If you think cowboys are quaint relics of the past, just visit Alberta. Here, along the picture-perfect Cowboy Trail, cowpokes in well-worn boots and silver belt buckles tip their 10-gallon hats and greet strangers with an easy smile. Laid-back towns and sprawling ranches give way to spectacular vistas, rolling prairies and icy peaks. At the Bar U Ranch, once Canada’s largest, upwards of 10 million cattle and 9,000 Percheron draft horses grazed the land. Today it’s a national historic site where steer, steeds, chickens and guides in period dress give us a glimpse of rugged life on the range.
The 721-km Cowboy Trail officially starts at Mayerthorpe and ends at Waterton Lakes. You can drive it in eight or nine hours, though you’ll want at least four days to really explore, perhaps extending a further 45 km to Cardston. From horseback, a pickup or SUV, a trip along the north-south trail is a fun, relaxed way to learn about Alberta’s Wild West history and rub elbows with modern-day cowboys. Here are some highlights:
- Just 30 km west of Calgary where two rivers meet, Bragg Creek is a favourite Hollywood movie producer haunt for its authentic frontier vibe. It’s a funky village of artisans, shops, cowboy cuisine and dinner theatre. The town takes its name from Albert Bragg, a 17-year-old runaway from Nova Scotia. Bragg lived on the nearby Saddle & Sirloin Ranch, also North America’s first youth hostel, which opened in 1933. www.braggcreekchamber.ca
- Rocky Mountain House is the gateway to the mountains, a bustling hub for canoeing, trail riding and whitewater rafting. The National Historic Site, a former trading centre with the Kootenay and Blackfoot natives, tells the story of hearty voyageurs and early fur-trading posts that the Hudson’s Bay Company and rival North West Co. built between 1799 and 1868. Canada’s greatest geographer, David Thompson, used the centre as his exploration base while he surveyed, mapped and established trading posts. www.rockymtnhouse.com
- Medicine River Wildlife Centre nurtures and rehabilitates injured and orphaned grizzlies, humming birds and the like before releasing them back in to the wild. Get a close-up view from the reception area, education wing and outdoor observation tower. www.medicineriverwildlifecentre.ca
- In Cardston, the Remington Carriage Centre shows off its pristine collection of horse-drawn carriages, buggies and wagons, including a carriage once used by Alfred G. Vanderbilt to travel incognito to New York City. www.remingtoncarriagemuseum.com
- Retaining dress, customs and the simpler lifestyle of its 16th-century ancestors, the Pincher Creek Hutterite Colony welcomes folks year-round at its extensive mixed farming operation. Families live communally on this self-contained farm. www.pincher-creek.com
- No Cowboy Trail trip is complete without a stop at the story-book grandeur of Waterton Lakes National Park with its grand, gabled-roof, chalet-style Prince of Wales Hotel perched high on a bluff. Enjoy afternoon tea among the glaciers. www.watertoninfo.ab.ca
The CTC produced a version of this story for its GoMedia website.