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

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Trailriding in Kananaskis Country, Alberta (Photo: Travel Alberta)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 28, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: adventure travel, Alberta, Calgary, Canmore, Cardston, destination, Kananaskis Village, Molly Feltner, Pincher Creek, vacation package, Waterton Park.

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.

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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

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