Visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump – A Must Visit in Canada

Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission. Read the full disclosure policy here.

Visit The World Heritage Site – Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a first nation site about 175 km's south of Calgary just north of Fort Macleod. HSIBJ is a significant site for the indigenous people of the area and is one of the best cultural sites I've visited in years.

If you are looking for an indigenous site to visit in Canada, this should be the one at the top of your list.

Where is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump?

HSIBJ is 185km from Calgary, so a few hours drive, but 100% worth it. The drive is mostly just through plains and grasslands however I did it mid April and the weather, while cool, was nice, the skies clear and I got to plug in my Spotify and sing as loud as I wanted.

I guess I kind of killed two birds so to speak. I got to see Head-Smashed-In but I also got to drive and play my own music without fear of disturbing others. Good deal really.

While it is a big day you can easily visit the site on a day trip from Calgary. There are other locations closer if you wanted to stay the night and head back the next day. Fort Macleod is very close and has quite a few accommodation options along Crowsnest Highway. There are also multiple diners and cafes along the same street.

Claresholm is another option and that is back in the direction of Calgary which might be a better option. Claresholm also has a few affordable accommodation options.

How did Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump get its name?

Like me I'm sure your first instinct is that the name comes from the buffalo being crushed at the bottom of the cliff, but it doesn't.

Apparently at one point, the tribe was driving buffalo over the cliff and a young brave wanted to see it up close. He wedged himself in under a ledge to see the buffalo falling but misjudged and was crushed in the process. When they found him they named it Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump as sadly his skull was crushed from the falling buffalo carcasses.

Looking out over the cliffs of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
Looking out over the cliffs of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

How the Blackfoot ran the buffalo hunt

There were so many conditions that had to be right for the jump to work. Wind, temperature, where they were in the season and of course training the younger people of the tribe to contribute. Too early and they often didn't get enough meat and fat off the animals, too late and they risked the buffalo moving on and not getting any.

The Blackfoot would situate branches stuck into rock piles funneled in the direction of the cliff. These branches would wave in the wind and rustle spooking the buffalo. Hidden under grasses and skins, many warriors would line the drive lanes, just waiting for the run to start.

A few of the best trackers would slowly creep up on the herd dressed in wolf skins. They weren't trying to scare the beasts, they would keep their actions slow and deliberate until the buffalo's were well and truly in the drive lanes without realizing it. They would play on the buffalo's instinct to protect their young knowing that once the first of the herd started to run – the rest would follow.

Once the run started the hidden warriors would jump up and add to the drama that kept the buffalo in the lane.

Meat was cut and dried and then mixed with the fat and juniper berries (which helped to preserve it) into what looks like pulled beef. It was ground down into almost a powder and then stored for the winter. Skins & fur made clothes and equipment. Bones made tools and medicinal remedies.

There was pretty much nothing they left behind. No recycling required!

The only thing they did tend to leave was the skulls. No-one could really tell me why but Little Leaf did say he thought it was mostly a time constraint and also to honor the animals. The skulls didn't have long enough bones to be really useful and of course once they had hundreds of dead animals they had limited time to slaughter and store the meat so something had to give. That makes sense too.

It was an amazing achievement and especially when you know that they used every single part that they could of the beasts. Nothing was left to waste.

The cliffs from the underside of Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump
The cliffs from underneath the jump site.

Mr Little Leaf – My Own Personal Guide

You know that sometimes asking questions is well received and other times its not? Of course I want to understand everything so I'm always asking something.

Today – my questions got me directed to Mr Little Leaf, a first nation elder (sorry using the Australian term there as not sure what the Canadian first nation term is) who is of course local to the area and a Blackfoot.

It was just after opening and he was “free as a bird” as he put it. He very kindly walked me through the entire facility for hours, telling me stories not just about the jump but his own family and the history of the local Blackfoot.

What a score!

While the facility itself is amazing, having my very own guide and hearing first hand so many amazing stories made my experience truly spectacular.

A portrait of an elder inside the exhibition.
A portrait of an elder inside the exhibition.

How to get the most from HSIBJ

I took Mr Little Leaf's advice and went out to the overlook first. It's a vast sea of plains and while impressive, once you head back inside the centre and watch the video, it becomes more significant.

Walk your way through the centre and when you are done there, be sure to go outside and do the lower trails after you leave the building.

Once you have heard the stories its easy to stand at the bottom of the cliffs and hear the tribe celebrating and the thunder of the hooves. I kid you not – you can feel it. It is almost impossible not to image what it must have been like on those days.

It is estimated in the day that 60-70 million buffalo grazed this area. I couldn't seem to get an accurate square mile estimation, but Little Leaf assured me that the land easily supported that number.

This particular jump was last used around 1820 some time. The introduction of guns meant that the Blackfoot didn't have to work as hard to kill the beasts and the practice became obsolete.

It is one of the best things I've done and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone. Keep your mind open, look at all of the exhibits as they all tell stories and put yourself back into that time, in the fall and imagine the excitement that must have been around in the build up to the jump.

The grasslands under the buffalo jump
The grasslands under the buffalo jump

How to Find Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Maps below show directions from Calgary and Great Falls however you can find Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump on google maps and get directions from there.

Directions from Great Falls

Directions from Calgary

Its easy to get from Calgary to Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. You need to get yourself on the AB-2 heading south and keep driving until the turn off on the AB-785. You shouldn't be able to get too lost.

The best way is to drive and its a nice drive really. You can get a hire car from Calgary for the day and I would recommend picking your car up the evening before so you can get a clean start in the morning.

The entrance is impossible to miss.
The entrance is impossible to miss.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Opening Hours

Summer Hours:

Monday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm.

Winter Hours:

Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Easter Sunday.

NB: Severe weather may cause closure

Entry Fees for HSIBJ

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump tickets are purchased on site and as at October 2023 the following prices are correct.

Adult (18-64) – $15
Senior (65+) – $13
Youth (7-17 ) – $10

Children under 6 are FREE as are Canadian military veterans.

Family (2 Adults + Youths. Maximum of 8 people.) – $40
Child (0-6) – Free

A display inside the buffalo jump visitors centre
A display inside the buffalo jump visitors centre

Jenny Marsden - Charge The Globe
About the author

Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.

Leave a comment