Time capsules of the Old West

by , SmarterTravel Staff
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.

Time capsules of the Old West

While you may be tempted to pass on the tourist attractions in favor of only roughing it on the trail, don't. The Cowboy Trail has several museums and historic sites that give fascinating insights into the area's past. Before heading out on the road, a good place to get orientated is the Glenbow Museum ($12 per adult) in downtown Calgary. The museum has permanent exhibitions about the history and traditions of the Blackfeet, the native people who live on the northwestern plains of Alberta and Montana. There's also a series of Southern Alberta History galleries that tell story of Alberta's settlers. (Editor's note: This exhibit is currently under renovation and scheduled to reopen in February 2007).

Driving down Route 22, stop at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site ($7 per adult) near Longview. Formerly one of the biggest corporate ranches in Alberta, Bar U Ranch is now a living history museum and that still functions partially as a working ranch. Here you can see craftsmen press ornate designs into leather to be used for making saddles, harnesses, and chaps; blacksmiths hammering out horse shoes; and cowboys driving massive draft horses from their wagons. I learned to use a lasso, and even managed to rope a "calf" on my first try—although it was made of plastic and hay bales, so it didn't move much.

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Going further south, anyone interested learning more about the native culture ought to veer east on the Crowsnest Highway at Pincher Creek and drive to Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site marks the location of one of the biggest and best preserved buffalo jumps—a steep cliff over which the native people drove herds of buffalo as a means of hunting. The cliff and archeological remains at this jump are impressive, and the onsite interpretive center does a good job of explaining the history of the jump and gives a lot of insight to the Blackfeet culture.

From Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump you can drive down Highway 2 to Cardston, an unassuming Mormon town just north of Waterton National Park (connect to Waterton by following Highway 5) that is the site of the Remington Carriage Museum ($8 per adult). The museum houses more than 250 historic carriages, buggies, wagons, and sleighs—including wagons used in Hollywood movies shot nearby—making it the largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles in North America.

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