For all my whingeing about the end of summer, I adore fall – it’s my favourite time of year. I look for any excuse to hit the highway – in any direction, but I particularly love heading southwest of the city, along the Cowboy Trail, to Priddis and Millarville, Black Diamond and Turner Valley.
A couple weekends ago, we helped with a barley harvest out at Bar U Ranch, a preserved working ranch and the only National Historic Site to commemorate the history of ranching in Canada. The Bar U was one of the first large scale cattle ranching operations in Canada, at one time ranging 30,000 head of cattle on 160,000 acres of grassland, and held a stock of 1,000 purebred Percherons. To sum its legacy from the Friends of the Bar U Ranch website: The ranch fed workers building the first transcontinental railway and waves of immigrants, Canada’s first Indian reservations, the first patrols of Northwest Mounted Police, our nation through the Great Depression and our soldiers through two World Wars. Bar U Percherons, “the work horses that powered North America,” built our cities and roads and pulled our trolleys and fire wagons, from New York City to Victoria, British Columbia.
And here’s something cool – in the visitor orientation building, there was a wagon filled with bags of locally grown produce – plucked from peoples’ back yard gardens – to take in exchange for a donation to the High River Food Bank. I loaded up on carrots, potatoes and onions.
Amazing, right? And it’s within an hour’s drive from Calgary. A gorgeous drive that will take you past the Millarville Market if you go on a Saturday morning (it wraps up Thanksgiving weekend!). Anyone can visit – they offer some great experiences – you can rope a runaway steer, sip some cowboy coffee, go on a wagon ride or check out the cookhouse. On this particular occasion, we were invited to come help with the harvest – everyone who showed up worked with Percheron-drawn 1940s farm equipment to harvest the barley that will be used in the distillation of gin, vodka and other spirits at Eau Claire Distillery in nearby Turner Valley.
Eau Claire, if you haven’t been (and even if you have) is also a must-stop – not only because they’re Alberta’s first craft distillery, producing some of the best gin and vodka you’ll ever have (and soon, Alberta’s first single malt whisky!) – but because you can sit and sip and taste and ask questions, and get a tour of the facility, buy beautiful and delicious things, and then go next door to the Chuckwagon Cafe for a burger or flat iron steak eggs Benedict. (The owner, Terry, raises his own cattle – the beef is dry aged 24 days and sublime. The burgers are more than worth the drive – as are the diner-style pies, baked by a local lady.)
Speaking of pie – and are there any better than those procured in small Alberta farming towns? – there is also pie to be had at the old-school Black Diamond Bakery.
Turner Valley and Black Diamond are next door neighbours, maybe five minutes apart. We always pull over at the bakery, which is conveniently located next door to Marv’s Classic Soda Shop. Typically, W goes into Marv’s to peruse the interesting sodas, ice cream and other sweet stuff, while I giddily load up on perfect Nanaimo bars, the very best (slightly runny, with raisins) butter tarts, cream puffs, farm-sized loaves of bread and pie at the linoleum-lined bakery next door.
I am starving, writing this.
We poked around the town a little more this time before heading toward the Bar U. There are always great curios shops – and beside one of them, another makeshift farmer’s market, featuring a truck pulled into a vacant lot and a single farmer standing at a couple tables unfolded under a single tent.
Who needs Williams-Sonoma when there are places like this?
We poked around, looking at old 8 tracks and vintage kitchenware while waiting for take-out burgers to be made at a different spot – the Black Grill – a trailer with a makeshift patio that we decided to stop at when W suddenly realized he was hungry. We decided to be more thorough with our burger research. (The Chuckwagon, for the record, always wins all burger contests. But we did our due diligence.)
Next, Longview is the last stop before the Bar U. Longview is small and beautiful and known for its beef. The recently relocated Longview Steakhouse is widely known as one of the best places to get a steak in Alberta. (You’ll want reservations.)
A little further down the road, the Longview Jerky Shop – yes, there’s an entire building dedicated to jerky – always has a lineup. The jerky is unlike any other, available in dozens of flavours, and the fridge is packed with other cured meats, like thick-cut bacon that costs about half what you’d pay at a butcher in the city. Also worth the drive.
If you’re looking for a beautiful (and delicious) way to spend a day before the snow flies, I strongly recommend heading southwest for some meat, pie and history.
I love showing off my home province – thanks to Travel Alberta – for helping me do it! As always, words and opinions are my own.