Experiencing Alberta’s Cowboy Trail

Aug 14th, 2014 | By | Category: Travel


From vivid landscapes to vibrant history, the wild west springs alive in southern Alberta

By Katharine Fletcher

“Did you know that the Sundance Kid worked here at Bar U Ranch?” While driving a team of black Percheron horses around the National Historic Site, an hour-and-a-half south of Calgary, Dan Wilson regaled a wagonload of visitors with stories. “Whenever the Northwest Mounted Police would drop by, The Kid would disappear, saying something about a fence to fix.”

At the turn of the last century, Bar U was internationally renowned for its purebred Percheron draft horses and cattle. Today, the sprawling ranch commemorates the heritage of the Canadian ranching industry.

Wilson dropped us off at a campsite where his wife Myriam was brewing cowboy coffee over an open fire. While we sipped, she explained how cowboys on the open range would drive the cattle for months at a time. It was a demanding job with long hours and short of comforts. Understandably, it was the cook who fixed the cowboys’ “grub” who ruled each drive.

Bar U was our first stop on a tour of Southern Alberta’s Cowboy Trail (Highway 22). Using Calgary as a base, we drove south in pursuit of iconic cowboy, horse, and First Nations experiences.

Next on our agenda was to head further south on Highway 22 to join a four-day horseback riding expedition into Waterton Lakes National Park. At Waterton, after spending our first night at Crandell Mountain Campsite in a tipi, we went to Alpine Stables to saddle up and ride into the mountains. After being matched to our horses, where our abilities, weight and height were considered, we were off, in the very capable hands of expert rider-guide, Josh Watson.

“I’ve been exploring Waterton since I was little,” he said. “My grandparents started Alpine Stables in 1969, guiding horseback rides and our family still operates it. At 80, my grandfather is still riding these mountain trails!”

I’d longed to visit Waterton for years because it is renowned for diverse wildlife, spectacular peaks and ridges, plus lakes and varied ecosystems. Located just four hours south of Calgary, it’s an accessible park bordering Montana’s Glacier National Park. In fact, they’re known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, formed in 1932 to celebrate our two countries’ friendship.

Waterton’s diversity fascinates Watson, who appreciates the highest ridges of the park equally to the protected, sheltered valleys where wildflowers bloom. During our July ride, we ascended Avion Ridge which, at almost 2,500 metres, offered spectacular views of range upon range extending to the horizon. Watson sighed, murmuring “I’ll never tire of this view!” Indeed: who would?

Because protection of the Continental Divide was a major reason for the establishment of Waterton, it was a special thrill to “ride the Divide” that height of land where to the west, watersheds flow to the Pacific and eastwards to Hudson Bay. We ascended from the forested Lone Lake Campground using the South Kootenay Trail, then slipped in and out of Waterton and BC’s adjoining Akamina Kishinena Provincial Park while on the Great Divide Trail. From an elevation of more than 2,000 metres, we gazed down a heady 300 metre drop to the campground area.

All the while, Watson recounted stories and history. “The South Kootenay trail is where Kootenay First Nations crossed into the prairies to trade and hunt bison,” he said.

His comment resonated. Waterton’s human history dates from 10,000 years ago when nomadic people followed herds of bison, the animal which provided them with food, clothing, tools as well as spiritual sustenance.

While riding on Waterton’s shared trail network, we passed mountain bikers, hikers, and families enjoying leisurely picnic-strolls. Bikers cycled to gain altitude, then locked their bikes to trees to continue on foot to high-altitude destinations such as Goat Lake. Many hikers carried backpacks to designated campsites so they could linger amid the mountain ridges and alpine meadows.

Goat Lake lived up to its name. Using binoculars, I spied a male mountain goat, picking his way along a seemingly impossible vertical rock face. Joining me, Watson gasped, “Look over there! There’s a herd!” We watched, captivated as little kids jumped about, while their mothers calmly negotiated the rocks.

As all good things come to an end … sadly we returned to the stables. Wanting our creature comforts, we stayed overnight at the Prince of Wales Hotel, a National Historic Site perched on a windy bluff overlooking Waterton Lake. With views extending to Montana, we wished we could linger, to take the boat ride to Crypt Lake trailhead … touted as one of the world’s best hikes.

It’s on the bucket list…

Onward ho! Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump awaited, a World Heritage Site celebrating the crucial relationship between bison and indigenous peoples. A video notes that 6,000 years ago bison were stampeded over this site’s 10-metre-high cliffs to their deaths. After the creatures were butchered, their skins were cured for clothing and tipis, their meat dried, and bones fashioned into tools.

Returning to Calgary through now-fenced farmland, it saddened us to think of how the vast herds of 40 million bison were quickly reduced to a thousand or so individuals after European contact.

Want to truly experience the wild west? Alberta beckons.

If you go

•Travel Alberta: www.travelalberta.com

•Parks Canada: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/index.aspx

•Bar U Ranch: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ab/baru/index.aspx

•Waterton Lakes National Park: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/waterton/intro.aspx

•Alpine Stables: www.alpinestables.com

•Prince of Wales hotel: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/waterton/natcul/natcul4.aspx

•Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump: www.history.alberta.ca/headsmashedin/


Katharine Fletcher is a keen outdoorswoman who is happiest when exploring on horseback. Read her blog at katharinefletcher.com

One Comment to “Experiencing Alberta’s Cowboy Trail”

  1. donna maclennan says:

    Really enjoyed this thorough article. Well done.

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