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Where the Old West still lives: Alberta’s Cowboy Trail

Everyone wanted to see a bear, but I wasn’t so sure. I remembered that scene in Brokeback Mountain when Ennis (played by Heath Ledger) encountered the black bear and got bucked off his horse and had fend off the bear alone. Now that I was in the mountains near the film’s shooting location, riding Maggie, my hopefully-fearless steed, I did not want replicate that scene.

I was near the back of a group out on a trail ride from the Homeplace Ranch, so I kept hearing the people in the front shout, “Ooh, look at that,” before I ever saw what “that” was. The first few “thats” turned out to be a moose, a pair of deer, and then some kind of large hawk. Then it was quiet for a while.

As we were heading back to the ranch, Maggie suddenly stepped out of line and bounded up to an overlook above a marsh and stretched her head to the left. There it was: a big black bear rooting around in the bushes, and Maggie wanted to investigate. I pulled in the reigns and she stopped her pursuit, but the bear had already taken off like a bullet into the woods.

Thank goodness this Wild West wasn’t quite like it is in the movies. But, despite the lack of menacing bears and gun slingers, I still felt as though I’d been transported into the “West” I’d imagined as child.

If you really want experience to the West of the American imagination—wide open spaces that stretch for hundreds of miles without a hint development aside from a few weather-beaten barns and fences—don’t go to Colorado, Wyoming, or even Montana.

I’ve been to all those places. I’ve visited the National Parks, climbed mountains, stayed at guest ranches, and even lived (briefly) in that part of the country. I thought I’d had my “western” travel experience, but I didn’t realize how much I’d been missing until I crossed the border into Alberta: I found a West that is grander and wilder than America’s, and a lot less self-conscious about trying to be authentically Western.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed. Hollywood has been trekking to this part of Canada for decades to shoot movies and TV shows—The Lonesome Dove TV series, Legends of the Fall, and Brokeback Mountain, just to name a few—that are supposed to take place in the American West. Luckily, mass tourism hasn’t quite caught on yet, so you can still have a real cowboy (or cowgirl) experience without paying Jackson Hole prices or puting up with Yellowstone-sized crowds and traffic jams.

On a road trip through the region earlier this year, I explored the area in and around the southern half of the Cowboy Trail. This 200-mile stretch of highway runs parallel to the Rockies between two protected areas: Kananaskis Country near Calgary in the north and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, which straddles the U.S.-Canada border. Along the way, I took in the vistas, discovered some of the region’s top historic and natural attractions, pretended to be a cowgirl at two of the homiest guest ranches I’ve ever stayed at, and ate a whole lot of beef. You can too.

Prices noted in this feature are in Canadian Dollars unless otherwise noted

NEXT >> Mountain playgrounds

Mountain playgrounds

After escaping the suburban sprawl of Calgary where I started my trip, I drove west (on Trans-Canada Highway 1) to Kananaskis Country, a conglomeration of provincial parks and other protected areas that borders Banff National Park, the home of Lake Louise and other famous icons of the Canadian Rockies.

Although it has similar topography to its popular big sister Banff, Kananaskis draws mostly local Albertans, and the place was nearly devoid of people in mid-June when I visited. I can’t recall seeing any RVs or tacky tourist shops by the side of the road while driving through the parks, but I did see a lumbering cinnamon-colored bear, some elk, and a group of big horn sheep who stubbornly refused to acknowledge my presence, even when I approached them to take a picture.

My stay in Kananaskis was short, but I did fit in a trail ride and a short hike. If you have more time, you can also take advantage of camping, rafting, and fishing, plus skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding in the winter.

The road south (Highway 40 and then Highway 22 via Route 541) follows a seemingly endless line of glacier-scraped mountains that soar up from the green prairie grasses. This part of the Rockies has small or no foothills separating the big mountains from the plains, and the contrast is breathtaking. One evening, as I drove towards the mountains, I noticed the star-filled sky go black. I thought the weather had turned, but as I looked more carefully, I realized that the blackness was a wall of mountains that abruptly jutted up thousands of feet from the prairie floor, covering the sky as far as I could see out the window.

The southernmost point of the road (now called Highway 6) took me to Waterton Lakes National Park, the Canadian half of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the first-ever duo-nation park of its kind. Like Kananaskis, Waterton is smaller and lesser known than its American counterpart, Glacier National Park, but that means visitors here get more of the beauty to themselves.

After entering the park ($7 per adult), I stopped to get my bearings at the Swiss-chalet style Prince of Wales hotel which, perched on a promontory overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, has one of the best views on the planet. The quality of the hotel does not match its view, but it’s a nice place to stop for a drink and have a gander. You’ll get better value for your money by staying in one of the hotels in nearby Waterton Village. I stayed in a decent little motel, the Aspen Village Inn, which has rates from $86 USD per night.

I spent my time in Waterton hiking the trails near the village, but the park has 120 miles of trails that penetrate much deeper into the wilderness, and some trails link up with others across the border in Glacier. There’s also a lot of opportunities for boating on the park’s lakes.

NEXT >> Horsin’ around

Horsin’ around

The space in between Kananaskis and Waterton is where you’ll find most of the ranchland. Without a doubt, the best vantage point for taking in the countryside is from the back of horse. Rambling on horseback through the prairie, up and down slopes, and across mountain streams, you get to experience the land as the native people and early settlers did, and as many ranchers still do today. You’ve got to get up in the saddle on this trip—or at least visit a working ranch so you can see real cowboys and ranchers at work. Luckily, there’s no shortage of guest ranches and horse riding outfitters along the Cowboy Trail.

I saw some of the most stunning mountain scenery of the trip while on a trail ride at the Boundary Ranch (off Highway 40), near Kananaskis Village, which has an extensive network of trails that wind through the shadows of the snow-capped Kananaskis Mountains. Trail rides start at $32 for one hour.

However, the best part of my Cowboy Trail trip was the three days I spent at Homeplace Ranch, a convivial 14-guest former homestead set in the foothills of the Rockies, just 25 miles southwest of Calgary (off Highway 22).The ranch is run by Mac MaKenny, a soft-spoken, sharp-witted cowboy who descended from Albertan homesteaders and was born into the ranching life. Unlike my experience at the bigger, more upscale guest ranches I’d stayed at in the past, Mac, his family, and the staff made me feel more like a member of the family than a guest, whether I was chatting with the staff and other guests in the evenings over tea or hanging out on the porch listening to Mac explain his philosophy of horsemanship.

The riding was great too. After a going through a thoughtful orientation with Mac, guests depart with Mac or another guide on half- or full-day rides with other riders of similar experience levels. You can arrange for lessons too. Four-day packages start at $714 USD per person, which covers three nights’ lodging, meals and snacks, riding, and ranch activities.

While exploring Pincher Creek, a ranching community just north of Waterton, I stayed at The Bloomin’ Inn Guest Ranch, a B&B-style lodging located on the family farm of Colleen and Francis Cyr, whose family has worked the land since the early 1900s. Although the ranch doesn’t offer trail rides, you can pitch in with chores around the farm. I volunteered to wake up at the crack of dawn to collect chicken eggs and milk the cow with Francis (a highly unusual experience for a city slicker like myself and highly amusing for a farmer like Fran to watch), and then had a breakfast made by Colleen with the fresh eggs and milk. Double-occupancy rates start at $95 per night.

You can find similar guest ranches offering riding and farm experiences by visiting Alberta Country Vacations Association website.

NEXT >> Time capsules of the Old West

Time capsules of the Old West

While you may be tempted to pass on the tourist attractions in favor of only roughing it on the trail, don’t. The Cowboy Trail has several museums and historic sites that give fascinating insights into the area’s past. Before heading out on the road, a good place to get orientated is the Glenbow Museum ($12 per adult) in downtown Calgary. The museum has permanent exhibitions about the history and traditions of the Blackfeet, the native people who live on the northwestern plains of Alberta and Montana. There’s also a series of Southern Alberta History galleries that tell story of Alberta’s settlers. (Editor’s note: This exhibit is currently under renovation and scheduled to reopen in February 2007).

Driving down Route 22, stop at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site ($7 per adult) near Longview. Formerly one of the biggest corporate ranches in Alberta, Bar U Ranch is now a living history museum and that still functions partially as a working ranch. Here you can see craftsmen press ornate designs into leather to be used for making saddles, harnesses, and chaps; blacksmiths hammering out horse shoes; and cowboys driving massive draft horses from their wagons. I learned to use a lasso, and even managed to rope a “calf” on my first try—although it was made of plastic and hay bales, so it didn’t move much.

Going further south, anyone interested learning more about the native culture ought to veer east on the Crowsnest Highway at Pincher Creek and drive to Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site marks the location of one of the biggest and best preserved buffalo jumps—a steep cliff over which the native people drove herds of buffalo as a means of hunting. The cliff and archeological remains at this jump are impressive, and the onsite interpretive center does a good job of explaining the history of the jump and gives a lot of insight to the Blackfeet culture.

From Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump you can drive down Highway 2 to Cardston, an unassuming Mormon town just north of Waterton National Park (connect to Waterton by following Highway 5) that is the site of the Remington Carriage Museum ($8 per adult). The museum houses more than 250 historic carriages, buggies, wagons, and sleighs—including wagons used in Hollywood movies shot nearby—making it the largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles in North America.

NEXT >> Where’s the beef?

Where’s the beef?

This is cow country—there are 5.5 million beef cattle in Alberta and only 3 million people—and the beef here is damn good. In fact, I went on a steady filet mignon-buffalo steak diet here. You can get good beef at many restaurants throughout the province, from the swanky city spots to small-town burger joints.

One of the best steakhouse in town is the Vintage Chophouse, where I had an unbelievably decadent five-course wine pairing. The meal included lamb Carpaccio, boar-bacon wrapped prawns, blue cheese and tomato salad, AAA Alberta tenderloin, and lobster mashed potatoes. Dessert was a good old fashioned root beer float with a bit of tequila to spice it up. Entrees range from $16 for the butternut squash ravioli to $60 for a 16-oz. filet mignon.

For a more affordable option and one with a lot of cowboy flare, try Buzzards where you can get a free-range buffalo or lamb burger for $12, a rib eye beef steak for $24, and, if you’re really brave, prairie oysters (these are definitely not the kind that come in shell) for $9.

NEXT >> Additional trip planning resources

Additional trip planning resources

Start your trip planning by visiting the official Cowboy Trail and Travel Alberta websites, where you’ll find detailed maps and information on the area’s attractions, accommodations, ranch and farm stays, dinning, and activities.

Calgary, Alberta’s biggest city, is the logical starting point for exploring the Cowboy Trail, and is easy to fly to from most major U.S. airports. To find the lowest prices for your route, you can compare airfares from multiple sources at, a sister site of

The city itself is worth visiting , especially if you come in July when the city hosts the Calgary Stampede. The self-billed “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” features the most popular rodeo in Canada, chuck wagon races, country and western performers, and dozens of other western-themed events and exhibits.

From Calgary, the easiest way to tour the sites is by car. Most of the major U.S. rental car companies have locations at the Calgary Airport. Just be sure to compare car rental rates before booking.

Most summer visitors come to this part of Alberta in the warm, sunny months of July and August. Prices and crowding subsequently increase, and you must book months in advance and expect to pay even more if you’re staying in or around Calgary during the Stampede. The weather is also warm in June and September, so you’ll pay less and have many of the sights to yourself like I did. The locals told me that June is known for rainy spells, but when I visited it was mostly clear.

Heading home

Back in my hotel in Calgary I packed for the trip home, rinsing the mud off my cowboy boots and dusting Maggie’s dark chestnut hairs off my jeans. I turned on my laptop to clear out my work and personal email accounts—one less headache on Monday morning. As I started going through the emails, a wave of anxiety washed over me about all the tasks I had to complete once home. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how relaxed I had been on the road, far from my cell phone, Wi-Fi, and all the other “innovations” of the 21st century.

I quickly logged out of my accounts and disabled the internet connection—it wasn’t time to go back to the “real world” yet. Instead, I popped in the DVD copy of Brokeback Mountain I had brought along to see how much of scenery I recognized. After watching for while, I closed my eyes and went back to mountains with Maggie. Only this time I didn’t worry about bears, but prayed that the alarm telling me it was time to go to the airport would keep silent until we made it back to the ranch.

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