‘The Last of Us’: All the Alberta locations that got a dramatic makeover

‘The Last of Us’: All the Alberta locations that got a dramatic makeover

The first season of HBO’s The Last of Us reached its heart-wrenching conclusion, leaving viewers in awe of the show’s acting, storyline and special effects.

And while Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s characters, Joel and Ellie, steal the spotlight in each episode while trying to evade deadly fungus-ridden creatures, cannibals and rogue gangs, there’s been a lot of attention given to the stunning Alberta backdrops, which fill in as post-apocalyptic U.S. cities and states.

The show was shot exclusively in Alberta starting in 2021 and used an astonishing 180 locations around the province, from Edmonton all the way down to Waterton Lakes National Park.

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The show is a thrill ride on its own — the storyline closely follows the video game on which it was based — but for Albertans it’s been extra exciting to spot some of the province’s most recognizable streetscapes, buildings, mountains and parks. Sure, there’s been plenty of CGI and special effects to mask many of the Alberta landmarks, but in many instances the locations are very clear.

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Episode by episode, here are some of the Alberta locations and landmarks that stood in for Boston, Kansas City, Austin, Texas, Jackson, Wyo., and more.

** NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead for the entire first season of The Last of Us. **

Episode 1: When You’re Lost in the Darkness

The series premiere of The Last of Us sets the stage for a post-apocalyptic adventure, introducing viewers to characters Joel (Pascal) and Tess (Anna Torv), who are tasked with the dangerous mission of maneuvering teenage Ellie (Ramsey) across a ravaged U.S. in the hopes of finding a cure for the fungus outbreak that has the ability to take hold in humans, turning them into creatures intent on infecting others.

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When You’re Lost in the Darkness uses Calgary’s downtown as a stand-in for Boston, and a specially designed set situated in the industrial area behind the Calgary Stampede grounds serves at the show’s Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ.)

Viewers also catch glimpses of Calgary’s historic Inglewood neighbourhood, interior shots of a couple Calgary high schools, as well as shots of the Bow River as it runs through the city’s Beaver Dam Flats.

Meanwhile, the historic Southern Alberta town of Fort McLeod doubles as downtown Austin, Texas, in the early days of the outbreak.

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Episode 2: Infected

The cold-open for the show’s second episode sets a chilling scene for just how bad this outbreak is going to be. In it, viewers see professor Ibu Ratna (Christine Hakim) suggest just one word on how Jakarta should respond to the outbreak of the cordyceps fungus in humans: “Bomb.”

The scene was filmed in a staff lounge in the Senator Burns building at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). Eagle-eyed students of the polytechnic will also notice the building’s main floor lounge in an ensuing scene, and that the basement of the building, with its distinct floor-to-ceiling blue tiles, serves as part of a Jakarta hospital.

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As the show flashes forward to modern day, there’s plenty of other familiar landmarks to be spotted. Joel, Tess and Ellie are spotted hiking over the 4th Avenue flyover that leads into downtown Calgary, and enter a historic building in the city’s core that serves as the Boston Museum.

A view of Calgary’s Fourth Avenue flyover as it appeared in “The Last of Us.”

Screengrab / HBO

Perhaps no landmark in the episode is as recognizable as Alberta’s Legislature Building. It serves as a very acceptable stand-in for the Massachusetts State House and one of the show’s most unforgettable scenes.

The Alberta Legislature Building is seen in this still from "The Last of Us."

The Alberta Legislature Building is seen in this still from “The Last of Us.”

Screengrab / HBO

Episode 3: Long, Long Time

One of the more subdued episodes of the first season, Long, Long Time gives viewers an intimate look into a tender and heartbreaking love story that blossoms in the years following the cordyceps outbreak.

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The episode largely takes place around the home of Bill (Nick Offerman), a solitary survivalist who’s doing just fine on his own, until another person stumbles into a trap on his compound. The pair bond over a love of music, wine and good food and grow old together as the episode progresses.

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Bill’s bucolic hamlet was shot in the High River neighbourhood of Beachwood — an area not immune to its own real-life disaster. The neighbourhood was abandoned in 2013 when the Highwood River breached its banks during the province’s devastating flood event.

The Alberta government bought out the homeowners after the floods and returned the area back to its natural state of floodway.

A flooded neighborhood in High River, Alta., Saturday, June 29, 2013.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

During the episode viewers see Bill, who had been hiding while his neighbours were trucked away by officials, visit the real-life Mezzapa Gas Plant east of High River to turn the utility back on.

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He then travels to a Home Depot to stock up on supplies, which was actually shot inside a Lowes Home Improvement location in Calgary. Strangely, a real Home Depot was located just a few blocks away from the Lowes store where the scene was shot; no word on why the show chose the Lowes.

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Episode 4: Please Hold My Hand

The opening scenes of the show’s fourth episode feature lots of scenic shots near Strathmore, including a scene where, thanks to CGI, a train can be seen dangling from a broken High Level Bridge near Lethbridge.

The High Level Bridge near Lethbridge got a bit of CGI treatment in “The Last of Us.”

Screengrab / HBO

Ellie and Joel are on their way to Kansas City, but as they approach the city limits they’re stopped by a blocked freeway tunnel, which was designed around Calgary’s Airport Tunnel in the city’s northeast.

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Calgary's Airport Tunnel, sans blockade.

Calgary’s Airport Tunnel, sans blockade.

@yyctransportation / Twitter

The action picks up as they manoeuvre around the tunnel and are funnelled into Kansas City, with several alleys in Calgary’s downtown core serving as a backdrop for a particularly vicious and vendetta-fuelled gang of freedom fighters.

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As our protagonists fight to evade both menacing humans and the infected, their bond grows deeper. They’re seen passing by Calgary’s Globe Cinema, whose sign was kept in the show, as they head to an office tower to hide out for a while.

The Globe Cinema in downtown Calgary, as it appears in “The Last of Us.”

Screengrab / HBO

Episode 5: Endure and Survive

In the fifth episode, viewers meet another pair of supporting characters — two brothers, Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), who are also attempting to make their way out of Kansas City. The brothers pitch an escape route to Joel and Ellie in exchange for protection.

Much of the episode takes place in underground tunnels, which were provided by real-life tunnels in Calgary’s brewery district.

The Calgary Courts Centre, the largest court building in Canada, also makes an appearance, playing a U.S. Post Office building as well as a backdrop for a resistance group’s uprising against federal officials.

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The episode culminates in a massive battle, and the sets were built from scratch outside the Calgary Film Centre. The massive film studio is equipped with everything needed to make on-screen magic, making it the perfect place to watch the show’s healthy and infected battle it out.

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The final, and most heartbreaking, shot was filmed at the Ranchland Inn in Nanton, located about 45 minutes south of Calgary.

Episode 6: Kin

In the sixth episode, viewers catch up with Joel and Ellie three months into their journey and learn they’ve made it safely to Wyoming. But despite being safe, it’s the dead of winter and they’re hopelessly lost.

They come across a pair of two odd homesteaders who point them in the direction they need to go, but are warned not to cross the “River of Death.”

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The bridge that crosses said river is the picturesque Canmore Engine Bridge, a familiar sight to anyone who’s visited the mountain town, which is located about an hour from Calgary at the mouth of the Canadian Rockies.

An old railway bridge used as a walking and cycling path in Canmore, Alta., Saturday, May 29, 2021.

Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press

Joel’s on a mission to find his brother, Tommy, and the search leads them to the walled-in city of Jackson, Wyo., played by a shabby-looking Main Street in Canmore.

Main Street in Canmore is transformed into Jackson for “The Last of Us.”

Screegrab / HBO

While in Jackson, Joel and Tommy reunite and catch up over a drink at an Old West-style bar which was recreated, somewhat ironically, at the Wainwright Hotel at Calgary’s Heritage Park, which is its own old-timey replica town.

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Viewers also see Ellie and Joel share a meal at the Willow Lane Barn in Olds, which usually serves as a special events venue, popular for weddings and fundraisers.

Willow Lane Barn in Olds, Alta. was transformed into a post-apocalyptic bar.

Liane Hentscher / HBO

As their journey continues, Joel and Ellie make their way to a compound that’s new to them, but a familiar shooting location for the show. This time, SAIT doubles as the fictional University of Eastern Colorado, with the stately sandstone Heritage Hall dressed down with ominous-looking debris.

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Episode 7: Left Behind

Left Behind opens with both Ellie and Joel in a dire situation and a flashback brings us back to the Boston QZ and a time earlier in Ellie’s life.

But it’s a mall in northwest Calgary that steals the spotlight in Episode 7. Calgary’s Northland Village Mall has been closed since December 2021 as it undergoes a redevelopment into an open-air shopping centre, giving set designers a clean slate to recreate a dilapidated mall that would not have been used since the onset of the outbreak in the early 2000s.

The gutted Northland Village Mall briefly saw the return of its original carousel for the production of “Left Behind.”

The gutted Northland Village Mall briefly saw the return of its original carousel for the production of “Left Behind.”.

Courtesy / Warner Bros.

The designers had to rebuild much of the gutted mall, including all the storefronts. They also brought back a retired merry-go-round from another mall, which had been moved to Calgary’s horse jumping tournament facility, Spruce Meadows.

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Episode 8: When We Are in Need

In the penultimate episode, viewers are taken about as far south as one can go in Alberta, to the gorgeous backdrop of Waterton Lakes National Park. However, what happens in the park, which serves as the town of Silver Lake, Colo., is downright creepy.

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The episode was filmed in the winter, when most of Waterton is boarded up for the season, making it the perfect setting for the disturbing and twisted events that go down.

Episode 9: Look for the Light

In the final episode of the season, without giving away too much, Ellie and Joel arrive in Salt Lake City and soon after arriving, Ellie finds herself regaining consciousness in an abandoned hospital, which was filmed at the Queen Elizabeth II Ambulatory Care Centre in Grande Prairie.

The final battle of the season ensues, and as Ellie and Joel escape and begin making their way back to Wyoming, their car breaks down, overlooking Barrier Lake in Kananaskis.

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There’s also an episode-stealing scene where Ellie has a joyful encounter with an animal she’s never seen before. The logistics of the shoot took place on-site at the Calgary Zoo, with the help of plenty of special effects, and feature one of the zoo’s most beloved (and tallest) animals.

There is definitely no shortage of places to visit in Alberta if you’re a TLOU fan.

Season 1 of The Last of Us is streaming in its entirety on Crave.