Sights and Tours of Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands

Aerial view of construction and refinement buildings built up over a wide plain of sand.

Oil Sands at Kearl Lake to the northeast of Fort McMurray. Photo © Jason Woodhead, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.


Oil Sands Discovery Centre

For an insight into the history, geology, and technology of the Athabasca Oil Sands mining process, head to this large interpretive center (515 Mackenzie Blvd., 780/743-7167, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily mid-May–Aug., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sun. the rest of the year, adult $6, senior $5, child $4). Start your visit by watching Quest for Energy, a multimedia, big-screen presentation about the industry that has grown around the resource. The center houses an interesting collection of machinery and has interactive displays, hands-on exhibits, and interpretive presentations. Outside is the Industrial Equipment Garden, where an older-style bucket-wheel excavator and other machinery are displayed. To move the excavator to this site, it had to be disassembled, with some sections requiring a 144-wheel, 45-meter-long (150-foot-long) trailer for the 45-kilometer (28-mile) trip from the mine.

Syncrude and Suncor Plant Tours

Touring the oil-sands plants is the best way to experience the operation firsthand. The scope of the developments is overwhelming, while the size of the machinery is almost inconceivable. Two companies—Syncrude and Suncor—are involved in tour programs offered through Fort McMurray Tourism (780/791-4336 or 800/565-3947). Tours of the Syncrude site depart at 9 a.m. every Saturday in June, Wednesday–Saturday July–August, and Friday–Saturday in September. The Suncor tour departs at 1 p.m. Sunday–Monday in June, Sunday–Tuesday July–August. Regardless of which tour you choose, the itinerary is similar. Departing from the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, the tours involve a bus ride north with stops at Wood Bison Trail Gateway and the Giants of Mining display, and then a tour of either the Syncrude or Suncor sites, with time set aside to get out of the bus at a lookout point. The round-trip takes around four hours. Tour cost is adult $35, senior and youth $30, which includes entry to the Discovery Centre and to Heritage Park, a historic village. Children under 12 are not permitted, and a security check is made before departure (have a photo ID ready). To join a tour, you must make advance reservations. (The tourism office has put together some accommodation/tour packages that are an excellent deal—around $180 per person for two nights’ accommodation and a tour.)

Wood Bison Trail

Driving north from the city on Highway 63 gives you a chance to view the mining operations (albeit at a distance), plus make a few interesting stops. Up to 40,000 vehicles a day traverse this route, including 400 buses filled with workers, so be prepared for a lot of traffic.

Make your first stop 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of Fort McMurray at the Wood Bison Trail Gateway, where there is an impressive wood bison sculpture made from oil sands. Also on display is a 100-million-year-old cypress tree found fossilized in the oil sands. This pullout is also the starting point for the Matcheetawin Discovery Trails, two interpretive loops over a reclaimed mine now covered in a mixed forest of aspen and spruce. The longer of the two passes a lookout over the Syncrude development. Continuing north three kilometers (1.9 miles), you’ll find a turn to the left that climbs to a viewpoint over a herd of 300 bison. The road then parallels a reclamation pond to the Giants of Mining exhibit, comprising some of the original machinery used in oil-sands development. This is the beginning of the Syncrude spread, and as the road loops around the pond, you begin to get a feel for the scope of the operation. Around 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Fort McMurray, the road forks. To the left is Fort McKay, and to the right Highway 63 crosses the Athabasca River and continues 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to a dock. Here, supplies such as petroleum and building materials are loaded onto barges and transported downstream (north) to remote communities such as Fort Chipewyan.

This is the end of the summer road. Between December and March, a winter road is built over the frozen muskeg and river 225 kilometers (140 miles) to Fort Chipewyan and up the Slave River to Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories.

Heritage Park

A two-hectare (five-acre) village, Heritage Park (1 Tolen Dr., 780/791-7575, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun. mid-June–Aug., adult $8, senior and child $5) is made up of historic buildings linked by a boardwalk and houses artifacts that reflect the importance of fishing, trapping, and transportation to the city. Other displays include boats used on the river, a Northern Alberta Railway passenger car, and an early log mission, while another tells the story of local bush pilots. Gregoire Lake Provincial Park

Southeast of the city 29 kilometers (18 miles) is Gregoire Lake, the only accessible lake in the Fort McMurray area. The 690-hectare (1,700-acre) park on the lake’s west shore is a typical boreal forest of mixed woods and black-spruce bogs. Many species of waterfowl nest on the lake, and mammals such as moose and black bears are relatively common. Some short hiking trails wind through the park, and canoes are rented in the day-use area, which also has a sandy beach and playground.

Read more about the Athabasca Oil Sands in “Alberta’s Athabasca Oil Sands: The Players, Process, and People×

Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Alberta.


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