About 100 kilometres north of Fort McMurray in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeast Alberta is one of the province’s most spectacular sights — giant sand dunes. And it’s not a mirage.

“When we talk about sand dunes, I think people from Edmonton and from Calgary don’t realize just how big the sand dunes are,” says Michael Sieger, vice-president of tourism for Wood Buffalo Economic Development. “You drive your ATV to the staging area, get off, and walk to the top of a 50 to 60 foot dune. That dune goes on for as long as your eye can see.”

“On a warm day, you could easily think you’re somewhere in Africa; you really start to forget that you’re on the Canadian shield, that you’re in northern Canada.” —Michael Sieger, vice-president of tourism for Wood Buffalo Economic Development

In fact, there are two sand dune ranges in the region north of Wood Buffalo: the Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve and the Richardson River Dunes Wildland Park.

The Athabasca Sand Dunes are ideal for the ecological tourist. This protected area lies mostly in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, but a section that’s approximately 8 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide spills over into Alberta. This stretch of sand features 12-metre high dunes and 60-metre high kames (a mound of sand deposited by a melting ice sheet).

While the protected area is off limits to ATV riders, backcountry hikers can enjoy a landscape rich in flora and fauna, some of which are not widely distributed in other parts of Canada. Some of the plants include felt-leaved willow, floccose tansy and bladderwort; while animals such as lynx, red fox, river otters, mink, black bear, wolf and moose make their home in the dunes.

The sand dunes in northeast Alberta feature flora and fauna that are not widely distributed in Canada, making hikes and picnics even more picturesque. Photo courtesy of Wood Buffalo Economic Development.

The Richardson River Dunes, on the other hand, are an oasis for ATV enthusiasts. At the staging area, about 1 hour north of Fort McMurray in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – a district with a population of more than 71,000 people that sits about 500 kilometres northeast of Edmonton – there’s a simple gate that opens up to an incredible outdoor adventure: an expansive 320-kilometre area of sand and sky that can transport riders to a seemingly different world.

“That’s just it: the blue skies and sand,” says Sieger. “That feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. On a warm day, you could easily think you’re somewhere in Africa; you really start to forget that you’re on the Canadian shield, that you’re in northern Canada.”

The Richardson River Dunes provide a 320-kilometre area of sand that gives ATVers ample room to roam. Photo courtesy of Wood Buffalo Economic Development.

Currently, the opportunity to ATV on the sand dunes is accessible only for people who bring their own equipment, but Sieger says his organization is actively looking for entrepreneurs to create, develop and activate tourism opportunities where people can rent the equipment and be taken on tours. During the winter, amid ATV off-season, the tourism team with Wood Buffalo Economic Development is working with Alberta Environment and Parks, and Parks Canada to increase usability of the dunes once the snow melts in 2021. Plans are being discussed to add directional signage to routes that’s similar to what’s used at a ski resort.

“You’d look at the board and you’d see a red line (for example) and that would be the two-hour tour,” explains Sieger. “So, you set off with your family and follow the red sticks or the red signage.” Other colours would mark four hours or six hours and, potentially, overnight adventures.

Wood Buffalo Economic Development is working with other agencies to provide unique tourism experiences in the sand dunes, including flying tours. Photo courtesy of Wood Buffalo Economic Development.

Another initiative Sieger’s team is working on is flying tours over the sand dunes in a float plane. “From the air you get a very different idea of how vast the sand dunes are,” says Sieger, before describing an experience of landing in a plane on a lake near the Athabasca Sand Dunes where tourists could climb to the top of a dune and spend time learning with a guide. “How the sand dune changes every year with the wind, how it’s been growing, and some of the unique flora and fauna. Then get back into the float plane and fly back to the airport here in Fort McMurray.”

Both sets of dunes are accessed by what Sieger has dubbed “the Sand Dunes Highway.” The route transforms into an ice road in the winter to connect the communities of Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan to the north. When the winter road disappears and the long-haul trucks along with it, the quads, ATVs and side-by-side vehicles are free to roam the wilderness uninterrupted.

“You’re driving about 130 kilometres on the road to get to the sand dunes,” says Sieger, “but the reality is that the fun starts the minute you get on the sand road. You can take some side trips to visit some beautiful lakes and maybe even witness a bear or two along the way. It’s more than enough to make people feel like they had a really great adventure; it’s adventure tourism at its best.”