Calgary vs. Edmonton: Who has the best river valley parks? 

Recently I tweeted out that Calgary may well have the best urban river public spaces in the Canada - maybe even the world. While many agreed with me, one response from an Edmonton follower shared an excerpt from Wikipedia saying:

Edmonton has the largest urban park system in Canada with 20 major parks and attractions.”  

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 10.45.19 AM.png
 The City of Edmonton's website.

The City of Edmonton's website.

Really?

Quick mental calculations made me think Calgary could easily match or exceed that with our three amazing river valleys – Bow, Elbow and Fish Creek.  And Calgary easily has over 160 kilometres of river pathways. 

So, I tweeted back, "The challenge is on!” 

And I immediately started doing the math to see if Calgary’s river valley could beat 20 parks and attractions.

Bow River Valley Parks

  1. Bowness Park
  2. Bowmont Park
  3. Edworthy Park
  4. Douglas Fir Trail 
  5. Shouldice Athletic Park
  6. Shaw Millennium Park
  7. Prince’s Island Park
  8. St. Patrick’s Island Park
  9. Calgary Zoo and Botanical Garden 
  10. Inglewood Bird Sanctuary/Fish Hatchery  
  11. Harvie Passage 
  12. Sue Higgins Park 
  13. Carburn Park 
 William Hawrelak Park is perhaps Edmonton's signature urban park. 

William Hawrelak Park is perhaps Edmonton's signature urban park. 

 Prince's Island is Calgary's signature urban park. 

Prince's Island is Calgary's signature urban park. 

  Edmonton's North Saskatchwan River Vallery is a place to escape from the city.

Edmonton's North Saskatchwan River Vallery is a place to escape from the city.

  The Douglas Fir Trail is just one of the many places in Calgary's river valley where you can escape the city.   

The Douglas Fir Trail is just one of the many places in Calgary's river valley where you can escape the city.  

Elbow River Valley Parks

  1.   Weaselhead Flats
  2.   Glenmore Reservoir
  3.   Heritage Park
  4.   North & South Glenmore Parks
  5.   River Park/Sandy Beach
  6.   Riverdale Park
  7.   Stanley Park
  8.   Lindsay Park
  9.   Stampede Park 
  10.   Fort Calgary Park

And then of course there is the massive, Fish Creek Park that encompasses the entire creek valley within the city’s boundaries. One of the largest urban parks in North America, it stretches 19 km from east to west. At 13.5 square kilometers, it is over three times the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park.

  S.S. Moyie on Calgary's Glenmore Reservoir.

S.S. Moyie on Calgary's Glenmore Reservoir.

  Early morning walk along Calgary's Elbow River. Can you spot the walker?

Early morning walk along Calgary's Elbow River. Can you spot the walker?

  Elbow River Camp at Stampede Park.

Elbow River Camp at Stampede Park.

Attractions along the river

Edmonton’s Kinsmen Centre and Calgary’s Repsol Sport Centre (in Lindsay Park) are probably on par with each other as recreational facilities, but ours is an architectural gem. 

Calgary can’t match Edmonton’s Convention Centre, but our equivalent would be Stampede Park, which includes the BMO Centre.

Edmonton has a baseball diamond in their river valley, Calgary has the Saddledome on the Elbow River. 

While Edmonton has riverboat cruises, Calgary has the S.S. Moyie paddlewheeler on the Glenmore Reservoir.  In addition, Calgary has thousands of floating rafts, kayaks, canoes and paddle boarders something I understand Edmontonians don’t do as much. Oh, and what about river surfing at Louise Bridge and some the best fly-fishing in the world all along the Bow River.

What does Edmonton have to match the Calgary Zoo, Fort Calgary, Heritage Park and Shaw Millennium Park?  Fort Edmonton for sure and the Muttart Conservatory? Anything else? 

Edmonton has the 100th St funicular (an elevator for small groups of people and bikes) that links downtown with the river valley.  Calgary’s river valleys are more accessible so we don’t really need a funicular.  Calgary has the Crescent Heights staircase that we have turned into a unique recreation experience. 

Edmonton’s Folk Festival in Gallagher Park is definitely more internationally renowned than Calgary’s.  But we do have that world’s “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” happening at Stampede Park which just happens to be along the Elbow River.

What about golf courses within the city limits? Calgary has six: Valley Ridge, Inglewood, Calgary Golf & Country Club, Lakeview, McKenzie Meadows and Blue Devil. Edmonton also has six: Windermere, Royal Mayfair, Victoria, Riverside, Rundle Park and Raven Crest.

  Calgary's International Folk Festival's home is Prince's Island which is located on the edge of downtown in the middle of the Bow River.

Calgary's International Folk Festival's home is Prince's Island which is located on the edge of downtown in the middle of the Bow River.

  Edmonton Folk Festival in Gallagher Park (photo credit: CTV News)

Edmonton Folk Festival in Gallagher Park (photo credit: CTV News)

  Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre is built into the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre is built into the bank of the North Saskatchewan River. 

  Muttart Conservatory is one of Edmonton's architectural gems.

Muttart Conservatory is one of Edmonton's architectural gems.

  Repsol Sport Centre is one of Calgary's architectural gems. 

Repsol Sport Centre is one of Calgary's architectural gems. 

  Edmonton's High Level Bridge at night.

Edmonton's High Level Bridge at night.

  Calgary's Reconciliation Bridge at night.

Calgary's Reconciliation Bridge at night.

  Edmonton's new Waterdale Bridge.

Edmonton's new Waterdale Bridge.

  Fort Edmonton Park.

Fort Edmonton Park.

  Calgary's Heritage Park.

Calgary's Heritage Park.

Public spaces along the river

Does Edmonton have the numerous natural pebble beaches along their river valley that Calgary has?  

What about urban promenades like Calgary’s Eau Claire or East Village? Can Edmonton match these urban gems?

Can Edmonton’s downtown workers easily walk to the river and back at lunch hour?

Can Edmonton match Calgary’s iconic river bridges – Centre Street, Peace Bridge and George King Bridge? Yes, Edmonton has the High Level Bridge.

Can Edmonton match Calgary’s Elbow River Camp (formerly Indian Village) at Stampede Park? What about a theatre space like Calgary's Pumphouse Theatre?  

What about river island parks? Does Edmonton have anything to match Prince’s, St. Patrick and St. George’s islands?

  Edmonton's downtown beach.

Edmonton's downtown beach.

  The green beach in Calgary's Stanley Park. 

The green beach in Calgary's Stanley Park. 

 The pebble beach in downtown Calgary's St. Patrick's Park is a popular family spot. 

The pebble beach in downtown Calgary's St. Patrick's Park is a popular family spot. 

  River surfing has also become a popular activity in downtown Calgary.

River surfing has also become a popular activity in downtown Calgary.

  Paddling along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity in Calgary. (photo credit @surrealplaces) 

Paddling along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity in Calgary. (photo credit @surrealplaces) 

Second opinions

I decided to send my unscientific analysis to a couple of friends who live in Edmonton but have lived in Calgary to see if I was being fair. Both were adamant I wasn’t.  

Terry Bachynski who had lived in both cities for about 18 years each wrote:

“Calgary has a great river valley, but Edmonton's river valley is spectacular. 

Comparing the two river valleys against one another is not an apples to apples thing.  The two cannot be compared and "winner" identified.   The two valleys are completely different, not only in their geography, but how each river valley relates to and is integral to the respective city.   

Edmonton's river valley is a sharp, well defined river escarpment running through the heart of the city with very little commercial or residential development. Calgary's river valleys are much more tapered.  The entire downtown and beyond is built at the bottom of the escarpment, right on the river flood plain.  You don't even climb out of the south side of the Bow River Valley until you climb up to the green on the first hole of the Calgary Golf and Country Club.  

 Calgary's river valley is integrated into the rhythm and flow of the urban downtown experience because the downtown is in the river valley.  While Edmonton's river valley is more an escape from the city right in the heart of the city.  

 Being a veteran of 60 marathons and a dozen ultra-marathons, I have logged a lot of miles in both river valleys.  I have run literally thousands of kilometers in Calgary and Edmonton along the rivers and I have to concede that Edmonton's river path system is second to none.  You can literally run for hours and not even be aware there is a city all around you.  Edmonton's River Valley is a near continuous, uninterrupted park experience. 

Not so with Calgary's trails.  There are constant reminders of the city confronting you all along the trail, from Fish Creek Park all the way to Bowness Park.  Calgary's river valley is urban by necessity and design."  

 Ice Castles in Edmonton's Hawrelak Park. 

Ice Castles in Edmonton's Hawrelak Park. 

To each their own!

Terry continues, "Both work for both cities.  But, if I had my choice, the escape from the city is preferred.  

 In your analysis you kind of skimp on the other pluses of the Edmonton River Valley.  The Muttart Conservatory, three river valley ski hills inside city limits, the sandy beaches that pop up every summer to enjoy, The Edmonton Zoo (granted, it can't hold a candle to the Calgary Zoo, but for a day's outing with a young family, still very rewarding), the Equestrian Centre just down the road from Fort Edmonton, where you can go horseback riding along the river, mountain bike trails (also great for ultra-marathon training), canoeing and the many, many parks offer everything you can think of.  

So, in my mind, both river valleys really reflect the cities and both work for both cities.  Neither wins.  To say one is better than the other is like saying golf is better than baseball.  To each his/her own.  

Chris White (no relation) wrote “I would say your draft is not "fair" but very enjoyable none the lessYour blog talks about "things," but people don't have things, they have experiences. Of course, your challenge is that experiences are subjective. But we shouldn't pretend that "things" are objective. If I were to sum up the difference for me, I would say the Edmonton valley is a more private experience. I’m very glad the two cities don’t try to duplicate each other. I don’t want to sound harsh, but a point-for-point comparison seems misguided, even un-Canadian.”

  Edmonton's spectacular new funicular and stairs is a lovely urban public space.

Edmonton's spectacular new funicular and stairs is a lovely urban public space.

  Roof top patio in Calgary's East Village offers great views of the Bow River. 

Roof top patio in Calgary's East Village offers great views of the Bow River. 

  Likewise, Calgary's new West Eau Claire park with the Peace Bridge is a great place to sit. 

Likewise, Calgary's new West Eau Claire park with the Peace Bridge is a great place to sit. 

 Edmonton's Quarters redevelopment. 

Edmonton's Quarters redevelopment. 

  Calgary's massive East Village redevelopment next to the Bow River.

Calgary's massive East Village redevelopment next to the Bow River.

Best For Who?

Fair enough! One can never say something is the “best” as it really depends on each individual’s perspective and interests. While my friends love how Edmonton’s river valley is an escape from the city, I love to embrace the urban experience.  

Perhaps the Canadian thing to do is say both Calgary and Edmonton have great river valley experiences, Calgary’s being more urban while Edmonton’s is more natural.

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Battle of Alberta: Urban Design

Edmonton/Calgary: Let's Plan Together?

Brewery Districts: Calgary vs Edmonton