The Cowboy Trail is an outstanding Alberta road trip from Calgary to the Rocky Mountains, into the prairies and out of the badlands.
It was one of the best road trips we've even taken and we want to give you your own itinerary to follow when you make your way to Canada's most beautiful province.
Cowboy Trail – A Southern Alberta Road Trip
Most people head due West from Calgary to Banff and then work their way to Jasper eventually heading out of Alberta towards British Columbia, but we've got a Southern Alberta Travel Guide You're gonna love!
Alberta Road Trip Itinerary
Below is an eight-day Itinerary through Southern Alberta starting in Calgary.
We found this to be ample time to see the sights and do a lot of activities. If you want to add Banff and Jasper on to your itinerary, it can easily be done by adding another four days.
Many people only visit Banff/Canmore/Lake Louise. These are amazing destinations but they are not the only spot in Alberta to visit. There is an entire province to explore that is three times the size of Great Britain. So, hold on to the steering wheel, we're about to take you on a road trip through Cowboy Country. Enjoy!
Fly into Calgary and pick up your rental car at the airport before making your way into the city for a night or two. Calgary is an amazing town for tourists.
We stayed at the luxurious boutique hotel, the Kensington Riverside Inn in the funky Kensington Village.
It's just across the river from downtown and they offer free bikes for guests to use during their stay.
If you are craving adventure, head out to the Canada Olympic Park and take a spin down the bobsleigh track, a zip line down the giant ski jump track and a fun luge down the mountain.
There's mountain biking there as well.
Make sure to try their world-class dining downtown. A few suggestions are Model Milk, Charcut and The Beer Hall or check out our post on dining in Calgary.
After you've explored the city, it's time to hit the road for your Alberta Road Trip and it starts on the cowboy trail.
Driving West on Highway 1A from Calgary takes you on a journey through Alberta's past.
Towns like Cochrane and Turner have old fashioned shops and main streets throwing back to the days when oil was first discovered.
Black Diamond is a great lunch stop at Marv's Classic Soda Shop where poutine and coke floats are on the menu and you can grab some retro candy for the road.
Bar U Ranch
Our first stop on the Cowboy Trail was a National Historical Site, the Bar U Ranch.
It was Canada's largest ranch in its heyday and it's now open to tourists to commemorate Canada's ranching heritage. You can sip some cowboy coffee around the campfire and listen to a storyteller speak of life on the range in the 1800s.
You can try your hand at roping a cow, (Don't worry, this calf doesn't move), take a wagon ride and tour the houses and barns left as they were from a century ago.
Read about Deb's connection with the Bar U Ranch it's a good one!
Once you are finished up at the Bar U, stop for a cappuccino and fresh apple pie in Longview on your way back to Black Diamond.
There's free wifi here where you can check your email and brag to your friends on facebook about your awesome Alberta Road Trip. Before you hit the road, grab some beef jerky at the shop next door. It's a great snack for a long drive.
Trail Ride – Black Diamond
A trip to Alberta's Cowboy country wouldn't be complete without a proper trail ride.
Unlike your usual follow the leader like trail rides, a trek into the mountains with Dewy and the gang at the Anchor D Ranch will make you feel like a real cowboy.
His 105 horses are sure-footed and give you the confidence to cling to the side of the mountain as you take in the incredible Alberta scenery.
Spend a few days at the ranch and enjoy eating meals with the ranch hands, heading out for the day or even multi-day rides high into the mountains.
His homestead is warm and cozy and if you are lucky, you may even be treated to a song or two on the accordion. If that's not a cowboy experience, I don't know what is!
Read about our stay at the Anchor D at A High Mountain Trail Ride, Your Buns have come a Long Way Baby!
Waterton Lakes National Park
Think you can't get big mountain views in the South? Think again.
Waterton Lakes National Park has an incredible mountainous landscape. Connected to Glacier National park in Montana, this is an excellent vacation destination. Waterton Lakes is where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains creating dramatic landscapes.
You can stay overnight in the park at one of the many inns, you can rough and go camping or you can celebrate in grand style at a hotel like the Prince of Wales.
Located high on a cliff overlooking Waterton Lake, it is one of the most photographed hotels in the world.
There's something for everyone at Waterton Lakes, Great hikes, horseback riding, canoeing, Red Rock Canyon, and even scooter rentals!
But be careful, we saw a crash while we were there.
See our post The Wonders of Waterton Lakes National Park
We didn't overnight in Waterton Lakes and instead drove back to Pincher Creek less than an hour away to stay at the Ramada Inn. It has free breakfast and a waterslide!
Plus our room was to die for with a jacuzzi tub, sitting area and fireplace.
Pincher Creek is a great destination in its own right and we spent the day exploring all the amazing sights surrounding the town like Lundbreck Falls and Frank Slide's Interpretive Centre, home to Canada's Deadliest Rock Slide on Crowsnest Pass.
One can spend a couple of days driving around the Pincher Creek area.
The landscape is beautiful and some of Alberta's largest ranches are in the area.
See cattle graze in the fields, among the giant bales of hay, witness the endless stream of windmills sitting on the plains with the great Rocky Mountain backdrop and enjoy a quick stop at the Burnis Tree.
Don't know what that is? Check it out at The Many Sights of Pincher Creek
The drive from Pincher Creek to Dinosaur Provincial Park is a good one.
There are some very historical stops along the way such as Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where prehistoric plains people hunted buffalo.
They rounded up buffalo chasing them towards a cliff where they were forced to jump over and fall to their death.
Fort McLeod is worth a stop to visit the old RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Barracks dating back to 1892 and the Fort from 1874.
It's a historical site that is part of Heritage Canada and its downtown core will transform you to another era in time.
There's also a Tim Hortons here where you can grab a double-double and some Tim Bits to keep you occupied during the long drive ahead to your next destination.
Detour to Vulcan
If we had more time, we would have totally stopped at Vulcan. We didn't know it was on our route until we saw the sign, but we had a hike scheduled in Dinosaur Provincial Park at 14:00 and couldn't make the detour.
If you drive this route though, make sure you stop at Vulcan! Named for the Roman God of Fire, Vulcan has discarded it's original heritage and has capitalized on Star Trek!
Here you can see a replica of the Star Ship Enterprise, there are Star Trek Murals all around the town and there is even an annual Star Trek Convention known as ‘Spock Days' that attracts Trekkies from around the world.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
So after all that sightseeing, it's time to visit the pièce de résistance of the Alberta Badlands, Dinosaur Provincial Park
Located in the heart of the Alberta Badlands, this will add another UNESCO World Heritage Site to your Alberta Road Trip itinerary.
It is here that you can walk through otherworldly landscapes and see dinosaur bones on the trail.
You can take tours to learn about the fossils and the landscape and you can hike through the badlands on your own.
Accommodation: Try Comfort Camping right in the park. Stop at Brooks on your way there and fill your cooler with some steaks and have a barbeque at your luxury tent after you explore the park.
It's a great way to relax and enjoy the outdoors.
See more about our stay at Glamping with the Dinosaurs
The Route to Drumheller
We think the best driving part of our Southern Alberta road trip was the drive from Dinosaur to Drumheller.
Don't let the first 100 km turn you off, there's nothing to see here, but once you are through the first 100 km, the next 100 km is a blast!
Take an entire day to explore this area, you won't be disappointed.
Atlas Coal Mine
It took us all day to get to Drumheller because there were way too many cool things to see on the side of the road.
You can stop at the Historical Atlas Coal Mine where you can go underground and ride the narrow-gauge train, climb the last wooden tipple in Canada and put on a miners lamp to hike through the tunnels.
We had heard of hoodoos before, but didn't know what they were.
It turns out, they are fascinating formations of sandstone spires reaching to the sky with a cap of hard stone on top. They are the most original piece of rock we've ever seen and they are located right on the route to Drumheller.
You don't even have to hike to get there! They're right on the side of the road for everyone to enjoy.
Read all about our hoodoo experience at What the Heck is a Hoodoo?
Last Chance Saloon
If you're feeling peckish, a stop at the Last Chance Saloon is a great detour. Crossing 11 bridges en route to Wayne eventually takes you to a saloon in the middle of nowhere.
Years ago, the only way to reach Wayne was by train. It was a mining town and bustling with miners spending their paychecks at the saloon. Today, it's a tourist stop where you can still see bullet holes in the wall and if you order a steak, be prepared to cook it yourself.
Drumheller was our final stop on our Alberta Road Trip and it's an excellent town to hang out for a couple of days.
Home to the world's largest dinosaur, it also houses the best dinosaur museum you'll ever see. The Royal Tyrrell Museum has real dinosaur bones on display!
Those perfect dinosaur skeletons you see at other museums are fakes. Dinosaur bones are heavy and can't possibly stand up on their own, besides, they've all been smashed to bits over the centuries and can never be put perfectly back together.
At the Royal Tyrrell though, you'll see one of the best-preserved authentic T-Rex skulls in the world, and many other bones of real dinosaurs, it's one of the most fascinating museums we've ever visited.
And if you know us, you'll know that we don't like a lot of museums.
Drumheller is still in the badlands and the views from Horse Thief Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon are breathtaking.
We were originally going to go to Horseshoe Canyon for sunset, but then the owners of our Bed and Breakfast suggested we go to Horse Thief in the other direction.
Are we glad we listened, the sunset perfectly over the canyon and there wasn't another person in site.
We didn't want to miss Horseshoe Canyon though, so on our way out to Calgary the next morning, we stopped at Horseshoe for a perfect view of sunrise. This was the way to do it.
Where to stay:
Heartwood Inn and Spa is a popular choice in Drumheller.
Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson stayed here during the filming of Shanghai Noon and Dave and Deb got the chance to stay here during our Alberta Adventure!
It's a great inn with elegant rooms and friendly owners. It's the type of place that takes an interest in what you see and do and gives excellent advice.
We especially enjoyed their famous French Toast in the morning. It's the only thing they serve for breakfast. As the owner said to us “I do one thing and one thing very well.” Yum!
Back to Calgary
And there you have it! You're Southern Alberta Road Trip is complete. Here's a Google Maps Route for your records…
- Big thanks to Alberta Tourism and Calgary Tourism for hosting us. Visit the Alberta Tourism website for more information on things to do.