Alberta’s Cowboy Trail, stretching from Mayerthorpe northwest of Edmonton to Waterton National Park, is the Wild West of your childhood imagination. It’s roughly 700 kilometres of driving at its finest with rolling foothills, old wood barns, grazing horses and cattle and the mountains off in the distant. While it would take you two or three days to thoroughly cover Highway 22, it’s best to do the route in sections to discover all of its gems. Here’s a fun Calgary day trip though the Diamond Valley that’ll make the most of your time behind the wheel.
Calgary downtown to Okotoks: 45 km
The Okotoks area has a rich farming history dating back to the mid-1800s when Southern Alberta’s first homesteaders began opening up the Canadian West. US and European settlers herded shorthorns cattle into the large, open ranges near Okotoks on long cattle drives from the US. Famous area ranches included Quorn Ranch and the Upper and Lower Lineham Ranches. Today ranchers like Mike and Deb Kaumeyer owners of 7K Panorama Ranch continue the area’s ranching tradition. The Kaumeyers raise grain-fed longhorn which are supplied to Charbar restaurant in Calgary. To learn more about the area’s ranching history, visit Okotoks Museum and Archives. Fields of Dreams: Our Farming History, a temporary exhibit runs until October 10.
Leaving Okotoks, keep your eye out for the Okotoks Big Rock. It’s just a rock, but this lichen-painted, ashen chunk of quartzite plopped on the southern Alberta prairie has travelled farther than most rocks. Noticeably different than the sandstone that surrounds it, the Big Rock is the largest remnant of the Foothills Erratics Train, a scattering of glacier-borne rubble carried down from a Jasper mountain peak 18,000 years ago. And, at 16,500 tonnes, it is indeed a big rock. The Blackfoot people called it okatok, meaning (what else) “big rock.” Several other erratics lie near Airdrie and Glenwoodville, but the Big Rock is the largest. Situated a stone’s throw southwest of the eponymous town of Okotoks, the rock is a designated Provincial Historic Resource. It is also the namesake of Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery.
Okotoks to Black Diamond: 22 km
Coal was discovered in the town of Black Diamond in the late 1800s and it’s where the town gets its name from – high grade coal is known as “black diamond.” There’s lots to do in Black Diamond. Shop in the numerous antique stores that line Centre Avenue. Bluerock Gallery sells unique work from regional artists and craftspeople. Grab a cup of coffee and a pastry at Black Diamond Bakery & Coffee Shop, a morning gathering spot for locals. The bakery is known for its traditional Danish specialities like almond tarts, wiener brod (a flaky pastry filled with custard and almonds) and eckel cakes (small round cakes filled with raisins). Relive the 1950s at Marv’s Classic Soda Shop. The retro diner has a working jukebox that plays 45 rpm records for only a quarter. Drop a quarter or wait for the owner Marve Garriott to grab his guitar and belt out Elvis tunes.
While you’re wandering the streets, look out for the pocket gardens – four tiny green spaces filled with flowers, foliage and benches. The pocket gardens were created to fill gaps between structures, as part of a recent restoration project to return the town to the boomtown look of the 1940s and ’50s. Look for 1930s billboard ads displayed in frames along the garden walls.
Black Diamond to Turner Valley: 4 km
Gas was first discovered in Alberta in Turner Valley in 1914 forever changing the province, and by the mid 1940’s about 95% of petroleum in Canada was produced in Turner Valley. You can book a private tour of the plant by contacting Alberta Culture (403-933-4944).
Home to the largest oil field, Turner Valley also became home to prostitutes, ranchers and bootleggers in the late 1910s. During Prohibition, alcohol stills were hid from the eyes of provincial police in the nearby hills. Learn more about the area’s history at Eau Claire Distillery, Alberta’s first craft distillery. Give yourself about an hour to take in a 20-minute distillery tour and sample Eau Claire’s vodka, gin and seasonal offerings.
Eat at the beloved Chuckwagon Café, an institution on the Cowboy Trail. The house burger is simple — nothing more than a coarsely ground beef patty with fresh lettuce and a tomato slice on a lightly toasted bun. The secret is the beef. Owner Terry Myhre raises his own hormone-free Murray Grey cattle, a breed known for its small stature. Combined with Myhre’s secret spices, the result is a mouth-watering patty, seasoned to perfection. Eating it in a room decorated with branding irons and vintage Calgary Stampede posters adds to the flavour. Be warned: Chuckwagon Café closes at 2:30 in the afternoon weekdays and 3:30 on Saturdays.