Compiled by the Road Trip Alberta team
Last Updated August 20, 2020
If you’re an Albertan, you’ve undoubtedly made the drive from Calgary to Edmonton (and/or Edmonton to Calgary) many, many times. It is the busiest route in the province and if you’re anything like us, you set the car in cruise control once you’ve passed the congested traffic of the cities, and mindlessly let the road guide you there. You might make a stop in Red Deer to visit The Donut Mill (as you should), but otherwise, you just burn on through.
We’d like to challenge you to do something different this time. And to anyone reading this who is visiting from out of province or country, it is likely that you have been advised to just take the fastest route as well. But we want you to take our challenge too.
In this guide to travel between Alberta’s two biggest cities, we’ve given you details on the fast route for those in a hurry. But we have also outlined two alternative, more scenic routes, plus a lot of fun stops to make along the way. Taking one of these alternative journeys is not only going to make the road trip a lot more enjoyable, but also give you a glimpse into more of what Alberta has to offer.
About the Route
The distance from Calgary to Edmonton (city centers) clocks in at 303kms with a straight drive on the heavily trafficked QEII highway. It should take less than 3 hours to make the journey, but there are many factors that can change that: construction (there always seems to be something going on in summer!), traffic, and of course, the variable Alberta weather.
If you have to get to either city quickly, there is no faster route. But if you have some extra time and an appetite for adventure, then you have a couple of different options to get there.
Fastest route from Calgary to Edmonton
Take the Queen Elizabeth II (known locally as the QEII or Highway 2), which has at least two lanes of free-flowing traffic in each direction the entire way.
Suggested scenic route #1: “The Boomtown Trail”
You’ll take a brief jaunt along the QEII, just north of Calgary, but the rest of your time will be on paved back roads that will take you through quaint towns along the east. From Calgary, take the QEII north but then take exit 340A east on Highway 27 toward Trochu. Once in Trochu head north and follow the map to Edmonton. From Edmonton, Take exit 66 off Anthony Henday to Camrose and Wainwright. There are a few more turns along the way; follow the map below for the rest of the details!
This should take you roughly four hours, but make time for the interesting stops and side-trip opportunities along the way, which are outlined in the “fun things to do” section below.
Suggested scenic route #2: “The Cowboy Trail”
This is actually a 700km route that extends into far southern Alberta. However, you can get on the trail by heading west from Calgary towards Cochrane and then turn north on highway 22. From Edmonton, take the Yellowhead west of the city until it meets up with highway 22, turn south at Entwistle. For most of the drive up, you’ll have the mountains out your left window and prairies out your right. Worthy stops along the way are detailed in the “fun things to do” section below. Depending on the stops you make, this should take you up to five hours.
Calgary to Edmonton (and Edmonton to Calgary) by Car
As each city has an international airport, it’s easy to pick up a vehicle (we suggest using Rentalcars.com to compare pricing among your favourite agencies) and be on your way. Both the Calgary International Airport (YYC) and Edmonton International Airport (YEG) are near the QEII and you can be on your way quickly. If you want to take either of the more scenic routes outlined above, you’ll need your own wheels, as none of the other transportation listed below will take these roads less traveled.
If you are not interested in using a traditional car rental agency, you can also rent cars through a website called Turo (think Airbnb for car rentals). Both airports serve as frequent pick-up/drop off points.
Before you get on the road, be sure to check out Alberta 511 for up-to-date road reports. Every winter there are at least a few days that this trip can be a treacherous journey thanks to inhospitable weather, and trust us, you don’t want to be caught in it!
Just arrived and need a hotel?
If it turns out that the weather doesn’t look good, or you get in late at either airport and want to get some sleep before undertaking such a drive, we’ve got some recommendations for airport hotels at either end:
Calgary Airport Hotel
- Hotel Clique is a super chic and affordable hotel that has free parking, free WiFi, and a great restaurant onsite. It is a quick shuttle ride from the airport, and we have stayed here several times when we have an early flight out of Calgary. Bonus: it has two rooftop pools!
Edmonton Airport Hotel
- Four Points by Sheraton Edmonton Airport is a straightforward hotel that is only 5 minutes from the airport. It has free wifi, an indoor pool and a hot tub.
Calgary to Edmonton by Bus/Shuttle
There are some good options for bus service between Edmonton and Calgary that are reasonably priced. The following companies offer direct service between Alberta’s two biggest cities:
- Red Arrow – Probably the most popular bus service connecting the two cities (and more spots in Alberta), Red Arrow offers multiple pick-up spots in each city, and at each airport. One-way tickets currently run at just under $95 per person, including tax.
- Rider Express – A bargain with prices as low as $38 per person, Rider Express runs three times daily between the two cities, with a stop part way in Red Deer. The pick-up and drop-off spots in each city may prove to be a little awkward for some, and no stops are made at either international airport.
- Ebus – This is Red Arrow’s offering of a more economical option; for just over $50 you can get this convenient bus from Edmonton to Calgary (and vice versa) with two scheduled routes daily (except Saturdays). This is also most convenient for shoppers, as it includes a stop at the popular CrossIron Mills Shopping Center north of Calgary.
- Coldshot – $40 will get you between the two cities. Coldshot makes up to 2 trips daily (early morning and early evening). Bonus: every sixth trip is free!
Calgary to Edmonton by Private Transfer
Private transfers between Edmonton to Calgary (and vice versa) can take all the stress out of driving the busy QEII. Some private transfer options are below:
- Quest Limos – Prices start at $499 for luxury private transfer between Calgary and Edmonton, but with vehicles that fit up to 12 people, the low cost per person makes this an attractive option to arrive in style.
- Taxi – Taxis are always an option, of course but rates run around $500 for a taxi to make the big journey.
With the number of rideshare options nowadays, finding a ride from Calgary to Edmonton or (Edmonton to Calgary) can be as simple as searching for a ride on Kijiji.ca with your dates.
- Poparide.com – there are options to select your driver based on your luggage and equipment requirements if you are traveling with skis, bikes, etc. Poparide charges per seat so you have an opportunity to meet other visitors if you are traveling solo to Edmonton or Calgary.
- Uber serves both cities and so is another rideshare option, however many drivers may not be willing or capable to make the drive and the price is close to what a taxi would cost for just one way.
Fun Things to do Along the Way
If you have your own car and some spare time, you can easily turn your three-hour trek into a day-long adventure!
The Fastest Route
We’ll keep this selection light, as we know that most people driving the QEII highway just want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible!
As the city of Red Deer sits almost exactly in between Calgary and Edmonton, it makes for a logical rest point, and what is commonly known as “Gasoline Alley” (a stretch of the main highway at the south end of Red Deer) is the perfect place to get gas, stretch your legs, and grab a bite.
If you just need a quick snack to fuel the rest of your trip, stop at the iconic Donut Mill for a pastry. You can’t miss it – the storefront is a large windmill on the west side of the highway – and there is a very good reason why this spot is listed on our “foodie” road trip Alberta bingo card. Try the unmissable Boston cream, or take a chance on the variable “donut of the month” that is always a crowd-pleaser.
If you’re pulling into Red Deer around mealtime and need something heartier, the Big Bend Market is very worth the stop for their made-to-order sandwiches. Self-proclaimed as a “year-round farmer’s market”, their meat selection is award-winning and their products are almost entirely locally made.
We’ll throw in one suggested stop purely for fun: if you really want to stretch your legs, book a time at nearby Heritage Ranch to experience the thrill of being a fugitive! You’ll be released onto the ranch with a map and a mission: capture all four flags within an hour while being chased by a tracker on a horse. The game starts at 3pm and comes with a steak dinner (hopefully in celebration of you not being caught)!
Along the Boomtown Trail
Heading north of Calgary, after you take the exit to highway 27 east, but before you hit Trochu, make your first stop at the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum. While it’s not officially a part of the Boomtown Trail, it is on the way and certainly a quirky spot not to be missed. Touring the whole museum can be done in just a few minutes, and we promise, it will fuel a lot of laughter for the rest of your trip.
Continuing on to Trochu, stop to take a quick selfie at the (disputed) World’s Largest Golf Tee. Built in 2009, it stands at a whopping 40 feet tall.
There are several historic buffalo jumps within Alberta, but Dry Island Buffalo Jump is one of the lesser-known, making it a true “hidden gem”. Drive 20 minutes northeast of Trochu (it will take you off the official “trial” for a wee bit) to find this provincial park that offers a stunning vista of a coulee with the Red Deer River nestled in the valley. You can boat, hike, or just enjoy nature and bird-watching. (Always check the link above in advance to be sure access is open; in wet weather, the road may be closed.)
The town of Stettler is one of the biggest on the route, so this could be a good stopping point for a meal. And if you have the time, book a visit to Alberta Prairie Railway for one of their different themed excursions. Ride on a passenger train from the 1920s and hold tight to your jewels, as it’s likely that you’ll encounter a gun battle when your train gets “robbed” along the way.
Love checking out “world’s largest” roadside attractions? A quick jaunt to Donalda will offer another selfie opportunity in front of the world’s largest lamp. It stands 42 feet tall and lights up at dusk (as a lamp should)!
Along the Cowboy Trail
Just about an hour north of your turn from Cochrane, make a stop in the picturesque town of Sundre. In fact, we recommend planning your whole day around it, to ensure that you hit Kodiak BBQ and Deli in time for lunch. Be sure to order the ribs (we know you’ll thank us later for it).
If you’ve got your clubs in the car, take a swing at the pristine Sundre Golf Club. Alternatively, pick up some new skills at Painted Warriors, an Indigenous-owned business that specializes in outdoor fun and education. Learn about archery and survival skills, or take a horse ride, an interpretive hike or snowshoe tour (season-depending).
Another hour away and you’ll be in the small town of Rocky Mountain House, and a stop at the National Historic Site in town is certainly worth it. Learn about life at a trading post, explore the many Indigenous programs available, and even discover a new-to-you trade or craft. If you’re towing a trailer or packing a tent you can also spend the night along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.
For a little adventure along the way – and especially on a really hot day – pull the car off at Pembina River Tubing, just south of Highway 16. Leave your car and hop in a raft to float north on the Pembina River, a shuttle will pick you up on the other side of Highway 16, just before the Pembina River Provincial Park. Note that this can take over 3 ½ hours, depending on how high the river level is (check their website for estimates, and book in advance).
Upon Arrival: Where to Stay in Edmonton
Your adventure doesn’t end there! We’ve got a large guide on things to do in Edmonton, too. Stay a few days in one of these hotels below and plan to make the most of your stay in Alberta’s capital city.
Luxury – In terms of luxury accommodations in Edmonton, nothing beats the iconic Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. You can’t miss this hotel as it offers spectacular views of the Edmonton river valley and features a restaurant and spa. Close to many Edmonton attractions and located right in downtown Edmonton, this hotel is worth the splurge even if it’s just for one night!
Mid-range – The Mettera Hotel on Whyte is close to the shopping and vibrant amenities Whyte Ave is known for. Fitting in with the funky vibe of Old Strathcona, Mettera Hotel on Whyte offers rooms decorated in fire, earth, air or water themes. Additionally, this boutique hotel features a cozy library with fireplace!
Budget – Close to Whyte Ave and West Edmonton Mall, Travelodge by Wyndham Edmonton South gives you access to Edmonton sightseeing without breaking the bank. Great for kids, it also has a hot tub and pool and also includes a complimentary continental breakfast.
Upon Arrival: Where to Stay in Calgary
Keep the journey alive by enjoying some time in Cowtown as well! Book a few nights at one of the hotels below and follow our extensive guide on things to do in Calgary.
Luxury – Stay in the heart of downtown Calgary in the historic Fairmont Palliser hotel. You’ll be walking distance to some of the city’s most renowned shops, entertainment, and restaurants! There is a spa with a pool to pamper yourself too.
Mid-range – Hotel Arts offers a beautiful and eclectic space; this boutique hotel in downtown Calgary is a must if you’re into the art scene. Sip cocktails and eat world-class food around the poolside (open to non-hotel guests too). The hotel features two superb local restaurants and it sports its own commuter bike program to help you explore the city.
Budget – If you’re looking to budget more for excursions than where you rest your head, check out Canada’s Best Value Inn. It’s close to the transit system and great shopping at nearby Chinook Centre.
ALSO, you can download our FREE Road Trip Alberta bingo cards, to make your trip just that much more fun!