The first river crossing—deep and fast and glacier cold, without even a felled tree to help us—hammered home the differences between our destination, Alberta’s Willmore Wilderness, and its tamer southern neighbors, Jasper and Banff national parks. On the far bank, a million-plus acres of roadless backcountry awaited us. So, clutching a long branch between us for stability, my wife and I edged across the waist-deep torrent and then collapsed with numb legs. We had 10 days’ worth of food and a very loose plan to explore the steep passes along the park’s southern boundary. Once we reached the high country, we followed our whims: camping next to a tiny lake perched on an outrageous slope; scrambling up one of the nameless peaks (and, from the summit, watching an orange dot—our tent—migrate down the pass in a fierce wind); dipping south into Jasper before contouring across to reenter Willmore in the next valley. The strangest twist: the long northern twilight we spent eating beef stew with a group of cowboy poets traveling on horseback. Anywhere else, it would have felt like a theme-park novelty act; in Willmore’s rugged emptiness, we were the ones, with our Gore-Tex and shiny hiking poles, who seemed out of place and time.
GET THERE: The closest airport is three hours away in Edmonton; Calgary is twice as far, but the drive up via the spectacular Icefields Parkway makes it the better choice. In Willmore, start hiking at the Rock Lake trailhead near Hinton, Alberta, and bring bear spray. Entry and camping are free. (Oh, Canada!) For an outfitted trip, it’s hard to beat a four-day horseback adventure (US$1,072).