I first started chatting with Travel Alberta about putting together a trip at the beginning of the year. I was captivated by photos I had seen of the province’s famous Badlands and knew that I just had to see them in person. So when they asked me if I wanted to come for a visit, I couldn’t say no. Add to that the promise of a great road trip, the likes of which I have been itching to do, and it all sounded like the perfect trip. Now that I’m back I’ll be sharing in great detail what I saw and did and what makes Southern Alberta tick, at least from my point of view. But before I start editing photos in earnest and over-analyzing my thoughts, I wanted to share my very first, unedited opinions about a Western style road trip through Southern Alberta.
Like any trip, it’s hard to really know what to expect until you get there. Sure, you can research, look at pretty photos, read guides and even ask other people, but at the end of the day it’s always a bit of a crap shoot until you show up and see for yourself what the new destination is all about. That’s where I found myself as I barreled out of Calgary, my car pointed south along Alberta’s famous Cowboy Trail.
If you’re a regular reader you’ll probably know that while I love being outdoors and seeing new landscapes, I’m at heart a luxury guy. So while I do indeed enjoy seeing those amazing vistas, I equally love retreating to the confines of a comfortable hotel room. It’s just how I travel. Usually. My normal travel habits were put to the test when my desire for certain experiences meant that my lodging options were limited. I’d be thrown out of my normal routine and into something new and different – a fairly rustic experience to be honest. I wasn’t sure what I would ultimately think.
I was eased into the transition; my first major stop on my trip was at a classic ranch in the middle of Alberta’s foothills region, the stunning part of the province that features the Canadian Rockies as a constant backdrop. It was at the heart of the Cowboy Trail, at a ranch called the Sierra West, run by a couple who have lived and breathed the cowboy way of life since the day they were born.
In an effort to diversify their income streams, a few years ago they built a series of beautiful guest cabins on their rolling ranch and opened them up to the public for anyone who wanted to get away from it all and spend some time experiencing real ranch life. Even they were surprised by the response; the ranch stay experience quickly became insanely popular and today they welcome people to their home from all over the world – including me. Staying in a comfortable abode close to the owner’s main residence, it was as rural as I’d been in a long time. While I live in the burbs, they are the burbs; meaning a huge city is nearby. It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed in the middle of nowhere, with the eerie sounds of wildlife filling the night air. To my immediate surprise I loved it; every second of it. I’ll devote a few posts to the experience, but in a short couple of days I was warmly welcomed into their extended family and taught everything from basic horse care to riding and even rustling up some cattle. (See how I talk now?!)
Standing on the top of a ridge on the last night, watching the sun set and listening to the horses neigh, I was happy. Happier than I think I’ve been in a long time. No, there were no Evian spritzes or turn down service; the hospitality was an intensely personal and honest one. A type that simply has to come from the heart. It was thanks to this lovely couple that I not only learned about Alberta’s cowboy heritage, but I got to live it as well. It was an enriching travel experience and the perfect entree to the rest of the trip.
I’m not going to go into a travelogue here, but I will offer another perspective. Leaving Sierra West, I made the long drive along the vast plains of Alberta to Dinosaur Provincial Park, famous for the massive quantities of dinosaur bones found on site. It was a lovely if not fairly boring drive. The farmland seemed to extend forever and I immediately grasped the true meaning of the term Big Sky Country. It was beautiful in its own way, but monotonous and after a while I began to question whether or not it was worth the drive.
My first introduction to the park proved that yes, it indeed was worth that long drive. The scenic overlook at the entrance to the park literally took my breath away. This was it – this was the varied and iconic landscape that I’d traveled to see and wow, it was even more impressive in person than I could have ever imagined. The park is great, but it is fairly remote. The closest decent-sized town (Brooks) is about 30 minutes away, and many overnight visitors decide to camp. The tourism board in Alberta decided that would be a good idea for me too, but they also knew my reputation and booked me into what is called Comfort Camping.
I was dubious. As I dashed through the rain from my car to the cabin, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s an outfitter’s cabin that has a permanent cabin over it and inside is a proper bed, tables, sofa, refrigerator and indeed just about every convenience you could imagine. But it was outside, with every mosquito in the world and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I know, I know, I’m a wimp. But I was surrounded by enterprising campers and here I was, the guy who brought a pizza for his first camping dinner. I felt like Frasier Crane out there in the bush.
Just like the ranch experience though, the comfort camping was another key moment in my road trip through Alberta. First, it really is the best way to experience Dinosaur Provincial Park. A park that is so amazing, it will be hard for me to describe it with any justice and one whose beauty and remarkable nature touched me on a very personal level. But that’s the point. These places, both the ranch and the park, are easy enough to get to, but to stay there and to really experience what life is like you have to, well, stay there. There are no Four Seasons or even a Marriott nearby. It means, for me at least, setting aside certain reservations and just enjoying the experience.
It will be with great enthusiasm that I write all about the adventures I enjoyed on my trip, because this trip more than any other recently touched me on a personal level. Maybe it was the extended time alone, or perhaps it was the shock and awe of the beautiful landscapes, but I left Alberta a different person. A better person, one who not only can better appreciate the amazing gifts Mother Nature has given us, but who can also experience them the way they were honestly meant to be experienced. And that is why travel is so amazing.