photo: Adrian Studer/Alamy

Four Cowboy Trail Towns to Rediscover on a Summer Road Trip

By Tracy Hyatt

Road trippers who follow Alberta’s secondary highways know there are gems around every bend-—which is entirely the point of the Cowboy Trail. The 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 22, from Mayerthorpe to Lundbreck, travels through rural communities that paint a rich picture of Alberta’s ranching history and dare you to live the cowboy way. Head south from Calgary to explore a handful of towns in one day.

The first rule of the Cowboy Trail? Dress the part. The cowboy boot is the most integral element of western style.

Get fitted for a custom pair at Alberta Boot Company in Calgary. Founder Clem Gerwing came up with the idea of designing boot-shaft patterns for different Alberta communities. Select a shaft, then pick a heel, toe shape and leather. It’s a lot to consider, but the end result is so worth it.

You needn’t travel far to find a good steakhouse in the city. At Modern Steak, owner Stephen Deere sources beef exclusively from Alberta ranches. Last year, he even bought his own Black Angus bull; its offspring guarantees the restaurant a consistent supply of exquisitely marbled meat. The cooking process further elevates the dry- and wet-aged cuts: Seared on an infrared grill at 1,800 F, they emerge beautifully charred but still juicy.

Less than an hour from Calgary, Bragg Creek eases you into a slower pace. Close proximity to Kananaskis Country makes this hamlet an ideal gateway for seeing the mountains on horseback: Inside Out Experience takes city slickers on a full-day riding and whitewater-rafting experience through the region.

In town, Bragg Creek Performing Arts is one of the Cowboy Trail’s first surprises. Five times a year, this volunteer collective brings Canada’s top musical talents to its stage. Last season’s lineup included jazz singer Laila Biali and roots duo Over the Moon.

cowboy trail bar u ranch alberta
Bar U Ranch (photo: Design Pics Inc/Alamy)

Southern Alberta’s ranching history dates to the late 1800s. In Longview, Bar U Ranch was established during the “beef bonanza” of the 1880s, and became one of the west’s first successful corporate ranches. At its peak, Bar U held nearly 160,000 acres of deeded and leased land, and owned 30,000 head of cattle. It’s now a National Historic Site where visitors can learn ranching skills such as how to saddle a horse, cook on an open fire and identify livestock.

No Cowboy Trail trip should be taken without a stock of beef jerky, the dried meat snack introduced to white settlers by Native Americans. The Aboriginal version, known as pemmican, consisted of bison and dried fruit or animal fat.

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To appease colonial palates, the recipe replaced bison with beef and removed the berries. Today, Longview Beef Jerky offers a wide variety of flavours. Standouts like teriyaki, honey garlic and Szechuan make for perfect on-the-road snacking.

Driving through the foothills, you’ll notice that the towns of Longview, Turner Valley, Black Diamond and Millarville are fewer than 10 kilometres apart. If you have time to spare, try biking the multi-use trail from Black Diamond to Turner Valley.

Hop off in front of Eau Claire Distillery, which pays homage to a booze-soaked period in Turner Valley’s history: Prohibition was instituted in the boomtown in 1916, but that just encouraged the brazen bootleggers who hid moonshine stills in the foothills. Give yourself about an hour to take a distillery tour and sample Eau Claire’s vodka, gin and seasonal offerings.

Next door you’ll find Chuckwagon Café, a Cowboy Trail institution that serves one of the best burgers in Alberta. Or check out Motoburrito, a Mexican food truck located at the Mottorrad Performance bike shop.

cowboy trail alberta eau claire distillery
Cowboy cocktails at Eau Claire Distillery (photo: Roth and Ramberg/Travel Alberta)

A bit of local trivia, should you decide to stay in (or backtrack to) Black Diamond: The town was named for the designation applied to high-grade coal, which was discovered here in the late 19th century. Shop the antique stores and art galleries on Centre Avenue, then grab a bite at Black Diamond Bakery & Coffee Shop. The popular morning haunt is known for its traditional Danish specialties like almond tarts, wienerbrod (flaky pastries filled with custard and almonds) and eckel cakes (small, round, raisin-filled sweets). Or, relive the 1950s at Marv’s Classic Soda Shop. The retro diner has a working jukebox that still plays 45-rpm records for a quarter. Not much has changed here—like the Cowboy Trail itself. The more you travel it, the more you realize it’s a route along which time has stood wonderfully still.

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On the Road
: AMA members save up to 20%—and get additional benefits—on car rentals booked through AMA Travel

Where to Stay: Just east of the Cowboy Trail, the Best Western Plus Okotoks Inn & Suites is one of that town’s newest hotels. AMA members save up to 30% and get other perks at select hotels by booking at with AMA Travel

Things to Do: Explore the Kananaskis Valley. Use your Parks Canada Discovery Pass for free entry to Bar U Ranch National Historic Site: Save $10 on a family pass purchased at any AMA centre