Canada’s coasts and bigger cities get a whole lot of attention, but there’s plenty to see in the heart of the country too. Far from being simply flat, the prairies are teeming with character and diversity–just see for yourself.
Flin Flon, MB
Flin Flon straddles the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with most of the city being in Manitoba. The city gets its unusual name from Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, a character in the 1905 science fiction novel The Sunless City. Miners who were prospecting on the site of the future city found the book near large mineral deposits.
If you visit: Flin Flon has lots of great natural appeal — but for a quirky look at the city’s infrastructure, check out its sewer boxes. Because the bedrock is so dense, Flin Flon is the only city to locate its sewage lines above ground. Early settlers originally encased the lines in wooden boxes, which doubled as sidewalks and are still used today.
Head about six kilometres north of Narcisse, and you’ll find the largest concentration of red-sided garter snakes in the world. Between 50,000 and 70,000 of the wriggly serpents emerge from their winter dens every spring to mate, forming huge “mating balls” of multiple maler snakes around a single female. The area was even nominated as one of the Seven Wonders of Canada on CBC in 2007.
If you visit: If you want to see A LOT of snakes, head to Narcisse in the latter part of April and the first three weeks in May. The Narcisse Snake Dens are equipped with viewing platforms and hiking trails, so you won’t miss any of the snaky fun.
Sitting smack dab between Winnipeg and the North Dakota border, Altona has lots of appeal–including the World’s Largest Painting on an Easel (it’s a reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”). Altona is actually known as the sunflower capital of Canada, a fact celebrated every year with its annual Sunflower Festival.
If you visit: Altona’s Sunflower Festival runs at the end of July. But if you happen to be in Altona in the winter, they’ve also got a winter carnival.
Brandon’s the second-largest city in Manitoba, but it’s fair to say that it’s friendly enough to feel like a small town. Nestled on the banks of the Assiniboine River, Brandon offers a number of music and art festivals every year, including the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Festival at the end of July. Plus, it hosts the Manitoba Summer Fair every June, along with a series of other agricultural exhibitions.
If you visit: Visit the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum, the only air museum dedicated to those who trained and fought for the British Commonwealth during World War II.
Located on the Winnipeg River at the northern edge of Whiteshell Provincial Park, Pinawa is a good gateway for all sorts of outdoor recreation, including sailing, canoeing, and snowmobiling. If you’re feeling energetic, explore Pinawa’s section of the Trans Canada Trail, which includes forest, graphite ridges and beaver dams. If it’s summer, check out the beach.
If you visit: Cross (or bounce on) the 50-metre Pinawa Heritage Suspension Bridge, which spans the Pinawa Channel.
Moose Jaw, SK
Moose Jaw is definitely a spot to visit if you a) like military aerobatics, b) enjoy hot tubs, and c) like really big moose statues. Home to the Snowbirds, Canada’s renowned aerobatics team, Moose Jaw also boasts a mineral-rich geothermal spring, now housed in a luxurious rooftop pool at the Temple Gardens Hotel. Finally, Moose Jaw also hosts Mac, the world’s biggest moose–9.8 metres of steel and concrete in the shape of a moose.
If you visit: Tour the Tunnels of Moose Jaw–guided historic tours with a theatrical twist beneath the streets of downtown.
If you’re a fan of Corner Gas, check out Tisdale–comedian Brent Butt’s hometown and model for the fictional town of Dog River. (Rouleau, Saskatchewan, was the actual setting of the show.) Tisdale is also somewhat notorious for the town’s motto until August 22, 2016: “Land of Rape and Honey”–referring, of course, to the significance of rapeseed (now better known as canola) to the economy of the region.
If you visit: Tisdale boasts the world’s second-largest statue of a honey bee as well as the largest 7-11 in Canada.
Gravelbourg has a significant French population known as Fransaskois–francophones with a distinct Saskatchewan identity. The town’s French heritage runs deep. In fact, its cathedral, convent, and bishop’s residence are all designated as the Gravelbourg Ecclesiastical National Historic Site of Canada.
If you visit: Go to the Summer Solstice Festival d’été and experience an inclusive blend of culture, heritage and spirituality.
Chaplin itself is a small village in Saskatchewan, population approximately 300. What it might lack in people, though, it more than makes up for in birds: the town is located on the shore of Chaplin Lake, the second-largest saline water body in Canada. The lake is home to more than 30 species of shorebird, with peak levels reaching 67,000 birds per day. You can visit the Chaplin Nature Centre to learn more about the habitat and its importance to Canada’s biodiversity.
If you visit: Go in early June to check out the Chaplin Shorebird Festival, a two-day celebration with a fundraising dinner, parade and silent auction.
Unlike other prairie towns that boast enormous statues of everything from beavers to kielbasa, Eastend’s “largest” is actually the real thing: Canada’s largest and most complete fossilized tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, affectionately known as Scotty. Eastend also features an 1876 encampment used by Tashunka Witko (better known as Crazy Horse).
If you visit: You may think Saskatchewan is completely flat, but the views from Jones Peak will prove you otherwise.
The Dinosaur Capital of the World is not to be missed. Located in the Red Deer River Valley,also known as Dinosaur Valley, Drumheller boasts one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs as well as The World’s Largest Dinosaur, an 86-foot-tall statue of a tyrannosaurus rex. Climb the 106 stairs inside and snap a pic from inside her mouth for the ultimate photo op.
If you visit: Go beyond the dinosaurs and take a hike to check out the hoodoos, sand and clay towers that are iconic symbols of the Alberta badlands.
Following the theme of prairie towns hosting “world’s largest” somethings, Vegreville–whose population is largely of Ukrainian descent–is home to the world’s largest pysanka, or traditional Ukrainian Easter egg. The town’s historic city centre reflects what Vegreville looked like in 1906, the year it was founded.
If you visit: Don’t miss the shrine of Our Lady of the Highway, a seven-foot marble statue of the Virgin Mary erected by the Vegreville Knights of Columbus.
Situated between the foothills of the Rockies and the prairies, Nanton has the best of both worlds in terms of scenery. For a real western experience, check out the Nanton Nite Rodeo, which runs a series of evening rodeo competitions through July and into August. If you hear a roaring overhead, don’t worry–it’s the Bomber Command Museum of Canada’s Avro Lancaster bomber.
If you go: Once you’re finished watching the roping and barrel racing, check out the two fully restored grain elevators at the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre.
If you have a fondness for quirky museums, then Torrington’s Gopher Hole Museum needs to be at the top of your list of must-see places to visit. No, it’s not a museum about the role of gophers in Alberta agriculture — it’s a series of stuffed Richardson’s ground squirrels (they’re technically not gophers) dressed in teeny tiny costumes posed in carefully curated dioramas, complete with speech bubbles. There’s a pioneer gopher, driving a covered wagon. There’s a gopher band, complete with instruments. There are two ’50s gophers “parking.” The list goes on, and needs to be seen to be believed.
If you visit: Make sure to get a selfie with the 12-foot high gopher statue, named Clem T. GoFur.
Located in central Alberta, Legal is an officially bilingual community with a rich Francophone heritage. Known as the French Mural Capital of Canada, the town has more than 35 murals for visitors to explore, with bilingual guided tours available. Need more motivation to visit? The town was named Alberta’s Best Small Town in 2014.
If you visit: If you’re visiting in the summer, see if you can taste some fresh bread made in the town’s replica open-air oven.