The space in between Kananaskis and Waterton is where you'll find most of the ranchland. Without a doubt, the best vantage point for taking in the countryside is from the back of horse. Rambling on horseback through the prairie, up and down slopes, and across mountain streams, you get to experience the land as the native people and early settlers did, and as many ranchers still do today. You've got to get up in the saddle on this trip—or at least visit a working ranch so you can see real cowboys and ranchers at work. Luckily, there's no shortage of guest ranches and horse riding outfitters along the Cowboy Trail.
I saw some of the most stunning mountain scenery of the trip while on a trail ride at the Boundary Ranch (off Highway 40), near Kananaskis Village, which has an extensive network of trails that wind through the shadows of the snow-capped Kananaskis Mountains. Trail rides start at $32 for one hour.
However, the best part of my Cowboy Trail trip was the three days I spent at Homeplace Ranch, a convivial 14-guest former homestead set in the foothills of the Rockies, just 25 miles southwest of Calgary (off Highway 22).The ranch is run by Mac MaKenny, a soft-spoken, sharp-witted cowboy who descended from Albertan homesteaders and was born into the ranching life. Unlike my experience at the bigger, more upscale guest ranches I'd stayed at in the past, Mac, his family, and the staff made me feel more like a member of the family than a guest, whether I was chatting with the staff and other guests in the evenings over tea or hanging out on the porch listening to Mac explain his philosophy of horsemanship.
The riding was great too. After a going through a thoughtful orientation with Mac, guests depart with Mac or another guide on half- or full-day rides with other riders of similar experience levels. You can arrange for lessons too. Four-day packages start at $714 USD per person, which covers three nights' lodging, meals and snacks, riding, and ranch activities.
While exploring Pincher Creek, a ranching community just north of Waterton, I stayed at The Bloomin' Inn Guest Ranch, a B&B-style lodging located on the family farm of Colleen and Francis Cyr, whose family has worked the land since the early 1900s. Although the ranch doesn't offer trail rides, you can pitch in with chores around the farm. I volunteered to wake up at the crack of dawn to collect chicken eggs and milk the cow with Francis (a highly unusual experience for a city slicker like myself and highly amusing for a farmer like Fran to watch), and then had a breakfast made by Colleen with the fresh eggs and milk. Double-occupancy rates start at $95 per night.
You can find similar guest ranches offering riding and farm experiences by visiting Alberta Country Vacations Association website.
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