For many, Canada conjures images of sweeping tundra, towering waterfront cities, and pristine lakes ripe for fishing. As with all countries, however, Canada also boasts a rich heritage celebrated across the country. In fact, the “Wild West” era in the U.S. is not dissimilar to Canada’s own frontier culture. In honor of this, Alberta hosts the yearly Calgary Stampede – lovingly dubbed “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” Join us as we explore this iconic western heritage festival hosted by our neighbors to the north.
History of the Calgary Stampede
The roots of the Calgary Stampede date back to 1886 when the city hosted its first fair. The event was put on by the nascent Calgary and District Agricultural Society – an organization whose explicit purpose was to promote the town while encouraging farmers and ranchers to move west. This continued annually, growing gradually to include more farmers, ranchers, and townspeople.
In 1908, Calgary enjoyed a boon from the national government when it announced the city would host the upcoming Dominion Exhibition. In preparation, Calgary built six pavilions and a racetrack. For the exhibition, the city hosted a rodeo, horse racing, and trick roping, drawing some 100,000 people. Additionally, it caught the attention and interest of an American trick roper, Guy Weadick, who committed himself to an expansion of the exhibition as a showcase of the life and skills of cattlemen across Canada and the U.S.
Over the next two decades, the exhibition suffered the loss of support and funds, though Weadick and the exhibition general manager, E.L. Richardson, attempted to keep it afloat. They even introduced a victory stampede in celebration of Canada’s soldiers returning from WWI.
Eventually, the exhibition and stampede were merged into one event. In an effort to bolster public support, Weadick encouraged Calgary residents to dress in western clothes and decorate businesses and public space in a “Wild West” motif. This kicked off a series of subsequent activities – like street parties and chuckwagon racing – that the city soon fell in love with.
Although the Great Depression made continuation of the exhibition and stampede difficult, it nonetheless survived. In fact, by the 1950s, the event had served as the backdrop for seven movies and attracted top-tier celebrities like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Queen Elizabeth II even made a point to visit the event in 1959, returning in 1973 to open the exhibition.
Today, the nine-day exhibition and stampede enjoys over a million visitors while the exhibition grounds have grown significantly – now including a Saddledome and park. Events include a little something for everyone, including a rodeo, nighttime bull show, musical performances, and a parade.
What to see and do
With a mix of entertainment, food, and attractions, there’s plenty to keep you busy at the Calgary Stampede.
Rodeo events take place in the Grandstand Infield of the Saddledome and showcase some of the best ranch and cattleman talent in the world. Visitors can watch barrel racing, bareback riding, tie-down roping (roping and tying steer), steer wrestling (jumping from horse to steer, wrestling it by the horns to the ground), bull riding, and other events for both novices and experienced ranchers.
The evening shows feature the best action of the Calgary Stampede. Each starts with racing chuckwagons, getting the crowd roaring as they cheer on their favorite racer. Shortly after the winner crosses the finish line, the Bell Grandstand Show kicks off with music, dancing, acrobatics, and – to take things over the top – an adrenaline-pumping fireworks display.
For those interested in catching a glimpse of the always-colorful parade, it’s important to scope out a place to watch before the 7:30pm start time. The parade will make its way westbound on 9th Avenue, head up to 6th Avenue, and proceed east. Keep an eye out for a mix of indigenous peoples groups, cattlemen on horses, chuckwagons, and more – with plenty of “Wild West” personality.
While the stampede and parade are unquestionably central to the annual exhibition, there are countless other attractions and activities to take in. If you’re hungry, you won’t want for dining options; from the New Midway menu – featuring reimagined classics like Philly Grilled Cheese alongside some quirky fusion dishes like the Corndog Poutine and Cheesy Ramen Dog – to the Big Four Roadhouse and elevated Bar Nineteen Twelve, you’ll be well lubricated and fed.
For added family entertainment, you can set the kids free in the Great FUNTier (mostly amusement park rides), watch freestyle Motocross performances, catch some pooches dazzling crowds with stunts and acrobatics, or go shopping for some “Wild West” goodies.
Last (but certainly not least), for those who are more seriously interested in agriculture education and experiences, the Calgary Stampede offers classes and events on animal care, showcases of various horse and donkey breeds, and showing competitions. Click here for the full roster of events.
General information and prices
Our biggest piece of advice for visitors to the Calgary Stampede: Pace yourself. Given the exhibition runs nine days, you will have the chance to experience everything that interests you. Start by getting rodeo and/or evening show tickets (check the website for details) and setting aside time for the parade, then plan your other events around these.
General admission tickets for the Calgary Stampede – which give you access to attractions outside of the rodeo and evening shows – are $18 CD / $13.50 USD for adults and $9 CD / $6.75 USD for children.
If you can, come dressed in western attire. If you don’t have anything, the onsite Stampede Store will have hats and shirts you can buy. Also, be sure to wear and bring plenty of sunscreen as you’ll be spending lots of time outdoors. Lastly, always have water on hand; stampedes are hot work.
For more details on upcoming Calgary Stampede events, visit their website.