We’ve all heard of Canada referred to as our “neighbor to the north,” but in Denver’s case, the neighbors are more like family—at least as far as appearances go. Any Coloradan who’s visited Calgary (particularly to ski) has likely done more than one double-take. The similarities between the Colorado Rockies and this region of the Canadian Rockies—from the skyline and national parks to ski resorts and even the local hotels—borders on bizarre.
But just like all twins, Calgary and Denver have their distinguishing characteristics. Here, we break down the similarities and differences between these two cities, which are just a two-hour (nonstop!) plane ride apart.
Population: Calgary’s skyline bears an uncanny resemblance to Denver’s. While it feels like there are fewer crowds and lighter traffic in Calgary, its population is nearly double that of Denver’s. In 2016, Calgary boasted a population of 1,239,220 to Denver’s 694,777. There is more room to move around, however, as Calgary’s urban density is 3,888 people per square mile versus Denver’s 4,519.
Urban outdoor offerings: With 563 miles of bike paths, most cleared of snow in winter, Calgary offers the most extensive urban recreation pathway system in North America. The Bow River, which you will find frozen solid in Banff—a resort town about an hour and a half from Calgary—flows all the way from the high Rockies right through the city (where it’s also mostly frozen well into spring). Like the Platte, you can paddleboard and kayak along the Bow River (including at the surf park Harvie Passage) in the warmer months.
Getting to and from the mountains: High-tailing it out of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway will feel oddly familiar to Denverites until one of the nearby foothills suddenly becomes Winsport, a venue from the 1988 Winter Olympics that’s now home to bobsled, luge, and hockey training facilities. Although this highway holds its fair share of skier traffic, it rarely falls into the I-70 weekend gridlock Coloradans know so well. Also, the drive almost immediately offers views of looming peaks, including the sprawling cliff wall of Mt. Yamnuska, which you might recognize from the Revenant. The peaks are more impressive here—they’re rockier, more jagged and generally more uniquely shaped. But the vertical rise is also more significant. Banff (and many of its trailheads) is located at 4,500 to 5,000 feet, and Alberta’s tallest peaks—such as Matterhorn lookalike Mt. Assiniboine—tops out at almost 12,000 feet. When you tackle a fourteener in Colorado, you might be reaching further into the clouds at the end of it, but you’re also usually starting out well over 10,000 feet to make for a shorter trip overall.
National parks: Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest and a UNESCO World Heritage site, overflows with visitors in the summer. However, in addition to housing wildlife species familiar to most Coloradans—such as elk, moose, and mountain lions—in Banff, you could also run into a grizzly bear, especially during the uncrowded springtime season.
Skiing: From Calgary, just over an hour in the car will land you at three of the best slopes in Canada. Lake Louise, Norquay, and Sunshine Village—known as Alberta’s Big 3—each sport a distinctive personality, and you can get a single ticket to use at all three resorts at SkiBig3 (similar to splitting time between Keystone and Breckenridge or Vail and Beaver Creek). Lake Louise is the largest, with 4,200 skiable acres and one of the steepest tow lifts in the world, accessing hike-to terrain that will have your knees knocking before you make your first turn. Norquay is a locals’ favorite, plus the region’s only night skiing venue. It’s also home to the Cliffhouse Bistro, which periodically hosts extravagant five-course meals for 40 lucky diners brave enough to make the trip up Canada’s second oldest chairlift. Sunshine Village is more akin to Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin. Teeming with extreme terrain, some accessed through a gate where you must first scan your avalanche beacon, Sunshine’s season stretches into late May.
Distilleries, breweries: Park Distillery in Banff is Canada’s only distillery located inside a national park and the only distillery in Alberta with a full service (and super popular) restaurant on site. While not yet old enough to offer a whiskey (whiskey must age in barrels for at least seven years and Park’s blend still has about three to go), the gin Old Fashioned is life-changing. As in Denver, there are craft breweries springing up on practically every Calgary street corner, so much so that there’s a whole neighborhood dubbed “the barley belt,” home to local faves such as Banded Peak, Cabin, and Annex breweries.
Culture: In addition to chronicling the evolution and personalities of the mountain lifestyle (much in the same spirit as Golden’s American Mountaineering Museum or the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail), Banff’s Whyte Museum displays some of the most striking outdoor photography in the world. Calgary also boasts a large pool of talented musicians, and while nowhere in the world can compare with Red Rocks, venues like King Eddy, Commonwealth, and Ironwood arguably feel even more intimate than long-standing Denver spots like the Fillmore or the Ogden.
Hotels: The palace-like Fairmont in Lake Louise sits directly on the lake with Victoria Glacier reflecting off the water from the other side. Every type of outdoor activity you can imagine (cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, ice climbing, and, of course, curling) can be booked at the hotel. The castle-esque Fairmont Banff Springs is a dead ringer for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts school and rife with spooky ghost stories, not unlike the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. In Calgary, Hotel Arts is clean and quirky, plus centrally located within easy walking distance of Calgary Tower (the Space Needle-looking building that Denver does not have), the rodeo venue (yes, Calgary is also a cow town), and countless restaurants, breweries, and distilleries. If you’re noticing the similarities to Denver’s the Art Hotel, you’re paying attention.
A few notes on food: In Calgary, even if it’s classified as “spicy,” it’s not (at least by most Coloradans’ standards). Also, here, you might find your burger overcooked, as Canadian law requires that all burgers meet the “safe” temperature requirement of 71 degrees Celsius/160 Fahrenheit, which equates to “well done” here in the U.S (although it is important to note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture also recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees, but doesn’t require it). However, we recommend that while in Calgary, you skip the burger and instead order trout, salmon, or any wild game you find on the menu (add some pickled veggies, and you’ll be more than satisfied).