In June 2013, a devastating flood hit Calgary that shut down power and the city. With less than two weeks to the Calgary Stampede, Stampede Park was drained and the show went on. Calgarians responded by buying “Come Hell or High Water” souvenir shirts, and I thought nothing would stop this party. I was wrong.
Officially started in 1912, the Calgary Stampede was held even during the world wars. In 2020, it was cancelled when the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and only partially opened for 2021. This year, it is all the way back and as big as it ever.
The Stampede officially started at 9 a.m. on July 8, when parade marshal Kevin Costner led the Stampede Parade for a crowd of around 350,000 people (the Hollywood star also played with his band, Modern West, at the Big Four Roadhouse later in the day). That was the official start, but people have been packing “Sneak a Peak” and other kick-off events around the city for days beforehand – it seems that 10 days of partying just isn’t enough for some.
On the Stampede Grounds
Stampede Park is expected to welcome an estimated 1.3 million visitors with midway games and rides that range from the extreme to little-kid friendly. Grab a map to make sure you don’t miss free daily events like the Dog Bowl in the BMO Centre or the adrenaline-filled Monster Energy Compound on the steps of the Scotiabank Saddledome, the city’s 20,000-seat arena. This year, take a ride on the world’s largest travelling Ferris wheel to see the scale of it all.
It’s easy to spot the grandstand where the famous rodeo starts at 1:30 p.m. each day. The $1.5 million in cash prizes and ProRodeo Hall of Fame status make this a core event on the rodeo circuit. Events include barrel racing, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, and bareback and saddle bronc riding.
After the rodeo, the stadium transitions to the traditional Cowboys Rangeland Derby chuckwagon races that see drivers and their outriders race through a figure 8 into a “half mile of hell”. This year will have three teams per heat instead of the usual four to make the dangerous event a little safer. Make sure to not miss the First Nations Relay Races where teams of bareback riders swap horses mid-race.
After the blood, sweat, and mud are done, sit back and enjoy the Bell Grandstand Show with music and acrobatics. My favourite part is the performance by the Young Canadians. This group features emerging local talents and has been running since the Rockettes came to the 1968 Stampede. They have evolved into a significant arts program in the city and nurture their talents at the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts.
If you want to cowboy up but aren’t down with rodeo, visit the Nutrien Western Event Centre to see extreme cowboy racing, both heavy and miniature horses plus the ever-popular World Stock Dog Championships. Kids will enjoy going through the barns where they can touch agriculture and learn about how our food becomes food. Search out the sheep and swine showcases to get up close to the critters.
While the rodeo and agriculture themes reflect our recent past, visit Elbow River Camp to see what life was like before horses came to Canada. The expanded camp features several tipis, jewelry, bannock, and the art of the Kainai, Piikani, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina First Nations.
There is more on the other side of the river where the Saddledome hosts the Calgary Stampede Powwow from July 12-14. Entry is free with your Stampede Park admission ticket and the powwow showcases competitive singing, drumming, and dancing, with the $175,000 in prize money attracting competitors from across the continent.
If you’re after more music, it’s hard to miss as it will come to you. The Calgary Stampede Showband tours the grounds daily with pop-up performances (the troupe tours the world the rest of the year). The whole family can also take in free outdoor concerts at the Coca-Cola Stage featuring many pop acts that your kids no doubt overplay on their streaming services. More grown-up affairs are in the Big Four Roadhouse and famous Nashville North tent with concerts and adult beverages all afternoon and evening.
The Party Continues Throughout Calgary
It’s hard to get away from one of Canada’s biggest music festivals. Just outside the gates is another massive tent called Cowboys that will be packed with party-goers and bands all week (some late announcements include Blue Rodeo on July 15 and Ludacris, T.I., and Big Sean on July 13). Keep walking and you’ll find the iconic King Eddy, or keep staggering downtown to the Wildhorse Saloon tent.
And there is more live music in tents all over the area, including at bars like National Saloon on 10th Ave. and newcomer Whiskey Rose on 17th Ave. If you like your concerts al fresco, a few blocks farther west is Shaw Millennium Park that hosts Roundup Music Fest (July 13) and the Oxford Stomp (July 15).
You can also expect to hear a lot of country tunes at the many family-friendly Stampede breakfasts around the city. They range from small community and local business events to the annual Chinook Centre mall affair that feeds 50,000 people. Visitors may find it strange that an entire city offers free breakfast to anyone who will line up, just expect to balance pancakes and maple syrup on your lap while sitting on a haybale (a very Calgarian skill).
It can be hard work wearing your cowboy boots from breakfast until the fireworks light up the sky each of the 10 nights — especially if you’re not a real cowboy. This year, it will be worth the effort. The Calgary Stampede seems poised to once again live up to its billing as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”.