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Fort McMurray is seldom viewed as a destination in itself. Originally established as a northern fur trade post and now revolving almost entirely around the oil industry, Fort Mac is the kind of place people move to for work, and that’s mainly it. Or is it? In this article, I hope to show you otherwise, and I even include it in my bucket list of places to visit in Alberta!
Located at the center of the world’s third largest oil reserve and single largest crude bitumen reservoir, the Athabasca Oil Sands, Fort McMurray is an oil boomtown of 66,500, drawing skilled migrants from around the world and a fluctuating population of temporary workers.
The city is so far north that the sun barely sets at the peak of summer. Winters are long and ultra chilly, but that means Fort McMurray is also a great place to spot Northern Lights. It takes 4.5 hours to drive there from the nearest city, Edmonton.
Ever since my sister and her family moved from Edmonton to Fort McMurray years ago, I’ve visited a few times, and I’ve seen first hand that the city is in fact a great place to live, if a little isolated. Simply put, there are loads of fun things to do in Fort McMurray, especially for families and lovers of the great outdoors.
Surrounded by immense boreal forests, the area is teeming with wildlife. Opportunities for activities in Fort McMurray include kayaking, ATVing, fishing, snowmobiling, hiking and so much more, while the city is blessed with one of the best recreation centers in Canada as well as a ski hill of its own. Given the crucial role of oil in town, several Fort McMurray attractions are also related to the oil industry. Fort Mac also abounds in green spaces; there is said to be over 400 hectares of park space and 130 kilometers of walking and cross-country skiing trails in town!
Below I’m going to give you 25 ideas for things to do in Fort Mac, whether you live there, are just in town for work, or maybe I’ll even inspire some out-of-towners to make the journey up and see what this one-of-a-kind city is all about! At the end of the article, I’ll also introduce some of the best Fort McMurray restaurants and places to stay if you need a hotel in town.
Note: We visited most recently in June 2020 and most (but not all) places mentioned in this article were either open or planning to open in the coming weeks. It’s still best to call and ask before you visit.
A Brief History of Fort McMurray
Fort McMurray is at the center of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in northeastern Alberta. The area was originally inhabited by the Cree people, who were aware of the vast deposits of oil in the ground and used it to waterproof their canoes.
Located at the junction of the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers, the site of Fort McMurray became an important fur trading post in the late 1700s. In 1870, it became an official Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, named after the trader William McMurray.
Fort McMurray remained small into the 20th century. In the 1920s, interest developed in separating the oil from the sands, but this was not successfully done until the 1930s and output remained low. Production gradually rose over the years, with Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) setting up camp in 1967.
Conflicts in the Middle East and resulting increases in oil prices brought an oil industry boom in the 1970s. Fort McMurray’s population increased ten-fold in that decade alone.
The city’s expansion has tapered off somewhat since that, following major slumps in oil prices in the 80s, 90s, 2010s, and decreasing global demand going into the 2020s.
To make matters worse, on May 3, 2016, a wildfire ravaged Fort McMurray, destroying one-fifth of the city’s homes and causing the largest wildfire evacuation ever in Canada. Disaster struck again on April 27, 2020, when massive ice jams caused floods that devastated the downtown area right in the midst of the global pandemic.
Downtown Fort McMurray, also known as the Lower Townsite, occupies the land between the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers, while numerous residents inhabit mostly affluent and family-friendly communities on adjacent higher lands such as Beacon Hill, Abasand, Thickwood, and Timberlea.
Top 15 Things to Do in Fort McMurray
1. See the Area from Above on a McMurray Aviation Aerial Tour
Our top experience on our most recent Fort McMurray trip was without a doubt our aerial tour with McMurray Aviation. It is the longest running operator in town and offers a variety of aerial tours at reasonable prices, as well as flight training and chartered fishing ventures in the far north.
My wife Emily, our niece Kaylan (who lives in town) and I opted for the Bucket List Tour, which involved spending an entire hour in the air in a compact Cessna 17. What makes it a bucket list tour is not the fact that you get to see the main sites of Fort McMurray from above, but that one passenger gets to sit in the front by the pilot and fly the plane for the entire flight!
Besides flying right over Kaylan’s school and house, where her family members spotted us from below, the highlight of the tour was flying over the Athabasca oil sands and Syncrude/Suncor mines. The expansive mines looked incredible from above, and this is the only way you can get a feel for just how enormous they are.
Looping back to the south, we flew over huge swaths of boreal forest and several lakes, then followed the winding Clearwater River back to the airport, providing a plethora of stunning natural vistas to round out the city and mine portions of the flight.
We were able to book the flight with only a few days notice, the pilot Carl was helpful and informative, and everything went smoothly, so we would highly recommend this experience. Kaylan was eight years old and really enjoyed it (she only got scared a few times, and had to pee by the end of it), but we wouldn’t recommend taking kids younger than her.
2. Learn all about Oil at the Oil Sands Discovery Center
The most well-known of Fort McMurray tourist attractions is the Oil Sands Discovery Center; you can’t miss the huge bucketwheel on display outside as you cruise into town on Highway 63.
The museum is dedicated to sharing everything a casual visitor could possibly want to know about the Fort McMurray oil sands, making it a mandatory first stop for anyone new in town. According to my brother-in-law, who works for Suncor, he usually brings visitors there first so he doesn’t have to answer all of their questions about the industry.
Our kids loved the various hands-on displays, learning about which dinosaur fossils have been found in the mines, and taking simulated daytime and nighttime rides on a 150-tonne hauler truck. The museum is compact but highly informative for kids and adults alike, not to mention impressively designed.
We were also able to catch the extraction demonstration, during which the kids were able see and learn in simple terms how oil is extracted from oil sands using hot water. The demonstrations take places several times per day, with times posted in the lobby.
The outdoor Equipment Garden also features a huge dump truck box, dragline bucket, belt conveyor, sponge column, and more, so don’t miss it before you leave! A guided tour is also offered of the garden a couple times per day.
3. Uncover Local History at Heritage Village & Shipyard
Another not-to-be-missed attraction in town is Fort McMurray Heritage Village. The Fort McMurray Heritage Society maintains two sites: Heritage Village at the southern end of downtown, and Heritage Shipyard on the bank of the Clearwater River.
At Heritage Village, you can take a step back to the time of Fort Mac’s trapping and trading days as you explore a village of century-old restored buildings. Learn the stories of real men and women who lived in Fort McMurray in the old days. Step into a drug store, school, church, mission, trading post, family home, forestry cabin, and more, filled with real antiques. You can explore on your own or by booking a tour.
Heritage Village has survived floods and the great fire of 2016, thanks to community and government support. Make sure to spend some time in the souvenir shop as well, which has an excellent range of Canadian products and artwork.
The Heritage Shipyard one kilometer to the north beside the Clearwater River is also definitely worth a visit. There you’ll find a number of beautifully restored historical vessels, two train cars, a children’s playground, and more.
The Shipyard was not so lucky during the 2020 floods, and will most likely be closed for renovations until 2021. You can still have a good look through the fence, from where I was able to take these photos.
4. Get Fit at MacDonald Island Park
Wondering where Fort Mac residents head to for recreational pursuits? For many, it’s MacDonald Island. The spacious island sits at the northern end of downtown at the point where the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers meet, separated from downtown by Snye River and accessed by a Macdonald Drive, visible at the bottom of the above photo.
The huge recreation complex on site has been called the best in all of Canada. Called MacDonald Island Park, it encompasses Suncor Community Leisure Center (which has Wood Buffalo Regional Library, Syncrude Aquatic Center, two arenas, a curling club, skating rink, indoor playground, fitness center, and more) and Shell Place (including an event stadium and baseball stadium).
The island also has the 18-hole Miskanaw Golf Club and the Aboriginal Interpretive Trail. The 1213-meter walk along three riverside loops allows visitors to observe around a dozen statues revolving around the ideals of honesty, respect, love, wisdom, truth, humility and courage.
The trails run along the western (Athabasca River) side of the island, with a small parking lot at the end of Macdonald Drive providing access. A few of the statues closest to the river were destroyed in the 2020 flood.
5. Go for a Jog at Borealis Park and Snye Point
Within walking distance of Macdonald Island via riverside trails, and located on the Snye River, Borealis Park is a small park centered on a pretty lake with two fountains. The boardwalk around the lake is perfect for a jog, while an outdoor spray park tempts children and a riverside stage occasionally hosts events.
You can follow the riverside path from Borealis Park to Snye Point, which lies just pass the Snye Point Boat Launch. Stand right on the point, if it’s not too muddy, to admire Macdonald Island and the opposite bank of the Clearwater. The large park on site is also ideal for a picnic, or sit down for a meal overlooking the river at highly-rated Surekha’s on the Snye. There’s also a decent playground for kids next to the restaurant’s large patio.
6. Skiing and More at Vista Ridge All Seasons Park
Believe it or not, Fort McMurray even has a ski hill of its own! But Vista Ridge All Seasons Park is so much more than that. In summer, highlights include an awesome Aerial Park, Mini-Putting, Frisbee Golf, a skatepark, and a brand new 12-hole golf course.
Come in winter and you can hit the eight slopes on site, with some 60 acres of skiable terrain, the largest. Besides skiing and snowboarding, there’s also a five-lane tube park and an ice rink. Ski lessons for kids are available, and they’ve even got Ladies Nights on certain Friday nights!
Vista Ridge is a 20-minute drive southeast of town, east of Fort McMurray Airport and facing Clearwater River. The resort is slated to reopen it’s the summer facilities in July and August of 2020; call or check their website for the latest information.
7. Peruse Local Artwork at Points North Gallery
For a taste of the local arts scene, step into Points North Gallery downtown. The gallery showcases works from more than two dozen local and regional artists, with continuously rotating displays. Edmonton native Florence Weber has been running the gallery in Fort Mac for nearly 30 years and is a strong supporter of local arts.
Other crafts and local souvenirs also sold in the gallery, and they offer a professional framing service that is consistently praised by locals. See here for example works from the artists currently on display. Entrance is free, and many artworks can be purchased.
8. Overlook the City from Beacon Hill Lookout
For a great view of the downtown area, head to a series of lookout points called Beacon Hill Lookout bordering the neighborhood of the same name. You’ll want to drive up there if coming from downtown. Unlike my not-so-great photo above, you can get totally unobstructed views of the city by following one of several paths through the tress, but when I visited, it had been raining, so the paths were super muddy and I didn’t walk right out to the lookout.
Some lucky visitors have even reported seeing Northern Lights above town from the lookout!
9. Search for Painted Stones with Fort Mac ‘Rocks!’
Fort McMurray has a Facebook group called Fort Mac ‘Rocks!’, which is dedicated to finding and leaving painted rocks around town. In order to participate, simply join the group, paint some rocks, post of a photo of them, leave them in a fun spot, and wait and see who finds and shares photos of them in the group. Great fun for all ages!
The group also recommends weather sealing the rocks, and tagging them with the group name. If you find one, after sharing a photo of it in the group, you can either keep it or re-hide it in a different place.
Geocachers will also be happy to know that there are several geocaches in the Fort Mac area.
10. See the Syncrude Plant and Giants of Mining
In order to get up close to the oil sands, follow Highway 63 20 minutes north of town to the point where the highway turns left in a loop past Syncrude’s main facility for bitumen extraction and upgrading. The highway passes right by the plant (photo above) before reaching Syncrude Giants of Mining.
This roadside attraction features an enormous 2400-ton bucketwheel that was decommissioned in 1999. The beast of a machine could dig up 7234 cubic meters per hour and had a horsepower of 12,000, with a replacement value of 34 million dollars.
Standing beside it, an equally impressive dragline weighs a staggering 6200 tons. When in use, it was able to ‘walk’ with its giant black feet visible in the photo above; one 2.5-meter step took it about 40 seconds. Also on display are the machine’s oversized bucket, which you can walk into, and the enormous chains used to drag it. See if you can lift one of them (you can’t…)
11. Spot Bison at a Reclamation Site
A few minutes drive south of the Giants of the Prairies will bring you to another worthwhile stop, a reclaimed piece of land denoted as ‘Bison Lookout’ on GoogleMaps. This is the site of one of the oil sands industry’s largest reclamation sites ever, Syncrude’s former East Mine.
Here 11 square kilometers of land are being refilled, a complicated process that involves combining tailings with gypsum and tailing sand. This creates a stable landform foundation, which is then shaped and finally covered with vegetation.
From the viewpoint, we were able to spot the dozen or so bison that now occupy the reclaimed land, with Syncrude’s facility visible across a body of water that is also in process of being reclaimed.
12. Walk the Gateway Hill and Matcheetawin Discovery Trails
Further south, just before the mine loop meets up again with the northbound section of Highway 63, Gateway Hill and Matcheetawin Discovery Trails are two nature walks on an even older Syncrude reclamation site, with the first jack pine and spruce trees planted there in the 1980s.
Gateway Hill was the first ever recipient of a reclamation certificate in the oil sands industry in 2008. The looming bison statues along the highway denote the parking lot for the trails.
The land through which the trails pass is now home to snowshoe hare, deer, beavers, coyotes, and numerous birds. The 4.5-kilometer trail includes views of Ruth Lake, marshes, and an ongoing reclamation site of a former mine pit.
Besides the thee stops on this loop, you can drive further north on Highway 63 and you’ll soon reach the indigenous community of Fort Mackay, from where the “Bridge to Nowhere” marks the start of the winter-only road to Wood Buffalo National Park, the least visited of Alberta’s five national parks (and largest of Canada’s 38 national parks).
13. Tee off at one of Fort Mac’s Golf Courses
For golf lovers, you’ll have at least four beautiful golf courses to choose from around Fort McMurray. Miskanaw Golf Club is easily accessible on Macdonald Island right in town and features pretty river views, while Lions Rotary operates a disc golf course at the southern edge of town and the newest gold course in town, Rotary Links, near the airport. Vista Ridge (#6 above) also has a brand new golf course.
For the largest of the bunch, head to 27-hole Fort McMurray Golf Club west of town, which is nestled on the banks of the Athabasca and surrounded by boreal forest. It’s not cheap, though! Last but not least, Vista Ridge is set to open a new golf course in summer of 2020.
14. ATVing and Snowmobiling around Town
A super popular activity among locals in Fort Mac is hoping on a quad or dirt bike and exploring the many trails in and around town. My brother-in-law who lives in town recommends the trails in Abasand heading down toward Horse River, a tributary of the Athabasca, or you can find other longer ones here.
Adventurous kids can even learn to ride dirt bikes at MDRA (McMurray Dirt Riders Association Race Track) just south of town.
For great snowmobile runs, try the Anzac Loop, Stoney Mountain Trail, or Connector Trail, all within short drives of town. See more info here.
15. Camping & Water Activities at Gregoire Lake
The best spot to take the family camping or spend a day at the beach in close proximity to Fort McMurray is at Gregoire Lake Provincial Park. The park features a large sandy beach in the day use area and a 140-site campground. The lake is suitable for fishing and all manner of watersports.
The lake is understandably very popular in summer, when the beach gets completely packed. You can also try the privately run Camp Yogi in Anzac, a small town on the eastern side of the lake.
10 Bonus Fort McMurray Activity Ideas
- Check out the wide range of festivals in Fort McMurray throughout the year.
- For more walking paths, Birchwood Trails is a 130-kilometers network of paths in the wooded creek valley running between Timberlea and Thickwood neighborhoods. In winter, many of the trails are suitable for cross country skiing.
- Canoeing and kayaking are popular in the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers and numerous lakes around town.
- Fishing and ice fishing is yet another popular activity in summer and winter, respectively.
- Check out the Keyano Theater & Arts Centre website for upcoming performances and events.
- The Fort McMurray SPCA sometimes offers cat yoga classes.
- Mr E’s Solve-it-Torium and Trapped are two escape rooms in town.
- The Fort McMurray Fish and Game Association operates a shooting range a short drive south of town.
- There are several excellent playgrounds and outdoor spray parks in Fort McMurray. For the latter, try J. Howard Pew Memorial Family Park or Borealis Park.
- For those looking to get off the grid, there are several remote wildlands and provincial parks in the greater Wood Buffalo area, including Richardson River Dunes Wildland (featuring real sand dunes!), Grand Rapids Wildland, Stony Mountain Wildland, Gipsy Lake Wildland Provincial Park, and Whitemud Falls Wildland. Whitemud Falls can be reached on an aerial tour offered by McMurray Aviation.
Where to Stay in Fort McMurray
Microtel Inn and Suites (see prices / read reviews) is the best-rated hotel in Fort McMurray on Booking.com. It features a games room, fitness center, and large hot tub, and is located at the southern end to For Mac, just as you drive into town.
Downtown, Clearwater Suite Hotel (see prices / read reviews) is pet-friendly, while Merit Hotel (see prices / read reviews) has a pool. The Pomeroy (see prices / read reviews) is a slightly more upscale choice perfect for families or business travelers, complete with a whirlpool, sauna, and balconies with fine views.
If you’d rather stay in a family-run guesthouse or self-contained apartment, there are several options available here on Airbnb.
Where to Eat in Fort McMurray
Upscale dining is not Fort McMurray’s thing. Nevertheless, there are some great eats to be had in town. Surprisingly given the location a million miles from any ocean, there are some good sushi joints in town, including Fuji Japanese Restaurant, Soleiki, and Spring Moon.
We personally loved the poke dished out at YMM Poke. My relatives in town also spoke highly of Cedar Shawarma and Kabab, located in a Middle Eastern grocery and bakery, but unfortunately it was closed when we last visit. Jomaa’s does excellent pizzas with several branches in town.
You can also find all the usual Canadian restaurant chains downtown. Surekha’s on the Snye offers what is probably the closest you can get to a fancy meal in Fort Mac.
Looking for a night on the town? Try Boomtown Casino for drinks and entertainment!
Well, that sums up my Fort McMurray travel guide. Did I get anything wrong or miss anything important? Have any questions? Let me know in the comments below!