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Alberta’s Hiding A Mini Sahara Desert From The Rest Of Canada

Posted on May 17, 2024 by Britanny Burr

Alberta. A province renowned for its diverse and breathtaking scenery, from majestic mountain peaks, vibrant glacial lakes in stunning shades of blue, swift rivers, expansive prairies, rolling plains, prehistoric dinosaur bones, and even a distinctive “desert” terrain. If you didn’t know that Alberta is home to it’s very own sand dunes, now you know! Here’s the scoop about the Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve.

The Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve is located in a remarkable little corner of northeastern Alberta, in Maybelle River Wildlands Provincial Park, 200 kilometres north of Fort MacMurray. This unique landscape in the Wood Buffalo Region showcases some pretty unexpected ecological characteristics and is the largest active sand dune system in the province.

According to Alberta Parks, the area stretches over 8 kilometres and the dunes reach heights of up to 12 metres, along with 60-metre-high kames (steep-sided mounds of sand). These impressive dunes are slowly migrating south up to 1.5 metres per year, burying jack pine forests, filling small lakes with sand, and leaving behind a flat, barren plain. How wild is that?

Formed thousands of years ago, near the end of the last glacial period, the dunes were shaped by the melting ice sheets that left behind enormous deposits of sand and sediment. Their continued existence in such a northern and forested region is a fascinating piece of geological history.

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Sand Dunes in Alberta / Alberta Parks

Visiting the Athabasca Ecological Reserve is worth the journey, especially for those who love exploring our province and learning about different ecological systems. Access to the reserve is an adventure on its own. Driving to Maybelle River is a scenic seven-and-a-half-hour drive north of Edmonton, followed by ATV entry into the park.

In the Boreal forest, you will find pristine wilderness, hectares of backcountry hiking, fishing, camping and the opportunity to see plenty of wildlife. This region is home to beavers, muskrats, black bears, foxes, lynx, wolves, moose, and many species of birds. Visiting this place will make you feel like you’ve hopped on a plane–or a spaceship for that matter–and you truly won’t believe it exists right here in Alberta.

If you love this sort of adventure, Saskatchewan boasts an even larger sand dune that stretches approximately 100km along the south shore of Lake Athabasca, in Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park. Access to the park can be tricky and is only accessible by float plane from Fort McMurray or Stony Rapids. A trip to Alberta or Saskatchewan’s historic dunes offers outstanding scenery and a peaceful retreat for nature lovers and the adventurous alike.

The Athabasca Ecological Dunes are an experience that can’t be found in many other places in the world. It’s an opportunity to see a side of Alberta that highlights the diversity and beauty of Canada’s natural landscapes. If you’re up for the challenge, the Athabasca Dunes promises to be an unforgettable journey.

Britanny Burr is a freelance writer and a contributor to Great West Media. This story was written for the Great West Media & Southern Alberta Newspapers Hot Summer Guide advertising feature. The Hot Summer Guide is a special feature about summer activities, bucket list adventures, staycation options, road trips, attractions, events, and road trip-worthy food & beverage destinations across Alberta. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff.

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