The Ultimate Outdoor Activity Guide for Calgary
With the Rocky Mountains on our doorstep, hiking should be in the DNA of every Calgarian. But if you have never ventured on a long walk in the wilderness, make sure the effort is equal to your fitness level and the payoff for your first time includes a view as pretty as Travel Alberta’s postcards.
If you are looking for a quick and relatively close hike, go to Grotto Canyon, 14 km east of Canmore on Highway 1A, where a flat creek bed with limestone walls that have native petrographs etched into them leads to a fork in the path. Go right and you’ll hit a waterfall, go left and you’ll enter a valley with hoodoos. Either way, the entire hike takes 90 minutes, plus the time spent gawking at nature.
Further afield is Larch Valley Trail (12.5 km south of Lake Louise), which starts at a meadow near Moraine Lake. You can stop halfway at Larch Valley or challenge yourself and keep going on to Sentinel Pass. The steep climb up an open slope dotted with rocky spires leads to one of the highest trail-accessible passes in the Canadian Rockies, with views of glacial lakes and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The hike is a strenuous 5.8 km, one way. Grizzly bear warnings make it advisable to hike in groups.
There is no shortage of day hikes near the city. For help choosing from the grab bag of trails, clubs including Calgary Outdoor Recreation Enthusiasts (corehike.org) host group hikes and monthly information meetings. Or, if you prefer to research solo, Rocky Mountain Books (rmbooks.com) publishes easy-to-follow guides that list the distance, incline and skill level of hikes.
The high-tech hunt is on. When the United States government gave the average Joe greater access to satellite signals 10 years ago, the international treasure hunt known as geocaching was born.
At its simplest, geocaching involves punching coordinates into a GPS unit and following satellite directions to locate a hidden container as small as a bullet or as large as a shoebox. Crack the cache open and record the date on the logbook located inside. If there are trinkets in the box take one and leave another of equal value and always put the cache back the way you found it for the next person to find.
In the game of geocaching, brains are more important than brawn. Anyone can hide and register a cache and participants are always one-upping each other in degree of difficulty. While there are plenty of caches to be found under rock piles in urban parks, others are dangling off the sides of cliffs and resting at the bottom of lakes. A topographical map is a must to make sense of those hard-to-find coordinates.
There are more than 1 million active caches hidden around the world, and about 1,600 of those are within 50 kilometres of the Calgary Tower. They are all listed at the official global GPS cache hunt site, geocaching.com. Free registration gets you access to coordinates or clues to get you started, as well as an electronic log to record who has found each cache and when. GPS units start at $150. You can also download an iPhone app ($10), which gives real-time information on geocaches near you.
There is a misconception about kayaking that you have to know how to roll your kayak in order to be a proficient paddler and head out on the open water.
“It took me five years to learn how to roll my kayak,” says Karla Handy, lessons program coordinator of the Bow Waters Canoe Club, and also an avid kayaker. “It’s a lot of work.”
The reality is kayaking is far more accessible than most people imagine, especially if you want to try your hand at sea kayaking (as opposed to whitewater kayaking, where mastery of the roll comes in mighty handy when you’re head-down in stiff rapids). With sea kayaking, wet-behind-the-ears paddlers can set out in still waters, moments after learning some basics. That’s because the cockpit is wider and more stable in a sea kayak, and the skirt (the fabric that keeps the water out) is looser, so even if you do tip your craft, getting out is simple.
The University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre (calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca) has introductory sea and river kayaking courses for $50 to $60 in their indoor pool, where students learn paddling basics, steering, bracing and safe exits. It also rents kayaks you can take out to the Glenmore Reservoir or to a nearby mountain lake for as little as $14 per day.
And don’t fret about not being able to whitewater kayak. Many paddlers start out in a pool to gain the basics and build confidence. So what if it takes you five years to perfect your roll?
With a median age of 35.7, Calgary is Canada’s youngest city. So you wouldn’t think the city would be a hotbed for the sport of lawn bowling, long seen as a game for seniors.
But the sport has had a recent reinvigoration, and a study commissioned by the City of Calgary two years ago revealed 14 percent of Calgarians are interested in trying their hand at lawn bowling.
For those who play, it’s no wonder. Lawn bowling combines the best of outdoor team sport — sunshine, cheerful competition, enjoyable activity, camaraderie — with the best of doing nothing — relaxing, sharing a drink with friends and rarely breaking a sweat. It’s cheaper than golf, less exhausting than ultimate frisbee and still offers a challenge.
Here, finally, is a sport that requires almost no natural ability whatsoever to start and almost no investment in equipment — all you need is flat shoes.
The learning curve is sharp to get up to beer league standard — by the end of one lesson most people can play well enough to have fun. To progress beyond that takes concentrated study.
The goal is to get your team’s bowls closest to a ball called the jack, which can be moved by any of the bowls that hit it. And, to make it even better, the bowls don’t go straight! They are designed to travel in a curved path.
The city’s five public greens offer a combination of competitive and casual play ranging from drop-in days to beer leagues to provincial tournaments.
For more information, visit the clubs’ websites: bowvalleylawnbowling.com, calgarybowls.com, calgarylawnbowlingclub.ca, rotaryparklawnbowls.com.
The word “spelunking” mires the tongue in confusion. And the sport leaves you worming through tight, wet, cold, muddy spots — all in the pursuit of the wonder and beauty hidden within the earth’s mysterious caves.
Once a spelunker gains some experience and training, he or she is said to be a “caver,” and can drop the awkward moniker for good. Passionate cavers can’t get enough of the underground world, sculpted over hundreds of thousands of years.
“People get into the caving environment and are amazed at what is under their feet,” says Charles Yonge, owner of Canmore Caverns (canmorecavetours.com). The company runs tours to the Rat’s Nest Cave near Canmore, which explores about a kilometer of the cave system that boasts clear pools of water, calcite formations and numerous fossilized animal bones.
Those who want to try spelunking must be physically fit and ready to be nudged out of their comfort zone. Wiggling your way through a claustrophobically tight passage guided by only the dim light of a headlamp has a way of doing that.
Canmore Caverns offers two introductory tours: the adventure tour ($139), which includes a rappel experience from an 18-metre drop and allows participants to traverse through narrow passageways. It also offers the explorer tour ($109), which follows a similar itinerary, without the rappelling. Each begins with a 30-minute hike to the entrance of the cave.
You can’t claim Calgarian pedigree until you saddle up and learn to ride.
Indeed, no matter how aggressively our city is trying to shake off its cowboy image, horseback riding is as ingrained in our culture as our bumpy economy.
Griffin Valley Ranch (griffinvalleyranch.ca) in Cochrane has been a part of that horse-riding history for more than 50 years. The ranch offers a number of courses to encourage Calgarians to get in the saddle, on their own terms.
“We can teach you anything you want to learn about horses,” says manager John Owens. “We can teach you about caring for horses, or set up an obstacle course so you can learn to manoeuvre around trees and things in the wilderness.”
Owens recommends newbies first take a short, guided trail ride through the 4,500-acre property they have access to. With more than 100 horses, Griffin Valley has a horse to suit every rider, from mounts that will placidly follow the leader (good for timid riders), to horses ready to take on more experienced riders who want to explore a trail on their own.
Private lessons are $50 per hour, trail rides start at $30 per person and an annual membership of $75 allows members to take horses out unguided by the hour or by the day ($35 per hour; $55 per 2 hours and up).
And ’fraidycats are always welcome, because, as John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
Go fly a kite that’s large enough to drag you along for a ride.
Kiteboarding is a combination of wakeboarding and windsurfing that has been attracting outdoor sports enthusiasts in Southern Alberta for more than a decade.
The premise is simple: slip your feet into a board, strap a harness around your waist, grab a control bar connected to a giant kite that’s up to 20 square metres in surface area and sail across a lake.
The best kiteboarders can ride over the water at speeds over 90-kilometres per hour and get huge air —the longest hang-time has been around 22 seconds. But beginners hoping to hit anywhere near those numbers might be humbled by the skill involved. It’s not as simple as strapping in, holding on and hoping for the best. There is technique involved in harnessing the wind, and newcomers would definitely benefit from lessons.
Gord Campbell, owner of High as a Kite (highasakite.ca), offers a six-hour beginner course for $250 that covers the basics from reading the wind conditions and safety tips, to launching and landing a kite. He’ll also provide the equipment during the course and provide advice on the gear you’ll need to keep practicing.
Other kiteboarding schools in Calgary, such as KIte Source (kitesource.ca), offer similar packages.
There are plenty of fish in the Bow River, and even amateurs can hook a 24-inch rainbow or brown trout with a combination of skill and luck. An estimated 2,500 trout are swimming in every mile of the Bow.
To get your share, all you need is a rod, reel and line (packages start at $210), a licence ($25.66 at licensed retailers) and a little finesse.
“Dexterity, coordination, technique and timing are more important than brute force,” says Terry Johnson, a fishing guide at Fish Tales Fly Shop (fishtalesflyshop.com) who recommends a quick lesson in casting before you hit the water. His shop is one of many offering one-day courses tailored to beginners, with morning classroom lessons on technique followed by casting lessons on the lawn ($95). They also offer full-day guided excursions on the Bow for $550.
If you want to skip the guide and find your own fishing hole along the Bow, anywhere from the weir south of downtown Calgary to Carseland is a good bet. To narrow it down, Johnson recommends looking for bends in the river or sections where fast, shallow water turns to slow, deeper water; fish gather there looking for food. When in doubt, either with location or technique, ask a fellow angler for a few tips. Fishing is a solo sport, but fishermen are a friendly lot and they’ll usually happily share advice.
If tumbling head over feet downhill inside a giant hamster-like ball sounds like a good time, Z-Trip (ztrip.ca) is for you.
For $33, participants are strapped into the inside of a 3.3-metre-wide rubber ball at the top of a 600-metre-long trench at Canada Olympic Park (winsportcanda.ca). A nudge from the guy supervising the course and the ball takes off — rolling and bouncing — on a 30-second thrill ride to the bottom.
The ball’s bounce is tamed by more than 300 elastic shock absorbers connecting the inner sphere that you’re Velcroed to, and the outer sphere that contacts the ground. The adrenalin rush is on par with a roller coaster ride. Even six-year-olds can strap in, provided they are tall enough.
It’s all the rage in the United Kingdom, and Russia used translucent zorbing balls to promote the 2014 Winter Olympic Games during the Vancouver Games’ closing ceremonies. And fortunately for you, Winsport Canada, which runs COP, has the only zorbing course in Canada.
With 700 kilometres of bike trails in Calgary, the most extensive urban pathway and bikeway network in North America, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a route to pedal within city limits. But for a ride that’s truly spectacular, your best bet is to head to the mountains.
For a relaxed ride, try the Vermilion Lakes Drive by Banff. The 5.7-km trek (one-way) begins off Mt. Norquay Road, just south of Highway 1. Along the route, you’ll pass by picturesque lakes and maybe even catch a glimpse of a bald eagle, bighorn sheep or an osprey, so make sure to bring your binoculars.
For something more challenging, head to the bottom of Mt. Norquay Road. The 7.5-km trail to the top of the hill is tough, but riders strong enough to endure the leg-burner of a pedal will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the town of Banff. Trust us, it’s worth it.
If your boss just nixed your plans for an extended canoe trip, you can still launch your beloved boat from the city limits for the weekend, and enjoy one of the best floats that Alberta has to offer.
Karla Handy, lessons program coordinator with the Bow Waters Canoe Club, recommends one of her favorite canoe trips, which is great for beginners. It starts in Fish Creek Provincial Park, near Lake Sikome, and ends in Carseland, southeast of the city. The two-day trip is 64 km long and should take an average of five to six hours per day, including stops for lunch. The current is slow and there’s plenty of scenery to take in along the way.
Camping enthusiasts will also get a kick out of McKinnon Flats, which is about 23 km from Carseland. The flat, pebbly beach here is a perfect spot to catch your breath, or pitch a tent. You can also set up on one of the large islands for the night, for a camping experience that rocks (unless you’re a sleepwalker).
Handy suggests paddlers purchase a Bow River map from places like Mountain Equipment Co-op (mec.ca) or Undercurrents Sports (undercurrents.ca), which also rents canoes and lifejackets for $40/day. Pouring over a map before you hit the water will give you a good idea of what twists and turns to expect, as well as the best access and exit sites to start and end your trip.
“Oh, and don’t go over the weir once you hit Carseland,” Handy recommends.
If you have ever harboured any Rambo-esque combat dreams, but aren’t willing to risk your life in battle, paintball is for you. The game requires all the tactical skills of war, without the bloodshed.
Beginners who want to avoid shooting strangers or testing their amateur gun skills against more adept snipers, can gather a group and book a private course at Capture the Flag (capturetheflag.com). The 118-acre playing field just west of Cochrane is split into more than 19 courses, with terrain that includes fields and forests dotted with buses, bunkers and buildings for additional coverage.
The $7 game fee will get you camouflage coveralls, protective headgear, a paintball gun and access to the field for as long as it takes to take the enemy down, which is usually between two and six hours. Paintballs cost extra, starting at $18 for 100.
Instructors will give a quick lesson in loading and shooting paintballs and can help explain the logistics of different types of paintball games. After that, the .68-calibre, gelatin-filled balls start flying at speeds around 320 kilometres per hour.
If you get hit, the pain is no worse than a bee sting, which, depending on your pain threshold, means it could hurt a lot.
When it comes down to it, bouldering is just you, the rock and plenty of hard places. Without the use of ropes, you climb up, around and over a low-lying rock face.
Unlike rock climbing’s dizzying heights, bouldering is usually done no more than three to seven metres off the ground. Making up for that lack of vertical height are the intensely physical moves and routes climbers attempt on the rock, otherwise known as “problems.” The challenge is setting out a difficult path and figuring out a solution on the spot.
If you’re looking for a spot to boulder, head 90 kilometres west of Calgary to White Buddha, which is one valley south of Prairie Creek in Kananaskis. The limestone cliff at White Buddha faces south, so you get plenty of sunshine. Plus, pros and rookies can climb together as there are plenty of bigger holds for beginners and trickier problems for the more skilled.
Aside from a good pair of rock shoes, which you can rent for $8 per day or $35 per week at Mountain Equipment Co-op (mec.ca), you don’t need much beyond focus, endurance and some friends. In addition to being good spotters, bouldering buddies can help motivate you to finally grasp that elusive ninja-like move you’ve been practising all summer.
Here in Calgary, you'll encounter rock climbers of all stripes, from occasional hobbyists to the hardcore who are downright obsessive about climbing. Being at the doorstep of the Rockies certainly has something to do with this, as is the fact virtually anyone can rock climb.
Beginners who are looking to cut their teeth outdoors should go to Grassi Lakes, just outside Canmore. This popular practice place for locals is easy to access via a short hike. The steep rock wall is just past two small lakes at the hike's summit. Although it may be crowded some days, nothing beats the mountain views over your shoulder as you climb high above the emerald waters of the upper lake. The porous cliff face also offers a variety of nooks and holds for climbers to navigate. And be sure to keep on the lookout for a millennium-old pictograph on the boulder wall.
To get your gear, visit the University of Calgary's Outdoor Centre, where climbing shoes are $7/day, harnesses are $4/day and a chalk bag is $1/day. If you're looking to book an introductory rock-climbing lesson, which includes gear rental, contact Yamnuska Mountain Adventures (yamnuska.com). A full-day private lesson is $400 per person, and a half-day private session is $270 per person. Cheaper group rates are also available. Yamnuska also offers rock climbing trips in the Bow Valley and a rock climbing rescue course for advanced climbers.
Washing over boulders, waves and waterfalls at high-paced speeds on an inflatable dinghy with only a paddle and a lifejacket to secure you from the depths of the river might sound scary to some.
But for the more than 7,000 people a year who take whitewater rafting tours down the Kicking Horse river with the guides at Wild Water Adventures (wildwater.com), it’s just the fix they’ve been looking for.
Located in Banff and Lake Louise, Wild Water Adventures offers daily rafting tours that start at $69 per person for a gentle trip around small rapids, to $149 for an exhilarating ride over rough rapids. Weekend packages are also available for $175 to $245.
Wild Water Adventure is just one of the many rafting tour companies operating near Calgary. For a complete list, click on the “tours and activities” link at discoveralberta.com, pick the rafting tour you want and get ready for a rockin’ ride.
Here’s novel way for people who are scared of heights to think of flying.
“People who are afraid of heights aren’t actually afraid of the height; they are afraid of the fall,” says Keith MacCullough, chief paragliding instructor with Muller Windsports in Cochrane (mullerwindsports.com). “With paragliding, the wind is always in your face, so you don’t have that fear of falling.”
For wannabe paragliders, Calgary is a great spot to learn the sport. The variety of small and large hills make for easy launches and gentle landings, which helps to dissolve even the worst cases of acrophobia.
The best place to learn to paraglide is through the University of Calgary’s Outdoor Centre (calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca), where a Thursday night class and four hours of onsite instruction at a hill near Calgary will have adventurers learning the sport for just $109. Students learn their way around the harness, reserve parachute, helmet and glider, as well as flight theory and logistics, and how to launch, steer and fly a paraglider.
Once the instruction is over, it’s time to step into what for many is a lifelong dream — the ability to fly.