Calgary : Gateway to the Rocky Mountains of Canada

In Alberta, Travel Guides
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Calgary, Alberta. A place known as the gateway to the Rockies and the filming location for famous western movies like Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James, and The Revenant.

However, it’s not all just snow and cowboys out there. Calgary is a great place to visit during all four seasons of the year. As a Calgary native, I would like to share my favourite events and things to do every season, although the timing of the seasons may be slightly different than what you are used to.

A wintery view of the city from Nose Hill Park

A wintery view of the city from Nose Hill Park

To start off, a little about the weather: Calgarians LOVE to talk about the weather. And Calgary has its fair share of wacky weather. Winter temperatures average at around -14°C, however can plummet to -30°C. However, it’s not just your average cold Canadian city. Due to its close proximity to the mountains, (About 100KM from the entrance to the Rockies – relatively close for Canada) a warm wind weather system known locally as a “Chinook” graces Calgary with its presence in the winter months raising the temperature by, in some cases 40 degrees, to a balmy 10-20°C within a few hours, and lasting for up to a week before returning back to sub-zero temperatures. This gives Calgarians a break once in a while from the frigid cold, and is a very much beloved weather condition by the locals. People take full advantage, and you can see people walking around in shorts and short-sleeve shirts in the middle of January. This phenomenon may seem unnatural to visitors, some even claiming it to be “global warming” (*cough*Leonardo DiCaprio*cough*) but rest assured, it is very natural, and you can see a beautiful cloud formation called a “chinook arch” westward towards the mountains.

Another beautiful Calgary sunset

Another beautiful Calgary sunset

Another strange weather phenomenon golf ball sized hail…. in July. Summer temperatures range from as cold as  3°C to as hot as 30°C. Yes, when it rains, even in the summer months, it gets cold… very cold. And sometimes that rain freezes and forms hail that will really rain on your parade, literally. Along with the hail, Calgary is prone to severe thunderstorms in the summer months, however it is know to have sweltering heat waves as well. However the average is a pleasant 23°C.

 

There is never a dull moment when it comes to living there, but what about visiting? Well, here I have compiled a list of the highlights of every season in my personal opinion.

 

Spring

Spring officially starts in April, however knowing the unpredictable weather, there is sometimes a heavy blizzard at the end of April and coming into May there might be 3 feet of snow. However, things typically warm up around May, and by June the land is green and lush. The smell of lilac is in the air, and people dust off their BBQs and patio furniture. Temperatures average from a cool 10 °C to a warm 24°C. With the melting of the snow and the blooming of the lilacs comes the time of street festivals, and the Lilac Festival offers a great wake-up from winter hibernation. Stretching North to South across

A classic Canadian scene at Lake Louise. Some boys clearing the snow off the Ice to play a good ol' game of Ice Hockey.

A classic Canadian scene at Lake Louise. Some boys clearing the snow off the ice to play a good ol’ game of Ice Hockey.

4thstreet and East to west along 17th ave, the festival has all sorts of booths selling hand-made crafts, stages hosting local talents, and food trucks galore. Walk along taking it all in, and end the day on a patio sipping an ice cold brewski.

 

Now, if you know anything about Canada, you know that Canadians love their hockey. And Calgary is no exception. When the resident team – the Calgary Flames, get into the playoffs, the whole city cheers them on. On game nights, people take to “The Red Mile”, a strip along 17th ave full of bars showing the game and serving drinks, and when the boys win, the people take to the street, celebrating and showing their support in the team colour – red. The buffoonery is sure to be quite the experience for any visitor, especially someone who didn’t know about Canada’s love for the sport.

Summer

Walking along the Bow River on Memorial drive on Canada Day

Walking along the Bow River on Memorial drive on Canada Day

Oh, summer time. In a place where 7 months of the year is winter, when that short opportunity to finally get outside comes and the days become very long and bright (sunset is as late as 10:00 pm in June), Calgarians take full advantage. The city comes to life in every way during summer. Driving along Memorial Drive (a beautiful view of the city) you will see so many people jogging, biking, picnicking, walking their dogs, and floating down the Bow River in a raft. Calgary has 2 main rivers, the Elbow and the Bow. A favourite (and free!) summer past time is floating down the Elbow river in a tube. The elbow winds its way through the most beautiful uptown communities and parks, slowly carving its way through the city south west to north east. For a more adventurous ride, take a float down the bow river. The more intense flow and wider width will give you the thrill you seek.

 

July is usually the official start to summer, and Canadians love to kick it off with Canada day celebrations on the 1st.  People take to the streets in their red and white Canada swag, as there are many activities and events for the whole family just outside of the central business district, in Prince’s Island Park and Eau Claire Village. The end of the day usually boasts colourful fireworks that can be seen from the Memorial Street Bridge.

There are 5 seasons in Calgary: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, and Stampede. By far the biggest event in the whole city is the Calgary stampede, which lasts for 10 days early July. The entire city dusts off its cowboy boots and hat, and goes full throttle western. You won’t be able to find an establishment in town that isn’t playing country music, and even the most conservative of places will have their staff in boots and jeans. The city turns into a wild western playground, with free stampede breakfasts popping up all over, and shots of whiskey in the AM. The stampede itself is held on the stampede grounds in the heart of downtown, and the trains run 24/7 during these times. The people get wild, and the prices go up. The entire event gets kicked off by the stampede parade, where one can see the stampede marching band, cultural and historical floats from the wild western days, many cowboys on horses, and first nations people in their beautiful traditional dress. The grounds

The entrance to the Calgary Stampede

The entrance to the Calgary Stampede

have a carnival feel to them, with classic rides like the zipper and drop of doom or extreme thrill rides like the sling shot, and games you play to win a giant stuffed animal. The food stands are notorious for selling crazy combinations from anything wrapped with bacon on a stick, to deep fried anything you can imagine, like deep fried donut bacon cheeseburgers. Everyday there are free shows like Super Dogs or a Motocross stunt show, or ticketed events like the rodeo and the grandstand show which has performances every night, accompanied by fireworks. Rather do some shopping? There is a convention hall lined with booths doing live demonstrations of their products. Want an educational experience? You could learn about the agricultural industry and pet some cute farm animals at the petting zoo, and place a bid on a sheep or a horse. You could visit the First Nations village and learn how to build a teepee and learn about their culture.

My girlfriends and I in our Cowgirl getup at an event at the Cowboys tent

My girlfriends and I in our Cowgirl getup at an event at the Cowboys tent

Rather party? You could get wild at the Nashville North tent or chill out at one of the many beer gardens spread out around the park. You could go to the Cowboys Casino and hit big, or attend a concert at the Cowboys dancehall tent, which has hosted big names such as Snoopdog, Nelly, Blue Rodeo, Offspring, Iggy Azelia and Wiz Khalifa. Alternatively, you could attend a free concert at the outdoor Coca-Cola stage inside the park.

 

Once stampede is over, the city quiets down. However, there are still many things happening in town, such as outdoor markets and music festivals. Some of the bigger events are the Mad Decent Bloc Party, Chasing Summer, and Folk Fest, to name a few. Even though every season has something to offer, in the summer the days are long and the weather is good, so my opinion, it is definitely the best time to visit Calgary.

 

Fall

The view at Moraine Lake

The view at Moraine Lake

The leaves begin to change in early September, signaling the arrival of the very brief autumn season. Hiking in the city’s many beautiful parks is a real treat during this time, with amazing photo opportunities. My recommendations are Nose Hill park in the north, with beautiful views of the city skyline, a stroll around Glenmore Reservoir, and Fish Creek park in the south. The colourful leaves and the pleasant weather will not disappoint. The Rocky Mountains, just 1 hour west of Calgary, also boast beautiful views of changing leaves. But be weary that the temperatures in the mountains are always a few degrees colder than in the city. Some of my favourite hikes are Grassi Lakes trail in Canmore, and visits to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. The Road to Moraine Lake is only open until the end of October, so be sure to visit before it closes.

 

The coming of fall means Halloween, and Calgarians love Halloween. On that weekend you will see people dressed up at almost any bar you go to, with many costume parties around the city. For a scarier experience I recommend Screamfest, a horror themed festival with haunted houses, creepy carnival games, and people giving you a spook or two, running every weekend of October until Halloween.

Winter

View from the top of Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park

View from the top of Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park

Winter in Calgary is frigid and dark, with the sun setting as early as 4:30 pm. But with all the snow, it is the best time to enjoy a real winter wonderland. With the mountains and Banff National Park just an hour away, there are endless possibilities for a little bit of winter fun. From skiing and snowboarding on world-class ski hills like Sunshine and Lake Louise, to snow-shoeing and cross country skiing, to ice skating on a frozen lake and enjoying a beautiful ice sculpture competition at Lake Louise. Being the host of the 1988 winter Olympics, even within the city there is a ski-slope and bob sled track at Canada Olympic Park. Christmas is a special time in the city, and many beautiful lights displays can be seen, including “Zoo-lights” at the Calgary Zoo, and a lights display at Spruce Meadows horse racing track in the south. From time to time Aurora Borealis or “The Northern Lights” can also be seen from over Calgary. Winter is really a photographer’s treat, especially after a particularly heavy snow fall. Although the sun sets very early in the winter, with an average of 333 days of sunshine per year (the sunniest large city in Canada), most days are bright and sunny even if it is 20 below.

I hope that anyone reading this article will add Calgary to their list of places to see, because it really is a vibrant and beautiful city with so much to see and discover.

Ice Castle at Lake Louise in Banff National Park

Ice Castle at Lake Louise in Banff National Park

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