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Highway 22 – the Cowboy Trail – is a lovely drive through ranching country, interesting rock formations and rugged scenery.

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

“Now this is what Canada is supposed to look like,” the young German woman seated behind me said to her friend.

After almost three hours on a bus bound for Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, we had left the big-city qualities of the GTA behind. The view out the window was now small towns, farmers’ fields, livestock and lush bits of woods.

I swivelled around and, in a friendly way, asked the visitor from Munich what exactly she meant by her comment. What had she expected from Canada? “Big wide open spaces. Lots of green. More natural.” All the things she hadn’t seen during her time in Toronto, basically.

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Ontario's Lion's Head Provincial Park offers spectacular views of Georgian Bay.

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

I was headed up to Lion’s Head Provincial Park in Georgian Bay in search of the same. It was a fair chunk of time to spend on a bus – especially since I was coming back the same day after just a few hours of hiking – but worth it, I decided. Because here is my completely unscientific theory, developed over decades of travelling at home and abroad: Three hours by car is the perfect length of time for a quick escape that actually feels like one. It’s not so long that the journey is daunting, but it takes you far enough away that you’re removed from your everyday surroundings and experiences. And if you’re short on time and need to squeeze everything into a single day, you can.

If I drive two hours in any direction from Toronto, I’m still in Southern Ontario. It all feels familiar, thanks to years of school trips and weekend jaunts. But after three hours, I’m on the Bruce Peninsula. And even though it’s still technically Southern Ontario, it doesn’t feel like it, as my new European friend can attest.

Clean air flows through the forests of Lion's Head.

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

Lion’s Head delivered as I expected. The trails – made rocky by the Niagara Escarpment – were challenging in parts but still manageable. Clean air flowed through the forest, past the pines and birch trees. The views were absolutely spectacular. Eating my lunch on the namesake promontory, I watched kayakers paddle along the shore to tucked away beaches. They glided over Georgian Bay – clear and blue and in some parts even that particular turquoise associated with much more tropical destinations. For a split second I forgot where I was, thinking I was staring out over the Atlantic Ocean. I was transported.

The turquoise waters of Georgian Bay evoke far more tropical destinations.

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

The three-hour rule works in most places. Head south from Montreal and you could end up in the dramatic landscapes of Vermont’s White Mountain National Forest. From Halifax, you could end up in Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton or Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick. (If you think all the Atlantic provinces are the same, you haven’t explored them properly.)

One of my favourite examples: If you drive down from Calgary, as I did late this spring, you will end up at Waterton Lakes National Park. This mountainous beauty is practically a hidden gem when compared with Alberta’s better-known parks; while Banff and Jasper brought in, respectively, 4,181,854 and 2,425,878 visitors last season, only 568,807 people ventured to Waterton. It’s so off the radar that even a friend of mine from Calgary hadn’t heard of it.

You can get to the park in less than three hours, but better to lengthen the journey by taking the scenic route – Highway 22 – aka the Cowboy Trail. It’s a lovely drive through ranching country, interesting rock formations and rugged scenery. As you approach Waterton, big peaks appear to rise out of nowhere: Here, the Rocky Mountains meet the prairies, with no foothills in between.

The Prince of Wales hotel in Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park.

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

Once inside, Waterton Lake itself immediately commands attention. In the sun it sparkles; when the low early morning clouds roll in, it impresses with moodiness. Take a boat ride and you’ll pass into Montana’s Glacier National Park in the United States (no need to bring your passport). Together, the two parks form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, created in 1932 and the first of its kind in the world. Keep an eye out for the 49th parallel – yes, it’s visible! It’s not a fence but a clear-edged swath of land cut through the forest. Pretty neat, right? And definitely not something you see every day.

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To take in the park from above, tackle the Crypt Lake hike, a definite challenge (allow a minimum of six hours) that was named one of the world’s “most thrilling” trails by National Geographic. The adventure begins at the boat-accessed trailhead, then continues for 17 kilometres – including almost 20 metres through a mountain tunnel. Shorter hikes abound, although some trails are still closed due to the 2018 forest fires that came right to the edge of town. On the upside, as the locals pointed out, on some of the routes that are open, the views are better than ever.

What most sets Waterton apart from its more famous counterparts though is the genuine small-town vibe. Population: 105. Everyone here truly does know each other – and you’ll find bios of most of the families in the visitor’s guide. You can order a pizza with bison and Saskatoon berries at 49 North Pizza, owned by the Kretz/Robinson family, or get outfitted at the Tamarack outdoor store, which has belonged to the Bakers for six generations. Dine at the Wieners of Waterton (depending on just how immature your sense of humour is, you may be sorely tempted to buy a hat) owned by the Lows.

You won’t find any chain restaurants here beyond a Subway and a BeaverTails: no Chili’s or Old Spaghetti Factory or Tony Roma’s. That fact alone is enough to make you feel like you’ve left the “real world” behind.

One of my other travel theories is that an adventurous attitude comes more easily when in a new place, because we’re already out of our comfort zone. Also, you might never have a chance to try that zipline or eat that dish or jump off that cliff again. It’s now or never.

A ride with Alpine Stables takes travellers up wildflower-covered hillsides.

Domini Clark/The Globe and Mail

So it was that I – a complete horseback newbie – saddled up with Alpine Stables (owned by the Barrus/Watson family) for a ride through dense, deer-filled forests and up hillsides covered in purple wildflowers. Josh Watson (fifth generation) put me instantly at ease. It probably did not hurt he looked like a cowboy straight out of central casting.

“Do you wear that jacket to look good in the tourists’ photos?” I asked, referring to his oil-skin duster coat.

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“No,” he replied with a laugh. “I wear it because it’s practical.” In other words: He’s a man who knows what he’s doing.

The ride culminated on a rise with a spectacular view of the park. Josh obliging took pictures of me against the stunning backdrop as I tried to keep my horse from bolting off. I almost felt like a proper cowgirl. Had I been wearing a Stetson, I might have fully fooled myself.

Still, even a partial cowgirl transformation is pretty good for a mere three-hour drive.

The writer’s Alberta travels were subsidized by Travel Alberta. It did not review or approve this article.

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