Written by Karen Ung
On our road trips around Alberta, we’ve visited several historic places. While many offer engaging and memorable experiences, others are just a bathroom break in an old building. The sites my kids like best are the ones with hands-on activities and interpreters in period dress who bring the past to life. Bonus if there are horse-drawn wagon rides and ice cream!
Here are four of our favorite historic places in southern Alberta:
- Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is an awesome living history museum near Edmonton with over 40 restored buildings. Visit costumed interpreters in their homes and workplaces to learn what life was like for early Ukrainian settlers in east central Alberta. Interpreters are in character, making for some fun and interesting interactions.
At the General Store, the shopkeeper will ask what you’d like to buy; at school, you’ll be expected to sit down and participate; and if you ask them to take a photo, they have no idea what a cell phone is! While you’re there, look for farm animals; go on a horse-drawn wagon ride (free with admission); and get delicious handmade perogies, cabbage rolls, ice cream and more at the red barn. You can easily spend a few hours there!
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.
- On the bank of the Athabasca River, Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site protects the remains of an important fur trade post for the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. The archeological remains of four forts, dating from 1799 to 1875, were found here, and the chimneys of one fort are still standing. While it’s a pleasant walk to the fort sites (3.2km round trip), if you’re visiting with kids, we recommend starting at the Bison Lookout and looking for plains bison; picking up an activity booklet from the Visitor Centre and checking out the interactive exhibits; playing at the Play Fort, a 1/4 size replica of a fur trade fort; watching an informative and entertaining puppet show about the life of legendary explorer and cartographer, David Thompson (2pm daily); then visiting the Métis Camp, York Boat, and Blacksmith Shop.
On various visits, heritage interpreters have taught us: how to dance a jig, how to start a fire with flint and steel, how York Boats were portaged, and what different furs were used for. My kids enjoyed making a fire without matches so much that we bought an old school fire-making kit at the gift shop.
Open daily, 10am to 5pm. For an unforgettable weekend, book a Heritage Camping stay in a trapper’s tent, trapline cabin, or tipi!
- Atlas Coal Mine, near Drumheller, offers “mine blowing” experiences and real stories about real people. On the Train Ride tour, we clickety-clacked down the track in a coal car and learned about when coal was king in this valley. At the peak of the Drumheller mining industry, the 39 local mines had 1.5 million boxcars; enough to go around the world! Our guide also shared tales of famous miners and rum running.
On the Processing Plant tour, we met at the Mine Office to get paid (Did you know dust-covered miners were recognized by their voices?), then climbed inside Canada’s last-standing wooden tipple to learn how coal was sorted and priced, the hazards of being a tipple worker, and how Wildfire Coal got its orange color. At the Manager’s Office, we heard about ghosts who are known to play mischievous pranks on people. Next is the Mine Portal hike (ages six and up) where we watched a carbide lamp demo, toured the shower building, then got suited up like a miner to venture into an old mine shaft. It’s a bit of a hike to get there, so our guide paused every so often to point out coal deposits across the valley, and notable buildings below. Between fun facts, true tales, and ghost stories, we learned a lot and had fun!
Open daily, 10 am to 5pm.
- Here in Calgary, we’re lucky to have Canada’s largest living history museum, Heritage Park Historical Village. With over 180 exhibits and 55,000 artifacts on 127 acres, costumed interpreters, and a jam-packed schedule of activities, there’s fun for all ages. Journey through time, from the 1860s to the 1930s on foot, by steam train, in a horse-drawn wagon, or on the S.S. Moyie paddlewheeler.
Save time for rides on the Antique Midway, the 1pm play at the Canmore Opera House, and cinnamon buns from Alberta Bakery. Some examples of awesome activities/presentations offered daily by Heritage Park include: butter making, rope making, Indigenous games, 1910 gym class in the Schoolyard, bannock making, Voyageur Recruitment, lawn bowling, and street theater. With a new schedule each week, you can see or try something new each visit (local’s tip: an annual membership pays for itself in three visits). New exhibits this year include Prospect Ridge where you can pan for gold and explore a replica coal mine, and Innovation Crossing’s interactive “Alberta: Lessons for the Future” STORYSEEKER exhibit. The exhibits’ themes complement each other, so it’s recommended you visit both. Make sure you get a copy of the schedule when you arrive so you can plan the the most amazing day!
Open daily, 10am to 5pm.
Karen is a mother and a lover of maps, mountains, and mochas. With her geography degree and experience leading hikes and backpacking trips in the Rockies, she is full of ideas on where to go and what to do. The mission of her blog, playoutsideguide.com, is to provide everything families need to know to get outside and have fun.
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