Edmonton, Alberta ’s capital, sits in the center of the province and is a gateway to the vast forests of northern Alberta. It’s a vibrant cultural center, but its reputation as a boomtown may be its defining characteristic. The proud city saw not one, but three major booms in the 20th century and is once again experiencing exponential growth.
Its population has mushroomed to more than 740,000 (1,000,000 if the surrounding area is included), making it the sixth-largest city in Canada. Although Calgary  is the administrative and business center of the province’s billion-dollar petroleum industry, Edmonton is the technological, service, and supply center.
The North Saskatchewan River Valley winding through the city has been largely preserved as a 27-kilometer (17-mile) greenbelt—the largest urban park system in Canada. Rather than the hodgepodge of slums and streets you might expect in a boomtown, the modern city of Edmonton has been extremely well designed and well built, with an eye toward the future.
The downtown area  sits on a spectacular bluff overlooking the river-valley park system. Silhouetted against the deep-blue sky, a cluster of modern glass-and-steel high-rises makes a dynamic contrast to the historic granite Alberta Legislature Building  and the lush valley floor below. But the city’s biggest attraction is the ultimate shopping experience of West Edmonton Mall , the world’s largest shopping and amusement complex.
Edmonton is a natural gateway to northern Alberta, extending from Highway 16 north to the 60th parallel. This is a sparsely populated land of unspoiled wilderness, home to deer, moose, coyotes, foxes, lynx, black bears, and the elusive Swan Hills grizzly bear. For the most part, it is heavily forested, part of the boreal forest eco-region that sweeps around the Northern Hemisphere, broken only by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Only a few species of trees are adapted to the long, cold winters and short summer growing seasons characteristic of these northern latitudes. Conifers such as white spruce, black spruce, jack pine, fir, and larch are the most common. This vast expanse of land is relatively flat, the only exceptions being the Swan Hills—which rise to 1,200 meters (3,900 feet)—and, farther north, the Birch and Caribou Mountains.
The Athabasca and Peace river systems are the region’s largest waterways. Carrying water from hundreds of tributaries, they merge in the far northeastern corner of the province and flow north into the Arctic Ocean. A third major watercourse, the North Saskatchewan River, flows east from the Continental Divide, crossing northern Alberta on its way to Hudson Bay. Alberta ’s earliest explorers arrived along these rivers, opening up the Canadian West to the trappers, missionaries, and settlers who followed.