“You’ve been given an upgrade,” are words that travellers love to hear. They were spoken by a member of staff at the Budget car rental station upon my arrival into Calgary International Airport while handing me the key to a Volvo XC90.
The roomy SUV proved a pleasure to drive during my week-long stay in Alberta. Before leaving the airport I tuned the radio to Country 105. It seemed a fitting station for background music while exploring a province that’s renowned for its prairies and Western heritage.
From my base in Calgary’s East Village, I took three day trips to explore Canadian heritage beyond the city’s boundaries. Each of these could easily be expanded into an overnight excursion:
Day trip 1: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
“That sounds cruel,” commented a woman at my hotel’s reception desk when I mentioned I was about to drive to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
In the modern age stampeding a herd of buffalo off a clifftop and then killing any animals that survive the drop would, inevitably, be unacceptable. But the activities that formerly took place at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump were essential to the survival of First Nations people.
The significance of the location, and the bison hunt, means Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada.
Visiting made for a fascinating morning. William, my guide, met me at the entrance to the seven-level interpretive centre, which is constructed into a hillside in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. A member of the Piikani Nation, William explained the importance of the site to his ancestors.
As we handled faithfully reconstructed artefacts made from hide, he explained that the English name for his people is the Blackfoot. The plains are prone to lightning strikes that cause localised fires. As leather was a valuable resource, Piikani walking across burnt ground would remove and carry their moccasins — hence their black feet.
Bison hunts took place at the site across six millennia. The last of the hunts — which were not held every year but only when necessary to acquire food and hides to survive the winter — took place during the late-18th century.
A short film, William and interpretive boards explained how members of the tribe worked together to create a V-shaped funnel leading to the cliff edge. Men wore wolf skins and another donned the pelt of a calf to lead the bison towards the edge of the cliff before initiating a deadly stampede.
The bodies of the bison that crashed to the ground would be processed for natural materials and food. Pemmican, a form of preserved meat, would be buried in the ground to preserve it.
Getting there — Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is 185km south of Calgary, close to Fort MacLeod. Allow a couple of hours to drive there. Nanton, home of the Bomber Command Museum, is worth pausing in along the way.
Day trip 2: Drumheller and Alberta’s Badlands
If you enjoy the dinosaur exhibits at London’s Natural History Museum, you’re likely to love the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller. The palaeontology museum stands in Alberta’s Badlands, a dramatic eroded landscape with exposed rock stratification, coulees and mushroom-like formations known as hoodoos.
Fossils and casts are displayed in the Royal Tyrell Museum’s subtly lit galleries. I could easily have spent several hours at the attraction. Judging from the reactions of fellow visitors, it was a hit with visitors of all ages.
Walking the nearby self-guided Badland’s Interpretative Trail, part of Midland Provincial Park, provided opportunities to read boards with explanations about the region’s geology. The earth is said to be littered with dinosaur fossils and has yielded many intact skeletons over the years.
After pausing to admire the landscape from the rim of Horsethief Canyon I drove along the North Dinosaur Trail and crossed the Red Deer River on the Bleriot Ferry. That meant being able to view the canyon from a vantage point on the far side of the waterway.
The region was once peppered with coalmines. Seams of the ‘black gold’ can be clearly seen on hillsides. The Star Mine Suspension Bridge was erected so that miners could walk to work, rather than having to row across the river.
I donned a hardhat with a lamp to join a guided tour of the Atlas Coal Mine, a National Historic Site. The tour, which included entering a mine shaft, meant an opportunity to hear about the history of the mine and see the tough conditions in which the miners once worked.
My final stop of the day was at the Last Chance Saloon in a village called Wayne. The bar is part of the Rosedeer Hotel, which dates from 1913 when Wayne was booming on account of mining. The opportunity to take a drink at Last Chance Saloon was one I simply couldn’t resist.
Getting there — Drumheller is a 90-minute drive (135km) north-east of Calgary.
Day trip 3: Banff and Lake Louise
The drive west from Calgary, into the Canadian Rockies, is beautiful. At times appears as if the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) is disappearing beneath the mountains as it stretches towards Banff. Driving proved easy even on the country’s main east-west artery.
After skirting around Bow Valley Provincial Park, I parked by the shore of Lac des Arcs to shoot a series of photos before continuing towards Banff.
Located within Banff National Park, Banff is a picturesque small town that grew because of the existence of thermal springs. The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is regarded as the birthplace of Canada’s national park system. To find out more about wildlife inhabiting the park I visited Banff Park Museum, a log building constructed in 1903.
After Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump I wanted to learn more about First Nations heritage, so looked inside Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, which holds artefacts and life-size models.
The Canadian Pacific Railway transported early tourists to Banff. The grand Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel was built to accommodate wealthy travellers and resembles an enormous chateau. It is now a national historic site. To get a sense of why early travellers were drawn to Banff, I spent a couple of relaxing hours in the Willow Stream Spa.
A late afternoon visit to Moraine Lake provided opportunities for photography in a dramatic landscape after most tourists had departed.
Getting there — Banff is a 90-minute drive (127km) west of Calgary.
How to travel to Calgary
Air Transat’s Option Plus provides priority check-in, with a dedicated counter and a supplementary checked baggage allowance. It means seat selection, priority boarding and perks for onboard comfort. Those perks include a comfort kit of a blanket, sleeping mask and headphones for in-flight entertainment. Economy Class passengers can pre-order gourmet meals from the Chef’s Menu by Daniel Vézina (£15/€20).
Canadian Affair (tel. 0203 424 6316) has been arranging holidays in Canada since 1995. Like the idea of a break in Calgary? A Calgary and Banff Short Break includes seven nights of accommodation, including two in Calgary’s city centre.
For ideas about things to do and see while in Calgary, take a look at the Visit Calgary website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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Declaration – Stuart travelled as a guest of Air Transat and Canadian Affair. He was hosted by Visit Calgary and Travel Alberta. He thanks those organisations, and Destination Canada, for their support during the trip. The views expressed in this post are his own.