Despite living in Alberta for most of my life, I’d never been to Fort McMurray. Though it was a quick weekend trip, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. I found a tight knit community, loads of activities and probably the friendliest folks in all of Alberta. Here’s how to spend a pleasant 24-hours in Fort Mac – including the best things to do in Fort McMurray.

things to do in fort mcmurray

Would you drive along the winter road to Fort Chipewyan from Fort McMurray? (Photo credit: Lens on Nature/Trent Enzol)

Things to do in Fort McMurray

Out of all the things to do in Fort McMurray, it’s hard to ignore to presence of the oil sands. First up for me was a visit to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, a great spot for those (like me), who don’t really get the oil sands. It’s one of the things you ought to do in Fort McMurray if you don’t work in oil and gas.  This place is an interactive museum and ideal for families.

Kids of all ages can climb all over the heavy hauler and there’s a Play Lab for actual young ‘ens to learn about pumps, pipelines and valves. Got a dino-hound on your hands? They’re sure to be impressed with the 140-million-year-old fossils, such as the ichthyosaurs on display.

Fort McMurray is also a choice spot to see the Northern Lights. I took a tour that viewed them from the Gun Club! Wow. They didn’t come out to play on the night viewed, but I’m told you have better luck spotting them near an Equinox (November 21, March 21, etc…) I didn’t have the best camera (or a tripod) anyway. Next time I’m going to try to do aurora photography with a GoPro. Finger’s crossed!

northern lights fort mcmurray

Few people know Fort McMurray is a Dark Sky Preserve (Photo credit: Travel Alberta / Jeff Bartlett)

Oil sands discovery centre

Like big wheels?

Outdoor adventure in Fort McMurray

Fort Mac is located on the edge of the Boreal Forest, which means there’s plenty of green space for outdoorsy folks to explore. If you want to stay within city limits, you’ll find 400 hectares of serene parks and an extensive 130-kilometre multi-use trail system laced throughout the city.

Boreal Forest

People think oil sands when they hear of Fort McMurray, but they should also think: Boreal Forest!

Snowshoeing is an easy activity anyone can try. There are five rivers (yes five!) around town you can tread across or hit the trails that flank these rivers. If I lived in Fort Mac, I’d for sure join the Ptarmigan Nordic Ski Club. Membership is only $25 a year and includes rentals and lessons. (Good luck finding that anywhere else in the world.) The club house sits along the Birchwood Trail System and from there you’ve got acess to 28 km of groomed trails to glide across. 

And of course, For Mac is a super spot to view the Aurora. Check out these tips on how to best see the Northern Lights.

things to do in fort mcmurray

Check out the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the night sky over the Athabasca River in Fort McMurray. (Photo credit: Travel Alberta)

Who lives in Fort McMurray?

My friend, the IMBer predicted I’d get hit on in Fort Mac. Not because I’m a hot cougar (I wish), but because she, like many people assumed it would be chock-a-block with rugged dudes; Canada’s Alaska if you will. Disappointingly, the IBMer was wrong.

The place is crawling with families and young professionals. Bad news for cougars, great news for regular folks. Maybe it’s because there’s a high percentage of Maritimers here, the people are super kind and go out of there way to help non-locals. It kind of felt like being on the Truman Show, except it was genuine.

Where to eat in Fort McMurray

When I arrived (starving) around noon,  we made a beeline for Mitchell’s Cafe. Situated on the edge of downtown, this bustling breakfast and lunch spot has that hipster coffee shop vibe going on. Everything is made from scratch from their soups to guacamole to bread. I certainly never expected to find quinoa soup in Fort Mac, but here it was and utterly delish, as was my custom-made turkey, guacamole lettuce wrap.

For dinner the hot spot is Atmosfere, a casual restaurant that dishes out high end quality fare. Would you believe a restaurant in Fort Mac flies in fresh seafood several times a week? Or that they follow the farm to table movement sourcing as much produce, grains and protein from local farmers as possible? Yes to all!

entree at Atmosfere

It may not look Insta-worthy, but it was super delicious.

French trained executive Chef Catto (formerly of Harbour House on Salt Spring Island), presides over a diverse menu with hearty fare like steak and lobster, lamb meatballs and pork belly. I began my meal with a flavourful winter salad comprised of wilted greens, goat’s cheese and shredded duck. Exceptionally filling, it could’ve been my main, but I soldiered on with haddock so tender it practically melted overtop the risotto.

Fort McMurray accommodation 

Sufficiently stuffed, I rolled myself back to Chez Dube, a sweet bed and breakfast situated on the banks of the Clearwater River, close to downtown. If you’re looking for a home away from home, look no further. Rooms are spacious  and each has their own individual character.

Mine was Victorian with cozy chairs by the window ripe for reading (they have an impressive magazines and DVD collection) and a legit clawfoot tub. There’s a massive games room filled with a pool table, shuffle board and foozball. Breakfasts on weekends are continental with a variety of pastries, fruits and yogurt for guests to munch on. I especially appreciated the always full container of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

Victorian bedroom

I’m really not a fan of BnB’s, but they leave you alone in this one.

Fort McMurray Airport

All too soon my Fort McMurray adventure was over, and when I say all too soon, I really mean it. Mid morning the day of departure I realized my wallet was missing (pretty sure it fell out of my pocket). Ever kind, my host raced me to the airport, to figure out whether I’d be allowed to fly without I.D. or not. In case you should ever find yourself in the same predicament, here’s what to do if you lose your I.D. traveling

fort mcmurray airport observation area

To work with oil? This is talent.

Because of my predicament, I didn’t have extra time to chat with the friendly Tourism Fort McMurray dude who greets each and every passenger after they clear the baggage area. And without my wallet, I wasn’t able to grab a thin crust Famoso pizza or some clam chowder from Earls – both of which have outposts in the airport.

I was, however, able to suss out the new Observation Area open to the public. It’s a light filled space that documents the history of the region and displays local art, including impressive paintings by Lucas Seaward done with bitumen. The Fort McMurray Airport is one of the nicest I’ve been in (and I go through a schwack of airports every month, yo!), so don’t ever be dismayed if you ever find yourself with ample time here.

Would I come back to Fort McMurray? For sure. Heck, I even think I could live here. But first I’d like to head back in the summer, do a tour of the actual oil sands to understand it better and check out those awesome Athabasca Sand Dunes. Yes, sand dunes! In northern Alberta! 

Have you ever been to Fort McMurray? What did you think of it?

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