Southern Alberta’s Cowboy Country

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By: Bob Kenyon

It was a Saturday morning when we drove into the southern Alberta town of Black Diamond. The car radio was tuned into CKUA and Allison Brock was hosting “Wide Cut Country“…We were in the heart of Alberta’s cowboy country!

This area, south of Calgary has made the area’s cattle ranching industry famous. Although many of the towns, in the area, have become suburbs of the sprawling city of Calgary. Communities like Black Diamond and Longview are building on their western roots and becoming excellent destinations to visit, all within clear view of the rocky mountains.

Black Diamond has benefited by participating in Alberta’s Main Street Program and has preserved much of it’s old town appeal by restoring its historic buildings on main street. The only thing missing, from the streetscape are hitching posts and tumble weeds rolling down the street. Many of the false front shops have now been turned into boutiques and art galleries.

Before arriving in Black Diamond we visited the Big Rock, north of Okotoks. These monoliths, sitting on the rolling prairies, were carried there on the glacier during the last ice age, from their original location in what is now Jasper National park. As the glacier receded, these large pieces, as well as other smaller pieces that fell on the glacier, were left here. Geologists can track the rock back to its original location, hundreds of kilometres away, by following the “train” of pieces along the way.

The Big Rock

The Big Rock
Photo: Travel Alberta

At the Big Rock it’s a great point to take in the experience of the prairies, as it would have appeared to the Northwest Mounted Police (RCMP), the early ranchers and of course the aboriginal peoples that were this area’s first residents. The prairie vista of rolling hills, to the east and mountains to the west combined with the “big sky of Alberta.

Travelling further west, we took a secondary road just north of High River because they’re never as busy. Even though we were driving, secondary roads are great for cyclists! We were heading off to the real centre of cowboy country at Longview! As you approach the town and all around the area you can see how it got its name as the prairie blends into coulees, foothills and mountains to the west. The Highwood Trail is the road that takes travellers west from Longview into the mountains and Kananaskis Country.

View West of Longview

Ranchland along Hwy 22, between Lundbreck and Longview
Photo: Travel Alberta

Longview is not only famous for its great scenery. It’s also the home of Canada’s most famous working cowboy, singer-songwriter Ian Tyson. For the last half of the twentieth century and now into the twenty first century, Ian has performed worldwide and many a country, roots and folk musicians and fans have sung probably his best-known tune “Four Strong Winds”.

In actuality, southern Alberta is a hotbed for roots music fans and several well known Canadian folk and country performers make Calgary and areas south their home. There are also some great venues for roots music in the area also. Some of the musicians from southern Alberta are Amos Garrett, David Wilkie and Corb Lund. For more information about roots music in southern alberta go to our Ya’Gotta Western Canadian Roots Music Page.

We chose to go south from Longview and spent the better part of the afternoon at the Bar-U Ranch National Historic Site. The ranch was known for open range cattle ranching as well as being the world’s main supply of pure bred Percheron workhorses.

At the ranch, we took in a small rodeo, at the coral, toured the ranch and drank campfire coffee from the chuck wagon. Visitors can also purchase ranch food at the visitor centre, where you enter and leave the ranch. There is also a great selection of souvenirs and books in the centre’s gift store.

Many of the staff at the ranch are portrayed in period dress and role play very well! Some “officers” of the Northwest Mounted Police, dressed in their scarlet tunics, approached us to find out who we were (i.e, old west shakedown). They were also on horseback and riding traditional NWMP roan coloured horses.

Their commander, who did the “questioning” was wearing a similar outfit and carried a swagger stick, walked over demanding to know who we were and where we came from. When I told him we came down from Edmonton yesterday…He thought we’d arrived yesterday and told us that’s a long trip…at least five days.

The officers, on horseback, were trying to hold straight faces, as flipped my jacket open, with his swagger stick…Looking to see if we were armed. When one of the men on a horse chuckled, the Commander demanded “What’s so funny soldier!”

It turned out they were on the lookout for pistol toting cowboys up from Montana. These American cowboys had got carried away and used a bit of illegal gunplay around the campfire…Shooting at the coffee pot, because the Canadians had made tea in it.

After determining that we weren’t the cowboys they were looking for; the officers reminded us “that there are no side arms allowed in the Dominion of Canada!” We got off lucky.


Cowboy Trail Hwy. Marker
Photo: Travel Alberta

We ended our day in Cowboy country, by driving back to Calgary from Longview, on Highway 22, which is one of my favourite highways in Alberta. It has been designated as the “Cowboy Trail” and it’s one of Alberta’s most picturesque routes. Both south and north of the Trans-Canada #1 Highway, you will have excellent views on the Rocky Mountains to the west. As well this highway has low traffic and wide shoulders, making it great for cycling!

The Cowboy Trail runs north from Cardston (near the U.S. Border) to north of Mayerthorp (on the Alaska Highway) northwest of the Provincial capital Edmonton, . In addition to providing some great Alberta scenery, The Cowboy Trail connects travelers with routes to the Crowsnest PassKananaskis Country, Banff, Calgary and the David Thompson Pass. Travelers to Edmonton, Jasper, Hinton and Grande Cache areas, can access them via the Trans Canada Yellowhead Highway (Hwy. 16), that runs east and west of Edmonton.

While in this part of southern Alberta (Okatoks and High River) and further south, look for the red wagon wheels, that mark the traces, 130-year old wagon ruts, of the original Macleod Trail. The trail was originally an aboriginal trail. When used by ranchers, settlers, whisky trades and the Northwest Mounted Police it  ran from Fort Benton in Montana up through Canada via Fort MacLeod and Fort Calgary.

For the traveler, this destination has an excellent range of accommodations, with hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds readily available. For those seeking less traditional and more realistic to the location, ranch vacations are available (see top of article). The towns have authentic (but rustic) hotels, taverns, restaurants, coffee shops, as well as a great assortment of art galleries and gift shops. From late spring to early fall, you can also find some Powwows and rodeos in the area.

If you enjoyed this article about Alberta’s cowboy country on Ya’Gotta, you can support Ya’Gotta. You may also like these other southern Alberta destinations:

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