The Prairies are a region in the west of Canada, made up of three provinces: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Though the word "prairie" means grassland, this region also contains mountains, hills, lakes, shoreline, and metropolitan cities.
This is a sparsely populated region; each of the provinces has a land area larger than France, or than any US state except Texas or Alaska, but the combined population for all three is under seven million; half of those live in just three cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg) leaving the rest of the region almost empty. Part of the reason for that is that prairie winters are extremely harsh (see winter in North America); this region gets colder than the US states to the south or any of the big cities of Eastern Canada.
The Prairies are known as the Last Best West, a land that was still "open" for settlement after "the frontier" in the United States was closed. Even though Europeans had explored the area as early as the later 17th century, this region was essentially still controlled by its indigenous inhabitants until 1869 (when Canada bought the claim to the region from a British private firm, the Hudson's Bay Company) and their cultures have largely survived down to the present (despite mistreatment by the Canadian authorities). Mass immigration from Eastern Canada and Europe started in earnest only in the 1890s, and vast areas were still being cleared for new agriculture until 1939 (and to a lesser extent right to the present).
Agriculture remains the dominant economic activity in terms of land use, but it has consolidated into such vast farms that the percentage of people who actually live on the land is minuscule. More important now for the prairie economy is the often controversial extraction of crude oil and natural gas, including the famous "tar sands"/"oil sands" of northern Alberta.
From this natural wealth, prairie Canadians have built societies with extremely high qualities of life, combining American-style low taxes and free enterprise with more European-like levels of public health care and education spending; in fact Canada's socialized health insurance system was pioneered in Saskatchewan. Prairie cities are favourably ranked by surveys with Calgary regularly challenging Melbourne and Zurich as among the "most livable" on earth, while smaller places like St. Albert often take the Canadian title. Most of the current political debate here is whether this enviable political and economic success can be sustained in a future when oil and gas demand may eventually peak.
Bear in mind that each of these provinces is larger than most of the countries in the European Union or the American states, therefore to describe any of them in detail is challenging without talking about the distinct regions within each province. A few general observations can be made, however. They are all tall and narrow and therefore cover multiple climatic regions, with distinct economies and characters. In all three cases, the main cities and attractions are in the south, while the north is largely the sparsely-inhabited and less-visited boreal forest. The climate is (of course) warmer towards the south, but also drier, and even drier to the west, with "sunny Alberta" (an old tourist marketing slogan of that province) being semi-arid in parts. By contrast, the Hudson Bay coast of Manitoba is too cold even for the hearty trees of the boreal forest, and is instead a near-Arctic region of "tundra" (treeless scrub land) and sea ice.
The brash, upstart province floating on a underground sea of oil and gas. The Rocky Mountains and foothills on its western flank, two metropolitan cities in the middle, cowboy culture in the south, vast forests to the north, and green farmland in the centre and east.
Wide open skies, thousands of recreational lakes, huge natural parks, and two compact main cities. Canada's agricultural breadbasket, but this is also where the majority of the remaining natural grasslands can be found.
The older sibling of the other two provinces, home to more history and heritage, plus several of the continent's largest lakes. Its south is farmland with some woodlands and lakes interspersed and centred on the capital, but its north is a vast forest wilderness leading to tundra, polar bears and beluga whales along the Hudson Bay coast.
- 1 Calgary - known for the annual Calgary Stampede (a combination rodeo and fair) and one of the biggest international airports in Canada. The largest city in the Prairies, but more influenced by the Rockies. It has a river and is close to the mountains, and is thus full of people who do outdoor activities.
- 2 Edmonton - the largest mall east of Asia and Canada's largest historic park are two of the big attractions. It also has a lush river valley which is the largest urban park area in North America and is dubbed Canada's festival city. It is the capital of Alberta and home to the largest university in the Prairies.
- 3 Lethbridge - the third largest city in Alberta, and sixth in the Prairies, it is the hub for Southern Alberta. A leafy university town in a river valley surrounded by treeless plains, it is also the nearest city to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: scenic Waterton Lakes National Park, historic Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, and unique Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
- 4 Regina - compact capital of Saskatchewan.
- 5 Saskatoon - largest city and economic hub of Saskatchewan.
- 6 Winnipeg - the historic and cultural capital of the prairies. Those interested in architecture, art, museums, and culture would do well in Winnipeg. Also home to the largest French-speaking community in the Prairies.
- Southern Alberta, including 1 Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park - a hilly island surrounded by a sea of grasslands, straddling the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, as well as the famous dinosaur museum at Drumheller, and the World Heritage dig site at Dinosaur Provincial Park near Brooks.
- the Alberta Rockies, including 2 Banff National Park the oldest and most popular national park in Canada, famed for stunning mountain scenery such as world-renowned Lake Louise, and 3 Jasper National Park a less crowded alternative to Banff for mountains and wildlife.
- 4 Riding Mountain National Park is renowned for its "watchable" wildlife and forms the core of the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 5 Wood Buffalo National Park - home to the rare wood bison or "buffalo", the largest national park in Canada and UNESCO World Heritage Site, mostly inaccessible by road, but great for trekking or canoe camping.
- Manitoba's Interlake region, home of the massive Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, two of the world's largest freshwater lakes.
- 6 Churchill - claimed as the Polar Bear and Beluga Whale Watching Capital of World, this is where the the cold Arctic waters of Hudson Bay touch the Prairie provinces. Go here for a cold-weather safari.
Travel to the Prairies is precisely the opposite of an archetypal British "city break" to Spain, Central Europe, etc., with its cheap short-haul flights and railways, compact historic city centres full of castles and churches, and cheap drinks and accommodations. Here distances are vast, prices are high, and the architecture is...functional. But what the region does have to offer in spades is the unique freedom that only wide open space can provide, like a cool climate version of the Australian Outback or American Southwest. In fact the best international equivalents to the Prairies in terms of landscape and climate are the taiga and steppes of Russia but here you'll find a Canadian level of amenities and services, and all in English if you desire.
The climate in this vast region varies dramatically, of course, north to south, and this produces vastly different vegetation and economies. The southern parts of all three provinces are mostly farmland—lots of wheat and beef, some of various other things— and this is where most people live and the main cities are found. The northern parts of the region are part of the great boreal forest and sparsely populated, and the northernmost parts of Manitoba are even tundra; where it is too cold for most trees.
In the true prairies (grasslands) of the far southern parts of all three provinces, it is possible to have an experience of the Old West, complete with buffaloes, tipis, guest ranches, rodeos, and the like, but instead of tales of the gunslingers and "Indian wars" as in the U.S.A., you'll learn about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the story of the mild (not wild) west.
There are rolling hills in many areas but the only serious mountains are the Rockies along the Alberta-BC border which is also the western edge of this region. That area is popular with international visitors, quite scenic and with fine skiing and other mountain sports.
Much of the northern halves of the three Prairie Provinces are part of the Canadian Shield, a region scoured nearly flat by glaciers during the last Ice Age and left with rolling hills and literally millions of lakes. Much of the tourism there involves hunting or fishing though people also go just to observe or photograph wildlife, such as the polar bears around Churchill, or to see the Northern Lights.
Despite all this focus on landscapes, there are also reasons to visit the cities as well. They are very new places by world standards and have the sense of continual change and dynamism of youth, with new infrastructure still being added all the time, such as Edmonton's new art gallery (2010), concert and sports arena (2016), and provincial museum (2018) just in the last decade.
International and transcontinental flights go to Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and to a lesser extent, Regina and Saskatoon.
You can enter from the United States at numerous land crossings. Roads through the Rockies include the Trans-Canada Highway, Yellowhead Highway, and Crowsnest Pass Highway. From Ontario, the Trans-Canada or a detour through the United States are the only land options.
The Via Rail services from Vancouver and Toronto to Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton run twice a week on The Canadian service. Because the service is limited, the train provides more of a sightseeing service, and is not practical for day-to-day travelling.
- The best way to travel in the Prairies is by car. The Prairies are served by Highway No 1 and 16 from west to east.
- There are also Via Rail services in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton. The Canadian connects these cities twice a week.
- Rider Express, toll-free: . Bus service along the Trans-Canada Highway from Vancouver to Calgary, and between Edmonton and Regina via Saskatoon.
- Other bus companies provide limited service on some other routes.
- Transit in the largest cities is good and it is not necessary to have a car, but in other places it is recommended.
The main museums include the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, and the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller. But also be on the lookout for numerous pioneer villages and indigenous sites off the beaten path.
The region is particularly fond of festivals of various descriptions (from small-town fairs to large programmed and curated shows), notably the Calgary Stampede (a rodeo and midway) and the Edmonton Fringe Festival (avante-garde theatre). Prairie Canadians are quite fond of ethnic food and dance festivals representing the diverse origins of their ancestors, so you can also see events dedicated to one culture, like Canada's National Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin or the "Islendingadagurinn" (Icelandic Festival of Manitoba) in Gimli, or you can even try to absorb a world's worth of culture at multi-ethnic festivals like Winnipeg's Folklorama or Edmonton's Heritage Festival, among numerous others.
Attending sporting events is also possible here, especially ice hockey, which is the local favourite in the winter. There are professional teams that play in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg as well varsity teams at most universities and high-level amateur (called "junior hockey") in dozens of mid-sized towns across the Prairies. In the summer, baseball and soccer are all played in local semi-professional leagues. And in autumn Canadian football a close cousin to the American variety, is popular with professional teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg. This region is also the heartland of the sport of curling, and often the Canadian and World championships are held here. As well, a rodeo is major summer event in many towns and cities.
The major east-west driving routes across this region are the Trans-Canada Highway which runs through the southern third of the region, linking Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary, through mostly flat and treeless countryside, and its more northerly cousin the Yellowhead Highway, which runs through more green and rolling countryside from Brandon, through Saskatoon, and on to Edmonton. For a more meandering alternative which crosses the true prairies near the US border, there is the Red Coat Trail, approximating the historic route the "Mounties" (mounted police) took in 1870s, on the way to Fort Macleod.
If travelling north-south, there are also a variety of ways to connect to the Alaska Highway from the lower 48 states through here. The most important north-south route is the Queen Elizabeth II Highway (QE2) in Central Alberta if going for speed and access to services. The most famous day trip in the region is also a north-south route though the Rockies: the Icefields Parkway, which is considered at "must-do" drive between Jasper and Lake Louise. If you're rather see Rockies on the horizon but drive through the Foothills where cattle ranches predominate, take the Cowboy Trail (Alberta Highway 22). An further extension north from either the Icefield or Cowboy routes this is the so called "scenic route to Alaska" (as claimed by a famous highway sign) on Alberta Highway 40 leading to Northern Alberta. If Alaska isn't remote enough for you, for a different northern adventure you can also take the Mackenzie Highway from Alberta to the Northwest Territories.
If you're interested in train travel, The Canadian passes across this region in its way from Toronto to Vancouver.
Long-distance travel by bicycle, horse, or on foot on these highways is legal but almost impossible for most people because of the distances involved make it. Besides which, hiking on the side of a major highway isn't exactly safe or enjoyable. Try the Trans Canada Trail, instead, but again be mindful of the vast distances involved. For a quintessentially Canadian experience, long-distance canoeing is possible on numerous rivers throught the region, as are point-to-point cross-country skiing or snowmobiling in the winter (including on the above-metioned Trans Canada Trail).
- Go trail riding in Sundre or Rocky Mountain House, Alberta.
- Do a canoeing circuit at Lac La Biche, Alberta
- Shop at West Edmonton Mall, North America's largest which includes an indoor roller coaster and waterside park, cinema, bowling alley, ice rink, shooting rang, go kart track, and more than 500 shops
- Try whitewater rafting in Kananaskis Country, Alberta
Many Canadians consider Alberta beef the best available, though Texans and Argentinians would dispute that claim. Certainly you can get fine steaks and other beef anywhere in the region.
The Winnipeg Goldeye is a freshwater fish found in much of Canada and the northern US; the first report of it in English is in the records of the Lewis and Clark expedition to Oregon. It is popular with fly fishermen across the prairies and also fished commercially. Smoked Goldeye is widely sold and considered a delicacy, though the unsmoked fish is not particularly good eating.
If you like Eastern European food, you are in luck here as the region is awash in borsht and perogies. Sadly most of it is not found in restaurants, however; for the good stuff, you need to find a church basement fundraiser or one of the aforementioned festivals. This is a cultural experience to itself, much like a Hawaiian luau or an East Coast lobster dinner.
Nightlife on the Prairies ranges from social dances at the community hall at a rural crossroads, to western two-stepping at a honky tonk in a small town, to your standard array of pub, bars, and clubs in the biggest cities. About the only thing you'd have trouble finding are the more niche subgenres of electronic dance music or hip hop popular in Europe and the U.S.: the Prairies skew more towards country and rock.
Stand up comedy and live theatre are also decently popular here. Opera and ballet can be found in the bigger towns. For the local flavour try attending a Ukrainian dance performance: this is a highly choreographed and acrobatic stage version of the folk dance that Ukrainian immigrants brought to the region in a massive wave from 1892-1914. Ukrainians are still demographically powerful in the region, but over the generations some of the linguistic and religious identity of the community has weakened, though curiously the commitment to the culture through dancing remains high, probably because it is so much fun to do and a spectacle to watch. Besides the Ukrainians, most of the world's diaporas have cultural institutions in this multicultural region from Irish gaelic games matches to Japanese taiko drumming performances, from Latin tango bachatas to Chinese dragon boat races, you can actually see all that here.
Rye whisky (also called "Canadian whisky") and lager beer are the local drinks of choice. The most famous local cocktail is the bloody Ceasar, close to a bloody Mary but with clam broth added. Yes, clams, despite this being a region hundreds of miles from the sea.
Crime is rarely a problem here, extreme weather or wildlife encounters are more likely to be an issue. Nevertheless one should exercise caution near the nightlife districts in the larger cities near the government-mandated "closing times" when all the bars let out at once (different in each province) and drunks may become confrontational. Otherwise extremely safe.
For more mountains, try British Columbia, for more plains see the Great Plains states of the U.S.A., for more wilderness see Northern Canada, and for more lakes and holiday resort towns see Northern Ontario.