You’ll be hearing a lot of that if you’re brave/lucky enough to visit Calgary, Alberta, Canada during what’s fondly referred to as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. The Calgary Stampede officially kicks off every year on the first Friday in July, with a massive parade which signals the start of the 10-day party. Calgary—a city of a million people—is known for being an oil town, but the corporate clothes are cast aside in favour of cowboy boots, big belt buckles and Stetsons when the Stampede rolls around.
Down at the Grounds
It goes without saying that THE place to be is the Stampede grounds, which are located in downtown Calgary.
The grounds stretch for blocks and blocks and blocks—so be sure to break in your cowboy boots before heading down!
There truly is something for everyone at the Stampede. Need a thrill? Jump on one of the dozens of rides along the Midway, including a roller coaster and the Drop of Doom, or get really crazy and try an extreme ride like the Slingshot or Skyscraper. A ride on the sky-high ferris wheel is a great way to see the grounds, or you can hop on the Sky Ride which takes tired cowpokes from one end of the Stampede to the other. If you plan on hopping on a lot of rides, pick up a Ride All Day wristband which will save you some cash.
Once you’ve got your fill of rides, stop for lunch at one of the dozens of food stalls. Standard fare like burgers, pizza and mini-doughnuts are available, but why not kick it up a notch and try something a little crazier—say a double bacon corndog, deep-friend pickled beans, an Idaho Taco or pickle shooters?
Later, try your luck with a midway game, or head over to the Stampede Dream Home. After taking a tour of the luxury home, you can enter to win it by buying a lottery ticket. You can also enter to win vacations, trucks and boats –not a bad consolation prize. You’ll find numerous kiosks on the grounds where you can enter, or do it inside one of the convention centres which also offer shopping and agriculture exhibits (cattle show, anyone?).
End your night by stopping by the Coca-Cola stage, which has entertainment throughout the day, leading up to a big concert at night. Stampede organizers manage to wrangle-up some big names every year, and past performers include the likes of Lifehouse and Carly Rae Jepsen. Shows are free—just make sure you stake out a spot on the grass early!
Ah the rodeo—the real reason behind the Calgary Stampede! This is the premier event, featuring talented cowboys and cowgirls from around North America. Every afternoon, a tournament-style rodeo takes place, which includes bareback, barrel racing, tie-down roping and everyone’s favourite: the heart-racing bullriding event.
There is no question this is the most dangerous event, as brave cowpokes jump on the one-tonne animals with only a rope in one hand, and hold on for dear life for eight seconds. If you want good tickets buy them in advance, otherwise you can try your luck with rush seating on the day of the event.
The same deal goes for the popular Rangeland Derby. There are nine nightly heats which pit chuckwagon drivers and their teams of swift steeds against each other. Drivers with the best times get to compete in the Sunday Showdown on the last day of the Stampede, for a chance to win their piece of over $1 million in prize money. The chuckwagons can be especially entertaining if you place smalls bets amongst your group—say, a beer for whoever picks the correct winner of heat four?
The derby is followed by the breathtaking Grandstand Show, featuring Calgary’s most talented youngsters. The incredible production is made up of dozens of musical numbers, performed by the Young Canadians who are joined by different acts each year. Tribute bands, Cirque du Soleil-like performers, flying motorcycles…it’s all here! And not to spoil anything, but there are usually more than a few people suspended from ropes high above the crowd…
The evening ends with my personal favourite—a fireworks show! The spectacle happens every night around 11 p.m. and the finale lasts nearly five minutes—plenty of time to get some great pictures.
The best part is that you don’t need to be on the grounds to take this one in, as you can see the fireworks from a number of vantage points around the city.
Where to drink
It’s important to note that you don’t have to go to the actual Stampede grounds to take part in the fun. Bars around the city welcome revelers all day long, and often bring in live bands or put up huge tents designed to keep cowpokes drinking all day long.
The most popular is the aptly-named Cowboys Dance Hall, which can cram thousands of people into its massive building located a stone’s throw away from Stampede Park.
Chances are you’ll run into some sort of sports-hero or celebrity, provided you can wrangle your way into the VIP section! Keep in mind there can be long lines and it can be pricey to get in, but this spot is hands-down the place to be. Other good picks include Wildhorse Saloon which is located in a huge tent on what is normally a downtown parking lot, as well as The Roadhouse. If you’re looking for more low-key action, go to trendy 17 Ave. S.W. aka The Red Mile, which is lined with a number of cafes, pubs and restaurants.
Finally, the Stampede grounds itself has a number of watering holes, including the popular (and often PACKED) Nashville North. The massive tent brings in country acts every single night, including a surprise guest during Sneak-A-Peek. Admission is included with your ticket to get on to the grounds, so you won’t be hit with a nasty cover charge at the door. There are also a few beer gardens sprinkled around the grounds, where you can soak in the sun while sipping back a cold one.
A crowd favourite is the numerous Stampede breakfasts which are put on for free by companies and organizations around the city. Expect to pile your plate with pancakes hot off the griddle, served up by a smiling volunteer proudly wearing a cowboy hat. If you’re lucky, some breakfasts have extras like whipped cream and fruit toppings, eggs, bacon and sausage. Most breakfasts are free, but it may be nice to give a small donation if the breakfast is being put on as a charity or fundraiser. Just make sure you dress up in your best cowpoke gear! The Calgary Stampede Caravan Committee has details on when and where the breakfasts are happening.
Admission: Getting into the grounds costs about $16 for adults, $8 for children and is free for those aged 6 and under. To save, try to time your visit with Family Day or Seniors Day.
Getting there: Good luck if you plan to drive. Parking is at a premium around the grounds, and costs around $15 if you manage to get a spot. A better option is to take the CTrain down or hail a cab.
Where to stay: If you have money to burn, stay somewhere close to the grounds like the fabulous Hotel Arts. The boutique hotel is just a few blocks from the action, and also boasts a fabulous pool- great for cooling off in after a long day on the grounds.
If you need to save a few bucks, book a room somewhere in Motel Village located along 16 Ave. in the city’s northwest. They’re not glamorous, but you’ll be right on the CTrain lane which can get you downtown quickly.
Must try: At least one crazy midway snack- deep-fried Oreos anyone?
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