For most Calgarians, Christmas isn’t the greatest time of year – Stampede Week is. Lasting 10 days every July, it’s described as “The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth”. The main focus of the Calgary Stampede is the rodeo and country western theme, however it’s so much more than that. The Calgary Stampede is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. It truly offers a little bit of everything.
The Stampede Grounds are the centre of the action, of course, but there are events going on all over the city for people to enjoy as well. Pancake breakfasts happen in multiple locations every morning (there’s even an app to find free ones!), most employers allow their staff to wear plaid, denim and cowboy boots, concerts take place at outdoor venues and in bars and clubs, and there are fun parades to watch (the biggest and best of these, obviously, being the Stampede Parade downtown, which happens on the first Friday of Stampede).
The Stampede Grounds are huge (they boast 1 million square feet of space) and full of entertainment and events. Located on the outskirts of downtown Calgary, there are multiple gates where guests can enter (I find the Erlton entrance is typically less crowded). Once you’re in, you’re met with any number of things to do next.
A big part of the Stampede’s classic culture and theme are the many agriculture displays and the rodeo. There are several barns to tour, featuring horses (and miniature horses), cows, sheep, pigs (and piglets), and goats, among other animals. Various agriculture displays teach people about farm life, sheep, cattle farming, and dairy farms. There’s also the “Indian Village”, where you can view teepees, food, and art, and watch traditional aboriginal dances and shows. The daily rodeo hosts events such as bareback riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling, wild pony racing and bull riding, and the evening show begins with fast-paced chuck wagon races – these are all high-stake competitions that will have you on the edge of your seat!
There are numerous shows to check out. The Coca Cola stage features hot new acts (I saw Carly Rae Jepsen perform there back in the day), hypnotists, magicians, and more. The Dog Bowl will be running their dog show of tricks and fun on the Midway this year. There’s the gravity-and-death defying Bell Adrenaline Ranch, which usually features some combination of motorcycles and flames. Stampede 2015 also brought in a human cannonball, which was unreal! Throughout the day, you can catch the Stampede Show Band marching around the grounds and competing with other bands from around the globe. The Peking Acrobats will be performing in the Big Four Building. The Enmax Corral show is described as “family-friendly entertainment that blends artistry and athletic feats”, and last year’s amazing Cirque dance and acrobatic bike show did not disappoint. There’s the rodeo, of course (find more info on that here). The evening show happens in the Grand Stand arena after the rodeo is done for the day, and it begins with chuckwagon races, before showcasing the amazing singing and dancing talent of the Young Canadians, and ending with the Stampede’s nightly firework display. For a complete listing of musical acts playing at Stampede 2016, look here.
Shopping can be done in various locations throughout the grounds – you can purchase everything from cowboy boots and hats to home decor and appliances to souvenirs of your time at the Stampede. The Western Oasis inside the BMO centre is, in my opinion, the best place to shop, because you can experience beautiful art and music at the same time.
There’s also a huge assortment of midway rides and games, and many “creative” food vendors. A big topic of interest in Calgary before the Stampede each year is what the featured deep-fried food item will be. In past years we’ve had deep fried avocado, deep fried cheesecake, deep fried Oreos and deep-fried bacon-wrapped corndogs. This year it sounds like the Deep-Fried Oreo Milkshake will be the main deep-fried attraction. There’s also the famous mini donuts, pizza on a stick, chips on a stick, designer popsicles (last year they had mini donut popsicles), red velvet chicken strips, the world’s best fresh squeezed lemonade, mac and cheese with creative toppings (2015’s feature was Jurassic Pork Mac and Cheese), tacos in a bag, and much, much more. This year’s recently announced new food items include deep fried tequila shot bites, cantaloupe lemonade, fruit infused grilled cheese, butter chicken fries, steak and Guinness Cornish pasties, and the aforementioned deep-fried Oreo milkshake.
For those of us who are of age (18 years or older in Alberta), drinking is a big part of the Stampede. Nashville North and the Budweiser Beer Garden are typically where it’s at, although there are a few other spots to sip (or chug) a drink as well. There’s Triple B for barbecue, beers and a mechanical bull, the Corona Zone for (what else?) ice cold Coronas + lime, and the Wine Garden, new this year and sponsored by the Co-Op Liquor Store. There’s typically a small beer garden by the Coca-Cola stage as well. The Station, on the bottom floor of the Big Four Building in the food court area, offers the biggest selection of bottled beer in the park and 20 flavours of chicken wings. Nashville North is the largest licensed venue on the grounds (except for the Saddledome, but you need to pay for concert tickets to get in there!), and they feature dancing and live bands or singers all afternoon and night! Acts I’ve seen at “Nash” include Jason Blaine, Gord Bamford, Blackjack Billy and Emerson Drive. Off of the Stampede Grounds, the best places to check out for Stampede parties, country music, dancing and drinks are Ranchman’s Cookhouse and Dancehall (my personal all-time favourite), Knoxville’s Tavern, Wildhorse Saloon and Cowboy’s Casino and Nightclub/the Cowboy’s Stampede Tent.
(note: It sounds as if the Budweiser Beer Gardens is being replaced by the Corona Zone this year.)
The Stampede Concert Series takes place inside the Scotiabank Saddledome arena and it’s always incredible. This Virgin Mobile series features a variety of artists, not just country singers. Last year included Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and KISS. Announced so far this year are the Zac Brown Band, Lady Antebellum and Jeff Dunham.
Stampede Week is the one time of year when I don’t mind taking Calgary Transit. The C-Train goes right to two stops along the Stampede Grounds (Victoria Park Stampede Station and Elton Stampede Station), and it runs more frequently and for longer hours each day as well. This makes it an easy and convenient way to get to the grounds without worrying about parking and keeping your car there.
Anyone who knows me will tell you how obsessed I am with the Calgary Stampede, and how much it kills me to be out of town this summer while it’s going on. I once told a friend that if a man proposed to me at the Stampede, it wouldn’t matter who it was, I’d say yes because I would be so in love with the whole experience. I’m a huge fan of country music of course, and all things country-western, but I think what I like best about the Stampede is the energy that’s in the city throughout the course of the week, and all the events and things there are to do. All of Calgary is transformed into one big plaid and denim-wearing, cowboy boot-stomping, beer-drinking, country music-listening, rodeo-watching, concert-going, deep fried mystery food-eating cowboy.
As with any major event, there are a few neigh-sayers (see what I did there? A horse joke?) who claim to hate the Stampede, saying it’s too expensive and that the city gets over-crowded with tourists, and hating on all the “fake” cowboys, but the rest of us just pretend they don’t exist and carry on with our stampedin’.
The Calgary Stampede will run its 104th year from July 8 – 17, 2016, with the cheaper Sneak-A-Peek Night on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Click here for the complete day-by-day schedule of events. If you’re going to be in Alberta during that time, make it a priority to check out the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. You won’t regret it – I promise.