I like a party as much as anyone (well maybe not quite as much as some), and it’s fun to be part of a city-wide festivity. Every July Calgary shows the rest of Canada that it knows how to throw a bash! Of course I’m talking about the Calgary Stampede, “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”. It’s a big event in Calgary, for that matter one of the biggest anywhere in North America, and Albertans really get into the spirit of it. During the 10 day duration of the stampede it attracts over a million visitors. This past summer was my first as a resident in Calgary and, as it turned out, also marked the 100th birthday of the stampede here in “Cowtown”. Of course it was too big an opportunity not to partake in this local icon that is such a big part of the Calgary’s identity.
The Calgary Stampede is really a hybrid series of activities. It begins weeks before the main event with an evolving party atmosphere in the city; office buildings and storefronts are decorated in cowboy themes, residents begin wearing cowboy hats, blue-jeans and plaid shirts (even in banks and office buildings), and dozens of small Stampede-related events are held across the city including innumerable neighborhood pancake breakfasts and barbecues (many of which are free). The beginning of the Stampede is heralded by a big western-themed parade, then the main event itself. The Stampede includes what many would expect in a state fair (with large midway, food vendors) and exhibition (including animal and agricultural shows and an extensive list of commercial vendors selling their wares). There are stage shows (eg. Garth Brooks and the Beach Boys this year) and free concerts (mostly local country music acts), the ever popular chuck-wagon races and the traditional main rodeo events like bronco and bull-riding, steer wrestling and barrel racing. My wife and I especially enjoy watching the RCMP’s Musical Ride, a video sampling of which you can see here.
The first Stampede was held in 1912, but it did not become an annual event until 1923 when it merged with the Calgary Exhibition. The Stampede has helped preserve the traditions of Alberta’s Western Heritage and is a source of local pride; thousands of volunteers help with its planning and execution each year. It has grown over the decades into one of the world’s largest and richest (in terms of cash prices) rodeos and is attended by most cowboys in the “rodeo circuit”. The event is still held at the same venue in Stampede Park, just south and east of downtown, adjoining the Elbow River. It’s facilities are used throughout the year for a variety of community events, not just during the stampede. The city’s light rail system provides convenient access from many points (and helps alleviate traffic congestion)
We spent two days at the Calgary Stampede this year, one mainly browsing the animals and commercial exhibits, and one attending the grandstand rodeo event (which lasted about 4 hours). The atmosphere was certainly easy going and festive and everyone seemed to be having a good time. The park can absorb a lot of people but nonetheless it still was very crowded and busy — so crowded that I don’t think I’d return except during a weekday when things are slower-paced. Still, it’s a fun time. There’s way more to see than you can fit in during a day so don’t rush yourself. I’d recommend combining a visit to the Canadian Rockies with a few days in Calgary and its Stampede if your timing allows for this.