The Hat, as locals like to call it, lies 291km (180 miles) southeast of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway, and sits at the center of Alberta's vast natural-gas fields (Rudyard Kipling famously described it as the city with "all hell for a basement.") And in case you're wondering where the name came from (who wouldn't?), it's drawn from the Native Canadian word Saamis, which means "Medicine Man's Hat."
A lot of modern industry has moved to Medicine Hat to be near the gas, making this an unlikely factory town surrounded by grain fields. There's not much to recommend for the tourist here: the Hat is largely a center of the gas industry, and a whistle-stop for truckers making the long trek across the prairies. Consequently, the Trans-Canada is lined with the requisite fast-food joints and motels you'd expect.
Though your time in the province is probably best spent elsewhere, Medicine Hat does have some charms. In the early 1900s, the primary industry was fashioning brick and china from the local clay deposits. Consequently, the town's old downtown is a showcase of handsome frontier-era brick buildings. It's worth an hour to explore the historic city center, flanked by the South Saskatchewan River. Together, the buildings, many of them restored, form a quaint picture of frontier life on the prairie.
The Hat is also home to the Medicine Hat Clay Industries National Historic District (713 Medalta Ave. SE, T0J 1M1; tel. 403/529-1070; www.medalta.org). Two natural features, abundant prairie clay and the natural gas to fire the ovens, coalesced in the early part of the 20th century to make Medicine Hat the ceramics capital of Canada. As of 2008, a local group was pushing forward with a plan to restore a complex of two sites and several buildings into a full-blown historical interpretive center.
The Hat, however, remains a place that most people pass through, not go to. But those hot summer drives across an unforgiving prairie can leave one needing a break -- especially the little ones -- and Medicine Hat can offer that, too. The Riverside Waterslide and Amusement Park (1401 Powerhouse Rd. SW, T0J 2T5; tel. 403/529-6218) can be a much-needed cool-off from a hot car. A whirlpool, river ride, go carts, and mini-putt are all on offer as well. Open daily all summer, 10am to 8pm.
All that aside, as you drive through notice the deep river valley the Hat sits in -- a lovely feature carved out of the bald, flat prairie. Visitor information can be found at the Tourism Medicine Hat office (8 Gehring Rd. SW; tel. 403/527-6422; www.tourismmedicinehat.com).
About 81km (50 miles) south of Medicine Hat lies Cypress Hills Provincial Park, 316 sq. km (122 sq. miles) of highlands -- outliers of the Rockies -- that rise 450m (1,500 ft.) above the flat prairie grasslands. In this preserve live many species of plants and animals, including elk and moose, usually found farther west in more mountainous regions.
Medicine Hat offers little to the gastronome. There is the requisite Earl's (3215 Dunmore Rd. SE; tel. 403/528-3275), always a reliable option, and a selection of pubs and roadhouses. DeVine (579 3rd St. SE; tel. 403/580-5510) is a nice spot for contemporary fare in the historic downtown.