearwater Rivers, but only one of the rivers that converge here is listed as a Canadian Heritage River. In 2004, the Alberta section of the Clearwater-Christina River was designated as a Canadian Heritage River, for its key role in the expansion of the fur trade into this part of Canada in the late 1700s, and for the outstanding recreation opportunities it provides in some of Alberta’s most remote areas. This river has been the site of many trips throughout history, and with its endpoint being just north of MacDonald Island in Fort McMurray, it could be a great place for your next river adventure. For up-to-date paddling & river information, trip planning resources, and an event calendar of canoeing events in Wood Buffalo including an annual trip north on the mighty Athabasca to Fort McKay, check out the Borealis Canoe Club AT sites.google.com/site/borealiscanoe.
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