by: Andrew Penner
With a warm and relentless Chinook wind whipping over the rumpled Alberta plains – and a rather rusty golf swing causing plenty of collateral damage – my score was nothing to be proud of. Double bogey? Check. Triple? Check. Heck, one of the best shots of the day ricocheted off the ball washer and bounded back onto the green. Green hit in regulation? Check.
Of course, when you’re golfing along Alberta’s famed Cowboy Trail, the quality of the shot making isn’t really the be all and end all. It’s about the ride. And as every gun slingin’ cowboy will tell you, sometimes the shoot outs don’t go quite as planned.
The Cowboy Trail, a marketing initiative that was created by a number of western-themed businesses that run along the famed foothills, was created in the late 1990s. The majority of the 700 kilometre trail, which extends from Cardston in the south to Mayerthorpe in the north, is actually Highway 22, a super-scenic road that meanders through unspoiled ranchland near the base of the soaring Rockies. For scenic drives, this might be the cream of the crop in Alberta. Unquestionably, the roadway itself often steals the show.
But, what d’ya know, the trail also zips past a number of outstanding golf courses. In fact, some of the best courses in the province are found along the way. Being a diehard golfer, my intentions were simple and succinct: I would golf my brains out, check out a few attractions along the way, and then, in the evening, I would set up camp, eat some grits, and shoot back some whiskey out of a dirty shot glass. Hey, when inRome…
However, after shooting a million at the Lee Creek Golf Course in Cardston, my first round of the trip, I quickly realized that the whiskey might have to go. With nine new holes designed by Les Furber, Lee Creek is now one of the premier golf courses in southern Alberta. And, given the constant prairie wind and the pesky presence of the grass-lined creek, it certainly did the job in terms of proving my aim was off. Way off. Thankfully, there would be more opportunities to calibrate the sights.
If you haven’t played it, the Waterton Lakes Golf Course can be summed up this way: the layout itself is nothing to write home about. To be completely honest, it’s rather rudimentary and behind-the-times. However, the scenery and the experience of golfing on the plains and yet, literally, a stone’s throw from the towering slabs of granite that explode from the prairie floor, is memorable. And there are a number of quality golf holes here, especially on the back nine which is routed around the exterior of the property.
The two young outlaws who joined me at Waterton (skipping school from nearby Pincher Creek?) were a little tepid in the early going, especially after I canned a couple of par-saving bombs on the first two holes. However, after ripping three tee shots into the woods on the third, I set the tone for the rest of the day: that is, fear not, ‘cause all I really got in the chamber are blanks.
Unquestionably, Waterton Lakes National Park is one of the prettiest places on earth. The Prince of Wales Hotel, sitting high on the barren bluff overlooking the lake, is iconic. And the charming little townsite is a great place to tie-up the hoss, belly up to the bar, and get into a good dustup. Or you can stroll along the lake, have dinner, enjoy the souvenir shops, and act civilized. Your call.
To really access your inner cowboy, a visit to the Bar U Ranch is a must. The working ranch, which dates back to 1882, is located fifteen minutes south ofLongviewand is a National Historic Site of Canada. It offers visitors a first-hand experience in the cowboy way of life. On a typical visit you can watch a blacksmith in action, enjoy some tasty cowboy grub (like bannock and beans), view ranching demonstrations, and tour the historic buildings.
Speaking of ranches, D’arcy Ranch Golf Course, a stunning cowboy-country layout near Okotoks (just 20 minutes from Calgary), is the poster child for how good golf can be in the cow-peppered foothills. Lush fairways curl through natural ravines and greens sit high on exposed bluffs. It makes for an exciting brand of golf that is decidedly Albertan. The rustic clubhouse, too, is a cozy place to hunker down for a steaming cup o’ jo and something hot from the griddle. Designed by Ken Dye, D’arcy Ranch is certainly a must-play track on the trail.
For day-riders fromCalgary, there are a few other great golf options on this part of the trail. TurnerValley, The Links at Gleneagles, the newly-renovated Sundre Golf Club, and, certainly, the Kananaskis Golf Course are all worthy of a round.
Although forty-five minutes off the main Cowboy Trail, the Kananaskis Golf Course is a quintessential Alberta golf experience and it shouldn’t be missed. Actually, the entire loop through the Highwood Pass and the Kananaskis Valley should be part of everyone’s itinerary! The two courses here, Mount Lorette and Mount Kidd, are Robert Trent Jones Sr. courses that serve up amazing views and world-class mountain golf holes. The par-3 4th on Mount Kidd might be the prettiest hole in Alberta. Ringed by a pond and framed with snow-capped peaks, this hole is one of the most photographed in Western Canada and, in my opinion, it alone places Kidd above Lorette.
Cruising further north along the trail I began to realize how smitten I really am with Alberta’s wild and rugged ranchland. The history, the timeless spirit, and the vast and heaving landscapes were simply mesmerizing. Rolling through the lovely town of Caroline, with Ian Tyson crooning on the radio, city life seemed a long way away. For the first time in weeks, I felt completely relaxed and content. Of course, I knew full well I had to prepare myself for my next “gunfight.” After all, just a few kilometres ahead a formidable foe was waiting for me.
Most definitely, one of my favourite courses on the Cowboy Trail is the Pine Hills Golf Club at Rocky Mountain House. Parading through a rolling forest, the 6,542-yard layout is an oasis for all the weary, dust-covered cowhands who stumble in. When you consider the isolated, tree-lined fairways, the quality of the golf holes, and the beautiful new clubhouse, you’ve got enough goodness here to melt the hearts of the toughest sons-of-guns out there.
And, lo and behold, this cowboy finally got it together and played some golf. My strategy? I stared that mother down, took aim, and pulled the trigger with conviction. No hesitation, no fear, no mercy. That was the secret. Wyatt Earp himself would have been proud.
Revelling in my new-found game, I kicked up my heels and dashed off to my final frontier, my final “fight.” The Drayton Valley Golf Club, another rock-solid test along the trail, was the arena. What would transpire? Would anyone flinch? I saw it this way: another excellent golf course along the Cowboy Trail would be shown no mercy…and I’d leave, guns a smokin’, the last one standing.
For more information on The Cowboy Trail visit www.thecowboytrail.com
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and professional photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. You can visit him at www.andrewpenner.com