The landscape around Fort McMurray is chillingly primal; nestled in the Athabasca River valley, thick pine forest surrounds most of the town. There is very little road access beyond Hwy. 63, which runs north-south through the middle of town.
To the south is thick boreal forest -- a sight in and of itself, though there's next to nothing but wilderness. You'll find Engstrom Lake Provincial Recreation Area (tel. 780/743-7437), with campsites (at C$20 a night) and fire pits near the water, 80km (50 miles) south and east along Rte. 881; closer, the Hangingstone River Provincial Recreation Area (tel. 780/743-7440) has C$15 campsites, 35km (22 miles) south on Hwy. 63.
The main attraction -- if you want to call it that -- is north of town. If the wind's blowing the wrong way, you can smell it well before you see it -- a thick, sulfuric stench hanging in the air. As you cross the Athabasca River on the somewhat grand Athabasca Bridge, you'll pass an exit for Fort McMurray's lone subdivision. Then, you're on the road to the second-largest oil deposits on earth.
Don't worry. You can't possibly miss it. Suddenly, the forest peels back and you're in Syncrude territory, which, along with Suncor, was the first company on the oil sands way back in the '60s. You'll see a massive crane -- we're talking 5 or 6 stories high, with a bucket the size of a house -- just outside the security fences of the Syncrude site. This is both a stab at public education and some bald-faced hubris; the crane sits next to a tiny parking lot, with a cursory description of its function, for the curious. Whatever the intent, it is an astonishing piece of machinery -- made all the more so by the fact that, from where it sits, you can see dozens of the working models spread out across the dull gray sprawl of sand that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Of course, to truly appreciate the scope of what you're seeing, you need to see it from the air. McMurray Aviation (tel. 780/791-2182; www.mcmurrayaviation.com) can arrange a one-hour aerial tour of the city and the plants for C$140 per person (minimum 4 people).
Across Hwy. 63 (and if you intend to cross, be careful, as the two-lane road here is as busy as any urban freeway at rush hour, loaded with workers changing shifts at the various mines that run 24 hours a day) is another public gesture by Syncrude -- a small herd of bison, grazing on reclaimed pasture. The land is expended oil sands mines that have been filled back in and replanted (oil companies call them "reclaimed" wetlands; however, not a single acre -- and there are hundreds -- has been certified as such by the provincial government).
Right next to the bison, "poppers" -- noisy flares that fire at regular intervals to keep birds from landing on the toxic tailings from the refining process -- flame into the air from the surface of the Syncrude tailings pond. The air is typically heavy with sulfuric smell. It's fair to say that these are likely not the happiest bison on earth.
Traveling past Syncrude will take you through the heart of the oil sands developments; Hwy. 63 slices right through the middle of them, so you're surrounded as you go by. The passage takes almost half an hour, so huge are the mines themselves; even the giant equipment is dwarfed by their mass.
Once you're through, you can turn off to Fort McKay, a nearby First Nations settlement set right in the heart of all the development; with only 150 people, industry has sprung up all around them. The community is trying to broker a deal with one of the companies to develop the ground beneath their feet -- they're considering moving the community itself, for obvious reasons.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.