I bet you have never heard of Calgary’s SoBow Trail? That’s probably because it isn’t an official trail, but it should be. What is the SoBow Trail, you ask? It is the 12 km long south bank of the Bow River from Edworthy Park to Harvie Passage.
While some of the land acquisition started in middle of the 20th century, the transformation of the Bow River’s south bank into an urban gem has accelerated over the past 25, to become an amazing collection of 20+ parks, plazas, pathways and bridges.
In my estimation it has evolved into one of the best urban river banks in North America…maybe in the world. It is one of the reasons Caglary is the 5th best city to live in the world.
Don’t believe me? Read on…
No Master Plan
To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a master plan for this development. Rather, it’s been an organic evolution of several master plans - from Calgary Municipal Land Corporation’s River Walk and St. Patrick’s Island plans to the City of Calgary’s Prince’s Island master plan and West Eau Claire and Public Realm Plan.
It seems like every few years, a new public space has been added to the Bow River’s south bank.
Let’s Take A Walk Along The SoBow Trail
But let’s keep going as there is lots more to see.
East Village Renaissance
Continuing along the way you will find several lookout platforms, street art and sculptures before arriving at the historic Simmons Building, where you can get a Calgary-roasted Phil & Sebastian coffee, a tasty sandwich, something sweeter at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, or an upscale meal at Charbar, which has a spectacular rooftop patio offering great views of the Bow River.
Immediately east of the Simmons building, sits the George C. King Bridge, sometimes called the skipping stone bridge, as its arches remind some of a stone skipping across the water. Cross the bridge and you will discover the exquisite St. Patrick’s Island that has been a public space since the 1880s. Today it has popular man-made pebble beach, playground, picnic and play areas and public art. It is a popular spot for those floating the river to end their trip.
Bow & Elbow Confluence
But let’s keep going, as the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers awaits you. This is where Calgary was first settled in 1875 by the North West Mounted Police, who built Fort Calgary which grew into the Calgary Barracks and by 1914, a flourishing city was developing. The site eventually became an industrial area for the Canadian National Railway until 1974 when the City bought the site and in 1978, the Fort Calgary Interpretive Center opened.
In 2006 a three-phase revitalization and redevelopment plan was adopted. The first phase involving the restoration of the Deane house (one of Calgary’s best fine dining spots), restoration of the Hunt House and Metis Cabin (which was moved back to its original location from Calgary Brewery sit) have been completed. Phase 2, an interpretive art piece by Jill Anholt that references the walls of the original fort is also completed. Phase 3, currently underway includes an upgrade to the current museum and renovations of the 1888 Barracks.
But let’s not linger too long as we still have 5 km to go. Cross the Elbow River Traverse Bridge (opened in 2014) into Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest community, which today has many century old homes interspersed with modern new infills.
The City of Calgary has a master plan called “Bend in the Bow” that will integrate the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, the Inglewood Wildlands, Pierce Estate Park, River Passage Park and Harvie Passage into one regional park.
The SoBow Trail is indeed a special place that deserves to be named and officially recognized as one of the best and most unique urban experiences in North America. It should be up there with San Antonio’s River Walk as a tourist attraction.
I love how SoBow Trail includes elements of Calgary’s past and present to create an urban sense of place within a nature setting. It is not a tacky contrived Disneyesque park, but something authentic and unique to Calgary.
It’s high time to start promoting the SoBow Trail to locals and tourists alike as a “must do” fun day activity.
List of SoBow Parks, Plaza, Bridges etc:
Douglas Fir Trail
Nat Christie Sculpture Park
Shaw Millennium Park
West Eau Claire Park
Prince’s Island Park
Eau Claire Plaza
Sien Lok Park
Centre Street Bridge
Jean & Jean Leslie River Walk
George King Bridge
St. Patrick’s Island
Elbow River Traverse Bridge
St. George’s Island / Zoo
Pearce Estate Park
Inglewood Bridge Sanctuary