The question: We're going to the Stampede in July, but would like a hands-on ranch stay outside the city as well. Suggestions?
The answer: Sure it's all right to whoop it up with the city boys, but why not set the mood – and get your hands on those reins – before the big event. First you need to figure out if you want a guest or working ranch.
"On a guest ranch, people can enjoy watching the cowboys work and can get a feel of the history behind the ranches," says Natascha Moore, president of the Alberta Country Vacations Association, an organization that represents both experiences. With guest ranches, you can go on trail or hay rides and often fish, hike and explore the area. And you won't be chased out of town if you ask about a hot-stone massage.
With working ranches, guests can ride alongside cowboys and wranglers, Moore says. "The key with a real working ranch experience is to join in the daily chores, learn how the work on the ranch is done. Nothing is staged for the guests, cattle has to be moved, broken fences have to be fixed and guests are welcome to get their hands dirty. When the daily work is done there is time for the hosts to share the history of their ranch, which in many cases [has been] in the family for centuries."
Whichever you choose, beautiful boots-up-on-the-porch views are included. So consider these picks from Travel Alberta's Jessica Harcombe Fleming:
Working ranches: Sierra West Cabins and Ranch Vacations is near Pincher Creek, a 2.5-hour drive south of Calgary. It's a cow and calf operation whose yearlings are trailed to the nearby Bow Crow Forest reserve during the summer. Guests can participate in cattle drives, cattle sorting and trail riding. Lodging is in log cabins with names like "The Homesteader" or "Sundowner." Ride the Wind Ranch, meanwhile, is a two-hour drive from Calgary. Guests here can hang out with Texas Longhorn cattle and go horseback riding. (Outings are available for both experienced and novice riders.) There's also hiking, fishing and, after all that adventure, hot tubbing.
Guest ranches: Peace Valley Guest Ranch is east of Grande Prairie, where you can cruise the Peace River to your destination: steak supper in a homesteader cabin built in 1919. boundaryranch.comBoundary Ranch (boundaryranch.com), meanwhile, is in Kananaskis Valley one hour west of Calgary, and offers guided tours on horseback through alpine meadows, the opportunity to see buffalo at the ranch, and a "Surf & Saddle" package that includes white-water rafting down the Kananaskis River. And Rocking R Ranch, only 20 minutes east of Calgary in Strathmore, combines the range experience with fine meals and crisp linens. If you're bringing your own horses, try the "Bale & Breakfast" package. Fresh bedding and alfalfa hay included, natch.
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Special to The Globe and Mail
(Editor's note: The online version of this story appears with the correct spelling of Grande Prairie.)