Alberta’s Cowboy Culture
While Alberta prides itself on its Western heritage, it is the mountains that draw the masses. Hence this itinerary that swerves from the ordinary to give you a taste of how to plan a Western-themed adventure—and yes, you do get to visit Banff as well.
Although rental cars weren’t a transportation option for the first cowboys that arrived in Alberta, unless you have a horse and a lot of time, you’ll need one for this itinerary.
Start your trip in Calgary. You don’t have to plan your vacation around the Calgary Stampede, but many thousands do. It’s held during the second week of July and should fill a full two days of your itinerary. If it’s Stampede Week, attend the rodeo one day and the chuck wagon races the next.
In between, you’ll have plenty of time to soak up the sights, sounds, and smells of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth as well as the opportunity to join the line for a beer at famously Western Ranchman’s.
With rodeos held every summer weekend somewhere in Alberta, there are plenty of options other times of the year (go to www.rodeocanada.com to see them all). These include Ponoka, the week before the Calgary Stampede, and Medicine Hat, a couple of weeks later.
Drive out to Cochrane, site of the first major ranch in western Canada (a suitably Western statue marks the site), and then saddle up for a horseback ride at Griffin Valley Ranch, the only place in the province that allows unguided riding. Drive south to Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ab/baru/index.aspx), which re-creates a century-old ranch. Then head to Fort Macleod, where you will stay for the night.
Before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous groups called the foothills home, hunting bison at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (www.head-smashed-in.com/). In the afternoon, visit the Remington Carriage Museum (www.remingtoncarriagemuseum.com/), which relives the era of horse-drawn travel. Spend the night at the Great Canadian Barn Dance Campground (http://gcbd.ca, cabins supplied) in Hill Spring, where a local family cooks up a storm and then leads the way in a barn dance.
Drive back north through Kananaskis Country to Banff, from which Warner Guiding and Outfitting leads overnight pack trips to a remote backcountry cabin. Upon your return to Banff, and after two days in the saddle, you’ll probably find the atmosphere at Wild Bill’s a little corny, but hey, the beer’s cold, and the Alberta beef is cooked to perfection.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition