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Golfing Alberta's Cowboy Trail

By: Andrew Penner


When the warm and relentless Chinook winds whip over the rumpled Alberta plains, shooting good scores definitely can be a challenge. Of course, when you're playing golf 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 gunslinger will tell you, sometimes the shootouts don't go quite as planned.

The 12th Hole at Paradise Canyon Golf Resort
in Lethbridge

The Cowboy Trail, a marketing initiative by a number of Western-themed businesses that operate amid the Alberta foothills, was created in the late 1990s. The trail, which extends from the sleepy town of Cardston in southern Alberta to Mayerthorpe in the north, is, for the most part, Highway 22 - a super-scenic, history-rich 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. The roadway itself - and the postcard-pretty scenes that unfold alongside it - often steals the show.

But, whaddya know, the trail also zips past some of the best courses in the province. Being a trigger-happy hacker, I began my journey with simple intentions: golf my brains out, visit a few attractions along the way, and then, in the evening, set up camp, eat some grits, and shoot back whiskey from a dirty shot glass.

However, after my first round of the trip at Paradise Canyon Golf Resort in Lethbridge, I quickly realized the whiskey - or at least the Wild Bill-sized shots - might have to go. With a stunning stretch of holes that cruise along the mighty Old Man River, Paradise Canyon is one of the premier golf courses in southern Alberta. The 12th, a wicked little par-3 with a tee perched high atop a wind-blasted ridge, is a highlight. Given the constant prairie wind, fescue-covered hills and daunting presence of the river, Paradise Canyon tests your aim and forces you to calibrate your sights. This is a shot-maker's dream, with the onus on controlling your ball.

The Beautiful Prince of Wales Hotel
is a Landmark in Waterton National Park

Waterton Lakes Golf Course, a couple of hours southwest of Lethbridge near the start of the trail, can be summed up this way: The layout itself is nothing to boast about. To be honest, it's rather rudimentary and behind the times. However, the unique experience of playing golf on the rolling plains, a stone's throw from towering slabs of granite that explode from the prairie floor, is undeniably cool. While the back side, which curls around the exterior of the property, is by far the better of the two nines, the entire 80-year-old route exudes an antique-like aura, something scratched down on parchment paper with a quill pen and left for decades in a desk drawer.

Waterton Lakes National Park borders Montana's famed Glacier National Park, and might be just as pretty. The Prince of Wales Hotel, sitting high on a barren bluff overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, is an iconic landmark in these parts. And the charming Waterton village 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 at the excellent Lakeside Chophouse, enjoy the souvenir shops, and act civilized. Your call.

To access your inner cowboy, a visit to the Bar U Ranch is a must. The working ranch, which dates to 1882, is located 15 minutes south of Longview and is a National Historic Site of Canada. It offers visitors a firsthand experience in the cowboy way of life. On a typical visit, you can watch a blacksmith in action, enjoy some tasty cowboy grub (bannock and beans, anyone?), view ranching demonstrations and tour the historic buildings. If you want a more immersive Western experience, consider a trip to Lucasia Ranch, a dude ranch in the Porcupine Hills.

The 2nd Hole at D'Arcy Ranch Golf Club
in Okotoks, Alberta

Speaking of ranches, D'Arcy Ranch Golf Club, a compelling cowboy country layout near Okotoks, only 20 minutes from Calgary, is the poster child - or is it "Most Wanted" poster? - 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' joe and something hot from the griddle. Designed by Ken Dye, D'Arcy Ranch is a must-play along the trail.

For day-trippers from Calgary, a few other great golf options are on this part of the trail. Turner Valley, Redwood Meadows (which hosted the former Nationwide Tour in 2004 and '05), The Links of GlenEagles and the newly renovated Sundre Golf Club are worthy of a round. (I would have put Kananaskis Country Golf Course - actually home to two exceptional courses - high on that list. Sadly, recent flooding hit the area hard, and both courses are closed for the season, and perhaps permanently.)

The 18th Green at Pine Hills Golf Club
in Rocky Mountain House

Cruising farther north along the trail, I began to realize how smitten I really am with Alberta's wild and rugged ranchland. The history, timeless aura and the vast, rolling landscapes are simply mesmerizing. Driving through the lovely town of Caroline, with the raspy voice of country legend Ian Tyson crooning on the radio, city life seemed far 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 showdown. Just a few miles ahead, a formidable foe was waiting for me.

One of my favorite Cowboy Trail courses is Pine Hills Golf Club at Rocky Mountain House. Meandering through a pristine pine forest, the 6,542-yard layout is an oasis for all the weary, dust-covered cowhands who stumble in. The isolated, tree-lined fairways, quality golf holes and a beautiful new clubhouse are enough to melt the hearts of the toughest sons-of-a-gun.

The Famous Par-3 4th on the Mount Kidd Course
at Kananaskis was Badly Damaged in the
2013 Alberta Flood - it Remains Unclear
if the Course Will Open Again

Lo and behold, it was around this part of the trail when I finally stumbled on a few "sharpshooting" secrets. My newfound strategy? I stared down that rascal, 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.

Reveling in my improved play, I kicked up my spurs and dashed off to my final "gunfight." Drayton Valley Golf Club, another rock-solid test, 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 about The Cowboy Trail, visit http://www.thecowboytrail.com.

Andrew Penner is a golf professional, writer, and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in many leading golf and lifestyle publications in North America and Europe. Andrew is also a 20-year member of the Canadian PGA and still teaches the game on a part-time basis. When not on writing or photography assignments, he enjoys chilling out in the backyard with his three boys and his wife, Dawn. Feel free to visit Andrew at www.andrewpenner.com. You can also reach him at andpenner@shaw.ca.