Following the eastern slopes of the great Canadian Rockies is a north-south highway that ushers explorers through some of Alberta’s most beautiful ranchlands. Dubbed the Cowboy Trail, Alberta Provincial Highway No. 22 is much more than a simple road. It’s a route that takes you through shockingly gorgeous and at times wildly divergent terrain but it also takes you through Alberta’s history and culture. If you allow it to be, the drive is an immersive experience and is frankly one of the best drives I’ve ever done. I only tackled a small portion of this winding road, but what I saw and did still lives on in my thoughts. Amongst everything I experienced, these were some of my favorite moments.
1. The food
This may surprise you, but the food I enjoyed along the trail was fantastic. Granted, it’s basic and bad for you, but that’s what I typically enjoy most. For lunch I followed local advice and stopped off at the famous Chuckwagon Café in Turner Valley. Tucked away in a tiny town, this small restaurant is retro without knowing that it’s retro. Walking in you get the feeling that nothing has ever changed inside, and that’s just fine. Featured on TV shows around the world, the real star here is the meat, which all comes from the owner’s ranch. A true example of farm to plate, the meat is always fresh, never frozen and treated with kid gloves inside the Cafe itself. The burger I enjoyed was richly seasoned and delicious. The perfect pick me up for a long drive.
For dessert I drove a few more miles down the road to another famous eatery on the Trail, Marv’s Soda Shop. Located in Black Diamond, Marv’s is another establishment that time has forgot and walking in is like entering a Rockwell painting. They have a full menu, but the stars are the ice creams and special sodas. Malteds, egg creams and standard sundaes are all what really bring people by the busload to visit. I went with the chocolate malted, which, after the burger, put me over my limit for the day but believe me, it was well worth it.
2. Sierra West Ranch
The main reason I followed the Cowboy Trail was to spend a couple of days at this beautiful ranch. Owned by Randy and Ginny Donahue, it’s a true Alberta ranch in every sense of the word. Horses, cows and wide-open terrain are the stuff of movies. But they’re not your typical ranchers. A few years ago they decided to open their home to tourists who wanted to live the cowboy life as a getaway from the modern world. Since then they’ve built a series of cabins and even a small old west town for their guests, who descend on the ranch from all around the world. As a guest I learned how to ride and take care of a horse and even went out with Randy and Ginny to manage their herd of cows. More than the horsemanship and the hospitality of my hosts, sitting out there watching as the sun set over the beautiful plains was a very special moment for me. I felt like I was as far away from everything as a person could be enjoying a private spectacle all to myself. It’s a special place and one I hope to visit again one day.
3. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Canada
Canada does a great job in relating the stories and experiences of the continent’s original inhabitants, perhaps best seen at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump. The name tells it all really, the cliffs at this site were used for thousands of years by the local tribes as a way to efficiently kill and then harvest entire herds of buffalo. In turn the meat and skins of the animals helped them survive, sometimes for years at a time. Because the site was used for more than 6,000 years, the site has revealed a lot of information about the area’s prehistory and even today there are still secrets waiting to be discovered. The visitor’s center is one of the best I’ve seen and the museum is a fascinating look at the local First Nations Peoples and what their lives were like before and after the arrival of European settlers.
4. The open road
There is absolutely nothing better than a great road trip. I love the freedom and sense of adventure they provide. It’s one of the few times we are true explorers, seeking out anything of interest and determining our own paths. It certainly helps if the scenery is nice, which is the case in Alberta. From flat open prairies, to the foothills of the mountains and even the badlands, the natural landscapes are stunning – gorgeous really. I found myself stopping all the time to take a photo of something new that caught my eye, enjoying just being there. Even driving through torrential prairie thunderstorms, I found a certain peace in the open road. It allowed me to clear my thoughts and to think about things in a way I can’t at home. With no distractions from my phone or family members, I had a real chance to reflect on things and to also just enjoy being in the moment. It’s an all too rare experience and when it presents itself it should be cherished.
The Cowboy Trail in Alberta is one of those classic road trips I think everyone should take at least once in their lives. From cowboy culture to amazing vistas, the route has a lot to offer as long as you keep an open mind and an eye on the open road.
What’s your favorite road trip?