Western Family Vacation Guide
Depending on your era, family vacation memories depended on your spot in the pecking order. When I was a kid, air conditioning was governed by how far my sister Deb would roll down the window, many of the roads were dusty and I was always jammed in the middle. It was a gruelling marathon.
Today, thanks to full contact seat belts, air conditioning and constructive ways kids amuse themselves (besides repeatedly poking their sister in the ribs) family vacations have evolved into a pleasant journey and now I love travelling with my sister and her grandkids!
Our favourite picks and kid-friendly sites across the Canadian West are attractive to those with cowboy leanings and whether you are travelling with children as a parent or grandparent, we have steered this guide for the ultimate enjoyment of us westerners…
British Columbia is home to some of the oldest and largest ranches in Canada, and as a guest, you can expect to ride the trails with wranglers and ranchers, and see a lot of spectacular scenery and indigenous wildlife.
As you know, the best time to visit a ranch depends on what you want to see and do. While the big cattle drives happen in the spring and fall, you can also spend a day out on the range mid-season, moving the cattle to fresh grass with the working cowboys – some of whom are probably your relatives.
A vacation on a guest ranch can be as busy or as laid back as you like. Sightseeing wagon rides, horse trails to high mountain vistas, plenty of great food, good horses and hosts that welcome you like old friends are just a few of the experiences in store for you.
Accommodations range from authentically rustic to decidedly upscale or enjoy a unique adventure in a covered wagon or teepee! At night, relax in a sauna or hot tub or join the gang by the campfire.
Outfitters are also a great bet to see some new country and they range from the Spatsizi Plateau to Pemberton, the Cariboo to the Kootenays. Often their overnight or multi-day trips leave right from their ranch and can accommodate older children. It’s guaranteed spectacular scenery.
Nowadays, heritage sites are designed to be high entertainment for children and adults alike, and many offer hands-on learning such as gold panning. In the Cariboo region, there is historic Barkerville. During the summer months, the town comes alive with guided tours of the town site. There are mining demonstrations, street interpreters, stage coach rides, restaurants, gift shops, photo gallery, bakery, live theatre, gold panning, numerous demonstrations and over 125 restored or reconstructed buildings with displays to view.
A definitely “cowboy-friendly”site is the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin in Williams Lake. It is the only museum in B.C. to focus on ranching and rodeo and it honours both the cowboys of the past and the present. The museum is home to the B.C. Cowboy Hall of Fame and a special display area features photos, biographies and memorabilia of the province’s outstanding cowboys. Williams Lake is of course home to the famous Williams Lake Stampede held at the end of June. A fascinating ghost town in the area is Quesnel Forks, one of the earliest mining camps in the Cariboo. Visit the area’s restored buildings or stroll through the hillside cemetery.
Kamloops is B.C.’s original “cowtown” and the region is peppered with historic ranches. Take a tour on the Spirit of Kamloops offering passengers a journey back to the golden age of steam-powered railway travel. This train has been known to be held up by masked “bandits” on horseback! Also in the area is the Secwepemc Museum & Native Heritage Park, a unique facility dedicated to the preservation, promotion and enhancement of Shuswap people, history and culture.
Near Cranbrook is Fort Steele, a restored boomtown fort that offers a myriad of activities from stagecoach rides to live theatre, ice cream making and horse drawn farming demonstrations. There’s plenty to enthrall the kids. Fort Steele is also renowned for their famous Black Clydesdales.
The Thompson Okanagan region is known for its golf courses, orchards, and vineyards as well as the wildly varied landscape. To the north are vast boreal forests and to the south the desert of the Great Basin – Canada’s only true desert environment and home to the newest attraction, the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre near Osoyoos. The Nk’Mip (pronounced in-ka-meep) offers state-of-the-art interpretive centre, extensive indoor and outdoor exhibit galleries, hands-on displays, education stations, two multi-media theatre experiences and is very family friendly!
Built on cattle and fuelled by oil, Wild Rose country features the highest concentration of rodeos and western events of all the Canadian provinces. For the full experience, immerse yourself in the culture and plan a stay at one of the many working ranches that also welcome guests.
Beginning in the south, the Crowsnest Pass area is wild and remote with a history of spectacular tragedy when a giant rock slide claimed the lives of many at Frank Slide and miners suffered great tragedy at the Hillcrest mine disaster. The Crowsnest area is rugged riding territory with plenty of outfitters to take you into the high country.
Near Pincher Creek, enjoy the performances at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village, named after the legendary John George “Kootenai” Brown, who helped found Waterton Lakes National Park. Also in the area is Heritage Acres, an interesting “walk back in time” featuring restored buildings, barns, a grain elevator and the striking Crystal Village.
Waterton Lakes National Park has earned the “triple crown” of distinction; in 1932 it joined Glacier National Park in Montana to become the world’s first international peace park. More recently, it has earned two UNESCO designations; a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve. Local outfitters will guide you and your family through spectacular country on rides ranging from one hour to a multi-day pack trip, complete with a base camp and hot tub.
The clean, quiet town of Cardston was founded in 1887 by Mormon pioneers who arrived from Utah in one of the last great wagon trains. This is the home of the renowned Remington Carriage Museum, an absolute must-see, which boasts more than 250 horse drawn carriages, hands-on displays and a carriage ride.
Fort Macleod’s beautifully restored downtown was the first Provincial Historic Area, and they offer The Fort Museum of the NWMP and the NWMP 1884 Barracks Provincial Historic Site.
A visit to Claresholm will have you seeing spots – and leopards! This is the home of the Appaloosa Horse Club of Canada, dedicated to the unique spotted breed of horse developed by the Nez Perce. To the west are the beautiful Porcupine Hills, home to a number of deluxe guest ranches.
Spend the day at the historic Bar U Ranch, tour the interpretive centre then hear cowboy tales around the campfire. Travel to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The centre is a remarkable architectural feat as well as a stunning presentation of the First Nations living culture.
Fort Calgary, first founded in 1875 by “F” Troop of the North West Mounted Police, hosts a hands-on interpretive centre. Hear fascinating stories of the NWMP and other characters from Calgary’s past.
In Calgary’s Heritage Park, stroll through the ages and watch fur traders show their wares at the Hudson’s Bay Company fort, stroll through the 1910 town and ride the rails on a steam locomotive. Other must see sites in Calgary are the Glenbow Museum and the Calgary Zoo.
Head west towards the Rockies and experience spectacular natural mountain scenery in Banff and Lake Louise in the heart of Banff National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saddle up with an outfitter and ride through a pine forest hearing only hoof beats.
An hour east of Calgary is the new interpretive centre Blackfoot Crossing, the flagship of the Siksika Reserve. Every aspect of the massive structure is deeply rooted in meaning, from the eagle feather fan representing the sacredness of the eagle in the Siksika religion to the teepee sky light, brilliant displays and sculptures and outside, walking trails that lead you to historical sites including Chief Crowfoot’s grave. Tipi camping in the summer months is available.
In Edmonton, take a ride back in time at Fort Edmonton Park, the largest living history park in Canada. Join the costumed historical interpreters and try your hand living life as an early pioneer; experience life in the fur trade fort and on the streets of 1885, 1905 and 1920. A must-see is at the Royal Alberta Museum; held over by popular demand, Stories from the Southesk Collection, a 150-Year Journey highlights one of the most significant collections of Northern Plains ethnological artifacts in the world. While in Edmonton, take the kids to the West Edmonton Mall’s World Waterpark and Galaxyland Amusement Park.
East of Edmonton, sample fresh baked bread, experience daily life with costumed interpreters and watch fieldwork powered by horse and oxen hitches at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, offering a variety of programs and special events for families.
This is a land of endless sky, vast cattle ranches, strong-boned horses and champion cowboys. Plus, this is the home of the most famous riders of all, the 2007 Grey Cup Champion Saskatchewan Roughriders football team. In a province as vast as this, the attractions and possibilities for a truly western vacation with a whole lot of history thrown in for good measure are endless.
No story of the West would be complete without the history of our other famous horsemen, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In Regina, be sure to take in the RCMP Heritage Centre, which recounts their story on peaceable settlement in the West. The Wanuskewin Heritage Park and National Historic Site by Saskatoon offers a stunning centre that interprets centuries of Northern Plains Indian culture, and the Western Development Museum in Saskatoon, Yorkton, Moose Jaw and North Battleford interprets the history of settlement.
Fort Livingstone National Historic Site located north of Pelly, commemorates the first capital of the Northwest Territories (1876–1877) and the original headquarters and first post built specifically for the NWMP.
Prince Albert National Park was home to the acclaimed naturalist, author and orator, Grey Owl and you can still visit his one-room log cabin, plus the new museum dedicated to Grey Owl. Great riding trails throughout the park.
The southwest region of Saskatchewan is definitely cowboy country and the land of legendary men from Chief Sitting Bull to the outlaws of the Big Muddy. Wood Mountain Post Provincial Historic Park shares stories of the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull and his efforts to maintain peace with the new settlers and NWMP. As well, Wood Mountain also boasts the Rodeo Ranch Museum, changing displays of the Wood Mountain rodeo and area ranching. Fort Walsh, located in the beautiful Cypress Hills south of Maple Creek, established by the NWMP in the 1870s in an effort to ensure peaceful settlement, is today a vibrant interpretive centre and recreated fort with costumed interpreters. Tour the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. You can camp with your horses at the nearby equestrian camping site in the Cypress Hills Provincial Park and ride over to the Fort. The Big Muddy badlands near Coronach was once the hideout of outlaws and horse thieves and you can take a guided tour of the startlingly beautiful area. Explore the outlaw cave plus ancient Indian effigies. At St. Victor, view the spectacular petroglyphs carved by Plains Indians hundreds of years ago.
Old Man on His Back Visitor Centre interprets the 5,300-hectare natural prairie and a conservation herd of plains bison; Grasslands National Park near Val Marie offers approx 500 sq km of parkland preserving prairie grasslands and wildlife.
Horseback riding is huge here, with facilities for your own horses or the opportunity to ride with a trail guide is available in many provincial parks. Guest ranches also provide that famous Saskatchewan hospitality along with good horses. Be sure to take in some local rodeos and just for fun, head over to Rouleau and take a tour of Dog River™ – the fictional community immortalized in the hit TV show, Corner Gas.
More forts to visit include Fort Battleford (NWMP) and Batoche (Métis), both National Historic Sites offering a glimpse of our culturally diverse past, while Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt interpret the once-booming fur trade. In Lloydminster, be sure to visit the multi-faceted Barr Colony Heritage Cultural Centre.
Chicks in the Sticks!
Women Only Western Retreats
A growing trend in tourism are women’s only weekend retreats; an opportunity for like-minded yet busy women to leave their cares behind. It’s fun, relaxing, safe and supportive and more importantly, rejuvenating!
Scrubbing Up the Kids Cowboy-style
Rather than spit polishing your kids (and you know what I mean) one of the easiest ways to clean them up is to spend half a day at a water park, hot springs or beach. Parks with a waterslide work well because of the high velocity at which the children hit the water, dislodging the most stubborn grit. A lazy float down a river in an inner tube soaks off the campfire smoke, while playing on a sandy beach works well too; the fine sand shines them up almost as good as a grandma with a washcloth.
For more information visit cowboycountryvacations.com