Summer’s the season for outdoor festivals, fireworks and family fun. And where better to celebrate the “Best of the West” activities and attractions than at the Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada?
Our adventure begins at the airport where White Hat Volunteers greet us in international arrivals. Before long dancers in full cowgirl regalia strut their two-step to the musical strains of strumming guitars and banjos. No one seems in a hurry to leave.
But leave we do, eventually, eagerly anticipating the Calgary Stampede, “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” itself. We hear there’s plenty of fair food, star-studded entertainment, and a slate of rip-roaring competitions ahead.
So “Cowboy Up!” and see what it’s like to join this annual Western extravaganza.
The modest origins of the Stampede began two years after the town of Calgary was formed in 1884 when residents held their first exhibition showcasing best agricultural practices in the region. But it took trick roper Guy Weadick to suggest a grander vision for Calgary. How about the town hosting a “Stampede,” he offered, a world-class rodeo competition that would capture the spirit of the Wild West before it completely disappeared?
After enlisting the support of Calgary’s “Big Four,” four wealthy Alberta ranchers, “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” began that September. Since then, that first six-day celebration with roping and bronc events has morphed into a 10-day international spectacle that draws more than 1,000,000 visitors each year.
At a Glance
Cowboy fashion sets the tone for the town during the month of July. And with the gift of our own white hat and plaid shirts from our hosts, we’re soon caught up in the Stampede spirit. All we need now are boots, denim jeans and jackets to fit right in at the festival.
If you don’t have much in the way of Western wear in your current wardrobe, no worries. The ever-popular Lammle’s Western Wear & Tack store on site offers just what any self-respecting cowboy or gal needs to dress the part. Just be sure to break in those boots before doing too much walking the grounds.
Country music is the lifeblood of the Stampede, attracting superstars like Brad Paisley and Luke Bryan. But rock n’ roll fans will find artists like Sheryl Crow here as well as popular groups at the legendary Nashville North.
Most festivities take place at Stampede Park, flanked by the Elbow and Bow Rivers in the southeast downtown area. For insight into the town’s true grit, consider the Calgary flood of 2013. When the catastrophe threatened to derail the Stampede two weeks before opening, volunteers rallied. Promoters proclaimed, “We’re greatest together,” and the town pulled off a massive recovery effort to open the event on time.
Indian Village in ENMAX Park is another favorite Stampede tradition. To learn about the cultural customs of Canada’s First Nations, visitors can tour a tipi, watch native dances and games and taste authentic bannock, a type of traditional flatbread favored by indigenous nations.
The mission of the Calgary Stampede is “to preserve and celebrate our western heritage, cultures and community spirit.” That said, visitors can expect to find plenty of activities centered around these three pillars. Many of the sports, like roping, were first born of necessity and remain among the core events held today.
A bright afternoon sun bears down on the crowd as we make our way to the viewing stands. The air prickles with energy and excitement, the electricity of anticipation, as we await our first rodeo competition of the day. If we’re feeling slightly on edge for the competitors, imagine what’s going through their minds as they enter the chutes poised for either stardom and the chance to walk away with the top prize of $100,000. – or the disappointment of crushing defeat, even injury.
Regardless of final outcomes, winners and also-rans know they’ve made it when they get to the Calgary Stampede. Only the top 120 rodeo superstars from around the world are invited to participate in the 10-day cultural event.
When the chute finally opens, rider and animal rush past in a blur of speed, strength, and force. Within the maelstrom of pounding hooves and flying dust, from the sidelines, whether witnessing bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, bull riding or barrel racing, the experience is thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.
Tip: Wondering what to look for from the judges’ perspective? Your handy program guide tells you everything you need to know. For example, I was surprised to learn that the judges rank both rider and animal a score between 1 – 100, up to 50 points each.
As this is a family affair, buckaroos, too, have their day at the rodeo. In one event, the Wild Pony races, teams of three, ages eight to twelve, compete to see who can get a rider aboard a wild pony for a two-jump ride in the fastest time. Even for buckaroo bystanders, the Calgary Stampede can’t be beat as evidenced by one toddler walking by who loudly declared to his parents, “Best day ever!”
Chuckwagon Racing (GMC Rangeland Derby)
Visionary-founder Guy Weadick must have been quite the persuasive guy because in 1923 he convinced several working ranchers to enter their chuckwagons and roundup crews to compete in what is now known as the GMC Rangeland Derby.
Today thirty-six wagons race every night. By Showdown Sunday, the final four with the fastest times compete for the chance to claim the title, bragging rights, and a cool $100,000. award.
In moments of hair-raising, heart-pounding action, drivers and teams explode across the arena, careening around the barrel positions, striving not to knock any over, in as fast a time as possible.
Midway Food and Rides
After watching the thrilling rodeo events, our hunger and thirst get the better of us. We join the Stampede’s new fun food tour, “Where Feast Meets West,” for an overview of sweet and savory, quirky and familiar Midway food fare.
We start off with the Big Pickle Tornado, a delectable concoction of sliced dill pickle filled with a hot dog, then topped with cheese and bacon and deep fried in a wrapped tortilla.
After sampling a few churro fries dipped in chocolate – because what doesn’t taste better with chocolate? – we try the Smoking Charcoal Ice Cream in a Cup. I have no problem polishing off the entire treat of coconut-flavored soft-serve ice cream. Apparently, the black activated charcoal has health benefits. Who knew?
And the Oreo Creamsicle Delight topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of Oreos? The perfect thirst-quencher on this hot summer day.
Still ahead on my Midway food bucket list, street corn brushed in Mexican crème, and coated with cheese, chili powder, garlic and cilantro. And let’s not leave behind the Stampede-Sized Meatball and Lavender Lemonade. But tomorrow is another day.
In case you’re still hungry, there’s lots more quirky foods on the menu. For the record, bacon lovers craved the Bacon Onion Bombs and Deep-fried Bacon Wrapped Reese Cups dusted in powdered sugar. Cheese Chicken Hearts and The Spicy Chicken Arepa were big hits with others.
While most of us chose to forego the rides after our food tour, ride enthusiasts will find more than a few adrenalin-rushing attractions to get their juices flowing. How about the WestJet Skyride or Midway Zip Line? Or maybe Extreme Thrill Rides featuring the Sky Scraper and Slingshot better suit your fancy.
Cap off each day of your visit to the Calgary Stampede at the Grandstand Show, featuring performances by notable world-class entertainers.
On our visit, the Stampede celebrated its 50th year with standout acts by the Young Canadians, acrobats, Music Hall of Fame songwriter, Andy Kim (Sugar, Sugar), and – drumroll, please – Eddie the Eagle, 1988 Olympic ski jumper who stole the hearts of millions of fans around the world for his daring dashes down the slopes. What a thrill for me to meet the man behind the myth! And let’s not forget the spectacular evening fireworks, the fitting razzle-dazzle finale to the day’s main events.
When You Go
To experience the best of the Calgary Stampede, allow yourself at least two days to immerse yourself in the festivities. Include the Art Walk that winds through the Stampede grounds and extends into the community, one of the many ways to experience Calgary beyond the festival.
Need more suggestions on what to do and see during your stay?
- Food options abound at the Calgary Stampede! Kick off your event at Modern Steak, a steakhouse featuring prime-grade Alberta beef and Jack Daniel whiskey. Have lunch at the Clubhouse Rustic Kitchen. For top seats at the Evening Show, head to The Lazy S, the exclusive”restaurant in the seat deck.” Follow up the next day with a Pancake breakfast at Fluor Rope Square or have Breakfast with the Pandas at the Calgary Zoo.
- Explore Stampede Market and Western Oasis at the BMO Centre.
- Check out the Canine Stars in the Corral or take a free barn tour.
Stampede Park is about a 15-minute walk from the downtown core or visitors can hop on Calgary’s CTrain transit which makes a stop at the Stampede Main Entry. Once you arrive, be sure to pick up a map and schedule to get your bearings and discover where to find your favorite attractions.
For more information, visit Calgary Stampede.