The annual Calgary Stampede brings around 1.25 million spectators and participants to the city for ten days in early July. This is far more than a carefully engineered gift to Calgary’s tourist industry, however, for the event is one of the world’s biggest rodeos and comes close to living up to its “greatest outdoor show on earth” billing.
The competition end of things is taken very seriously. The rodeo is said to be North America’s roughest and the combined prize money reaches $2 million. The first show in 1912 put up $100,000 and attracted sixty thousand people to the opening parade, with a line-up that included two thousand aboriginal people in full ceremonial garb and Pancho Villa’s bandits in a show erroneously billed as a swan song for the cowboy of the American West (“The Last and Best Great West Frontier Days”).
Things officially kick off on the first Friday of the Stampede with a parade at 9am, though many spectators are in place along the route at 6am. The two-hour march involves around 170 entries, four thousand participants and 750 horses. For the duration of Stampede, downtown’s Olympic Plaza (temporarily renamed Rope Square) offers free pancake breakfasts (8.15–11.30am) and entertainment every morning; events include live music, mock gunfights and aboriginal dancing, and square dancing also fills parts of Stephen Avenue Mall at 10am. If you want to really experience how the city celebrates Stampede move outside this central area, where you’ll find entire neighbourhoods, shops, bars, churches and even local luminaries organizing their own festivities (usually a pancake breakfast). Nightlife is a world unto itself, with Stampede locations giving way to music, dancing, mega-cabarets, plus lots of drinking, eating (it’s barbecue heaven), fireworks and general partying into the small hours.
The Stampede’s real action – the rodeo and allied events – takes place in Stampede Park, southeast of downtown, best reached by C-Train to Victoria Park–Stampede Station. This vast, open area contains an amusement park, concert and show venues, bars, restaurants and a huge range of stalls and shows that take the best part of a day to see. Entrance is $16, which gives you entry into everything except the rodeo and chuck-wagon races. Entertainments include: the aboriginal village, where members of the Blackfoot, Blood, Sarcee, Stoney and Piegan First Nations set up a teepee village; the World Blacksmith Competition; the Centennial Fair, which hosts events for children; the Agricultural Building, home to displays of cattle and other livestock; the outdoor Coca-Cola Stage, used for evening concerts; and Nashville North, an indoor country music venue.
To see the daily rodeo competition – bronco and bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and the rest – you’ll need another ticket and unless you’ve bought these in advance it’s hardly worth it: you’ll likely be in poor seats and miles from the action or have to stand. You’ll also need a ticket (also best bought in advance) to watch the other big event, the ludicrously dangerous but hugely exciting chuck-wagon races. Both events are held in the Stampede Park grandstand.
If you’re coming to see the Stampede, plan ahead. Accommodation is stretched and prices can skyrocket for the duration. Tickets for the rodeo and chuck-wagon races range from $12–390; tickets for the finals of both events are a few dollars more; all tickets include park admission. For ticket and all other general information, check w calgarystampede.com.