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Kick Up Your Kilts with The Canmore Highland Games 

by Melinda Falgoust

Kick up your kilts with one of the top activities in Banff National Park at the Canmore Highland Games!  For the last thirty one years, visitors can travel all the way to Scotland—without ever leaving North America! The Canmore Highland Games is an annual celebration of all things Celtic. Shop the host of skilled artisans. Taste the flavors of traditional foods. See the rainbow of tartan colors. Witness athletic agility and feats of fantastic strength with the hammer throw and the stone put. Hear the haunting call of the pipes. You can experience all this and more at the 31st Annual Canmore Highland Games.

The Canmore Highland Games enjoys a reputation as a signature seasonal event for the hamlet nestled in the Canadian Rockies. Each year, the games strive to entertain and educate visitors on Celtic culture. The event also supports many of the small businesses that operate in the area. The Highland Games have become so woven into the identity of the community that locals and visitors alike look forward to the annual event. Music, games, fun, food, and dance come together to encourage and develop interest and participation in Celtic culture. This family-friendly event offers a little bit of everything, guaranteed to have something to please everyone. It sets the Canmore Highland Games as a must-visit entertainment and cultural destination activity.

Getting to the Canmore Highland Games

The Canmore Highland Games takes place at Centennial Park in Canmore. Canmore is located approximately 25 kilometers (15.53 miles) from Banff and makes a wonderful day trip. 

By Car

Readily accessible by car via the Trans-Canada Highway, allow yourself around twenty minutes to get there barring traffic issues. It does take place over a holiday weekend (Labor Day) which typically sees larger crowds in town and limits parking availability. However, overflow lots will be available with shuttle transportation to and from Centennial Park. The shuttles run from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM on Sunday, September 3, 2023. Do note that downtown Canmore parking costs $3 per hour every day during the hours of 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. Free accessible parking is available to qualified guests near the park’s main gate on 5th Avenue.

From Calgary to the Canmore Highland Games

To get to the Canmore Highland Games at Centennial Park from Calgary, follow these directions. Please note that road conditions and traffic may vary, so it’s a good idea to use a navigation app like Google Maps for real-time updates before you start your journey.

Route: Calgary to Canmore Highland Games (Centennial Park)

  1. Start in Calgary: Begin your journey from your starting point in Calgary.
  2. Get on AB-1 W / Trans-Canada Highway: Head west on your preferred route to access the Trans-Canada Highway (AB-1 W) towards Banff.
  3. Continue on AB-1 W: Stay on AB-1 W for approximately 80-90 kilometers (about 50-55 miles) depending on your exact starting point and traffic conditions.
  4. Take Exit 91 for Bow Valley Trail / AB-1A toward Canmore: This exit will lead you toward Canmore on Bow Valley Trail.
  5. Merge onto Bow Valley Trail / AB-1A E: Follow Bow Valley Trail for a short distance, following the signs for Canmore.
  6. Turn Right onto 7th Ave: After merging onto Bow Valley Trail, take the right turn onto 7th Ave.
  7. Arrive at Centennial Park: Centennial Park, where the Canmore Highland Games are held, should be on your right. You’ll find the park at the corner of 7th Ave and 5th St in Canmore.
The Highland Games Scenery
Canmore, Rundle Mountain

From Banff to the Canmore Highland Games

Route: Banff to Canmore Highland Games (Centennial Park)

  1. Start in Banff: Begin your journey from your starting point in Banff.
  2. Get on Trans-Canada Hwy / AB-1 E: Head east on your preferred route to access the Trans-Canada Highway (AB-1 E) toward Calgary.
  3. Continue on Trans-Canada Hwy / AB-1 E: Stay on AB-1 E for approximately 25-30 kilometers (about 15-18 miles) depending on your exact starting point and traffic conditions.
  4. Take Exit 89 for Canmore / Bow Valley Trail / AB-1A: This exit will lead you toward Canmore on Bow Valley Trail.
  5. Merge onto Bow Valley Trail / AB-1A W: Follow Bow Valley Trail for a short distance, following the signs for Canmore.
  6. Turn Left onto 7th Ave: After merging onto Bow Valley Trail, take the left turn onto 7th Ave.
  7. Arrive at Centennial Park: Centennial Park, where the Canmore Highland Games are held, should be on your right. You’ll find the park at the corner of 7th Ave and 5th St in Canmore.

Traveling By Bus to the Highland Games

But you don’t need to drive. Sit back and leave the driving to the Bow Valley transit system! Bow Valley has an excellent bus system (ROAM). The environmentally-friendly buses are an inexpensive, stress-free way to get around Banff National Park. The Route 3 (Canmore/Banff Regional) bus will take you from Banff townsite all the way to Canmore to enjoy the Canmore Highland Games without having to worry about parking. This route runs daily. You can check the schedule on the ROAM website.

Tickets can be purchased in advance on the Token Transit app for iOS and Android, inside the Banff Visitor Center at 224 Banff Avenue, or from vending machines at Banff High School Transit Hub,Banff Elk West Transit Hub,Canmore 9th Street,Shoppers Drug Mart,Canmore Benchlands Trail Overpass, or at theLake Louise Lakeshore. Other location such as Banff Town Hall and several local businesses offer ROAM tickets as well, including the Rundle Gift Shop on Banff Avenue, the Canmore Civic Centre on 7the Avenue in Canmore, and the Rusticana Grocery on 8th Street in Canmore.

If you want to pay for your fare directly on the bus the day of travel, you can use your smart chip-enable credit or debit card in the electronic farebox which also accepts Canadian and U.S. currency. Be aware the fareboxes do not offer change, cannot accept pennies, or currency larger than $20 denominations. 

History of the Canmore Highland Games

Of all the beautiful backdrops in Banff National Park and the surrounding area, you won’t  find a better setting than Canmore for the Highland Games. You’ll find the reason right in the event’s full name—The 31st Annual Canmore Highland Games. The Canmore Highland Games draws its moniker from King Malcolm III Canmore, the 11th century monarch organized the very first games at Bear O’Mar, a flat meadow area, to find a suitable Royal messenger—one swift of foot and strong of arm. 

The celebration of Celtic culture becomes readily apparent in games events like the bagpipes and drumming competitions, the colorful variety of clan tartans worn by participants and even attendees, and in the familiar Scottish athletic competitions such as the caber toss. What is a caber, you ask? A tapered pole often carved from a larch or juniper tree, the traditional caber weighs around 79 kilograms (175 pounds). The competitor must toss the 5.94 meter (19.6 feet) pole end over end. Distance doesn’t matter. Rather, the caber must land in a twelve o’clock position in front of the tosser. Talk about skill! But the caber toss is just one of the many events with Scottish origins spectators can enjoy.

Highland Games Are On! Authentic Scottish Athletic Events

The caber toss is just one of the traditional Scottish athletic games competitors display for spectators. Visitors will see contestants heave a heavy natural rock for distance in the clach air a chur, or Putting the Stone. The Over the Bar contest requires hefting a 25.4 kilogram (56 pound) handled weight over a raised bar. The Sheaf Toss is one the most unusual events visitors might see. Participants skewer a burlap bag stuffed with straw and toss it over a horizontal bar. See it all on the southern end of Centennial Park near 5th Street and 6th Avenue. And don’t miss the Tug of War contest. This exciting event demonstrates players’ strength and teamwork as they compete for the prize purse! There are divisions both for kids and adults.  

Canmore Highland Games Opening

The Sound of Music at the Canmore Highland Games

Music is an integral part of the Celtic identity. And it isn’t just in the hills of Canmore during the Highland Games. You can also find it in the Beer Garden, on the stage and at a variety of locations throughout the park. When most folks think of Scotland, the first thing that comes to mind is bagpipes. The games do not disappoint. 

Listen to skilled musicians compete in the individual piping and pipe band competitions which kick off around 8:30 in the morning on Sunday, September 3, 2023. You’ll find most of the action on the main field of Centennial Park. You can continue to hear pipers and drummers display Most competitors will be dressed in standard Highland dress save the Novice Chanter and Drum Pad players. The Pipe Band competition commences in the early afternoon. Then stick around for the Massed Pipes & Drums of the Canmore Highland Games which closes out the celebration around 5:00 PM.

Looking for something a little less traditional but still influenced by Celtic culture? Then don’t miss the award-winning Celtica Nova! This Celtic Artist of the Year world band has played all over the map, appearing at Celtic events in multiple U.S. and European cities. Their music, filled with grit and power, has also featured in metal festivals, and they have performed alongside choirs and full orchestras as well. With five albums to their credit, their appearance at the Canmore Highland Games is just part of their staggering North American tour. 

Cars, Cars, Cars

Okay, so maybe it’s not technically Scottish, but motor enthusiasts can really get their motors running with the British Car and Motorcycle Show at the Canmore Highland Games on Sunday, September 3, 2023 from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Now in its third appearance at the games, the car show highlights the best motor vehicles Great Britain has turned out over the years. Owners and dealers alike compete for “Best in Show” at this event which takes place on the southern end of Centennial Park in the traffic circle.  

Food, Glorious Food!

For a delicious way to absorb some Celtic culture, the Canmore Highland Games offers up a menu of yummy choices to choose from. From food trucks to tasting events, wear your stretchy pants so you’ll have room to enjoy everything!

Food Trucks at the Highland Games

Fancy a curry? Have a hankering for haggis? In recent years, the games have introduced food trucks to the event to widen the opportunities for participants to savor flavors imbibed with Celtic spirit. With locations scattered throughout Centennial Park, it also makes dining more convenient with lots a delicious options available right next to many of the popular events. The trucks are generally open  from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. 

Taste of the Highlands

Raise a glass to say “sláinte” on Saturday, September 2, 2023 from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM and savor a delicious evening of whisky, wine, ale, and other libations in the Celtic atmosphere of the Spring Creek Festival Tent as you Taste the Highlands! Your admission to this foodie event earns you 10 tickets to use toward any one of the 90 whiskies or brews from worldwide producers and micro-breweries. Tasty appetizers circulate from Canmore area restaurants. Leave the dogs and kids at home, however. No children or fur babies allowed at this event. And bring your own water bottle as no bottled water is available on-site. Tickets are $25 CAD and can be purchased online. 

Kick up Your Kilts—Dress Like a Scot at the Highland Games

To really immerse yourself in the experience of the Celtic culture at the Canmore Highland Games, kick up your kilt game and dress in some authentic Highland garb! Full traditional Scottish Highland dress generally consists of nine separate pieces. These include the familiar kilt, a kilt pin, a Jacobite shirt, a sporran, a sgian-dubh, Ghillie brogues, kilt hoses, flashes, and sometimes a Tam o’Shanter cap. But what exactly are all these parts? We’re so glad you asked!

The Tartan

The most iconic feature of Scottish dress is the tartan. The tartan tradition goes back centuries with its legacy really rooting in the Highlands. It became a way for Scottish clans to identify kinships and develop bonds. You’ll see the colors and plaids predominantly in the kilt. But there are other parts that come together to complete traditional Scottish dress.


The fèileadh, or kilt as most of us know it, looks like a wrap-around skirt. Generally crafted from wool woven into a tartan pattern, a kilt has deep pleats and measures about knee-length. Originally worn by men in everyday wardrobe around the 16th century, it first appeared as a full-length clothing item. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it was shortened to its current knee-length. Women’s kilts did not appear until the 1900s and took on a more form-fitting design though still observing the traditional tartan patterns. You will often see kilts being worn at Celtic special events, such as weddings, and at sporting events like the Highland Games.

Canmore Highland Games Parade

Kilt Pin

The kilt pin does not serve to hold the layers of the kilt together even though its function is to keep the kilt from blowing open. And if the wearer is observing “regimental” dress, that’s a good thing! “Regimental” refers to wearing a kilt without undergarments, a historical practice with roots in military origins. The kilt pin weighs down the outer apron of the kilt and, while serving a function, acts more as a piece of jewelry.

Jacobite Shirt

The Jacobite shirt, sometimes called a gillie shirt, is a traditional shirt typically worn with a kilt. It has criss-crossed laces that resemble the laces of the gillie brogues seen in authentic Highland dress. The style is loose and breathable, and it is not worn with a tie.


The Scottish purse, or sporran, worked its way into traditional Highland dress out of necessity. Kilts don’t have pockets, but Highlanders needed someplace to secure their belongings as they roamed the countryside. Thus, the sporran was conceived. Usually crafted from fur or sometimes leather, this pouch is decorated depending upon how formal the dress it accompanies. Fastened to a leather strap and sometimes a linked chain, it sits at the front of the kilt unless it will interfere with activity, in which case it is acceptable to sit at the side.


Like the sporran, the sgian-dubh had a practical function in Highland dress. This small, single-edged knife could be employed for protection as well as serving as a cutting tool for food and other materials. In today’s dress, it serves a more ornamental purpose, typically fashioned from silver and bejeweled. The sgian-dubh is properly worn with only its hilt peeking over the top of your kilt hose. The leg on which it is worn depends on your dominant hand.

Gillie Brogues

The traditional shoes that accompany Highland dress are called ghillie brogues. A tongueless shoe, it is characterized by extremely long laces designed to wind up the leg to tie just below the calf so they wouldn’t drag in the mud. The only time Ghillie brogues are seen today is usually with Highland dress, even though they originally served a practical function.

Kilt Hoses and Flashes

Kilt hoses are simply woolen socks that come up to the knee. Often accompanied by flashes, a garter with a fabric flag that keeps the hose from rolling down, they can appear in a wide variety of colors. 

Tam O’Shanter

The Tam O’Shanter is a flat, felted cap that sometimes accompanies traditional highland dress. The odd name derives from the eponymous hero of the iconic Robert Burns poem.

Shopping in Canmore during the Highland Games

Shop ‘Til You Drop—Scottish Style 

If you want to bring a little bit of Celtic charm home with you to commemorate all the fun, don’t miss the Celtic Market and Clan Village. Open from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM for the duration of the festival, shoppers can browse nearly forty booths containing Scottish and Celtic merchandise from local and visiting artisans. You can find toys, hand-crafted jewelry, art, musical instruments, and authentic Highland dress like kilts and sporrans.

Perhaps you want to learn more about your Scottish heritage. There will be clan booths to help you delve into your family’s origin and history. Just interested in learning more about Scottish culture? Various non-profits will be on hand to educate visitors on various aspects of Scottish history, traditions, and more! Regardless of where your interests lie, you’re certain to find something to tickle your fancy at the Celtic Market and Clan Village.

So, while bonnie Scotland might not be the first thing that comes to mind when visiting the beautiful Canadian Rockies, the Canmore Highland Games is arguably one the top activities in Banff National Park and a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in Celtic culture. With exciting athletic events, great music, delicious food, talented artisans, and more, it’s just one more reason Banff is a fabulous place to visit this September!

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