– This post was created in partnership with Travel Alberta – as always, all words, photos and explorations are my/our own. –
Crowsnest Pass has always been my sister’s camping destination of choice; I haven’t had much opportunity to head that deep into southwestern Alberta over the years, but when we decided to take the long way to the coast last summer, taking the windy highway 3 all the way along the US border to the Pacific ocean, we were reminded of how gorgeous the area is, how much we love driving through all the wind turbines, and how the small towns in that direction have a completely different flavour than anywhere else.
This was the most amazing scene, with the ranch and horse jumping ring and that mountain in the background that’s far more spectacular than I managed to capture – I couldn’t get the best shot with my phone in a moving car…
There are two routes to Crowsnest Pass from Calgary, both an equal distance and equally worth taking – the great thing about this road trip is you can head down highway 2, through High River, Nanton, Claresholm and Fort MacLeod, and back home via the Cowboy Trail, including the Bar U Ranch and Longview, Black Diamond and Turner Valley. It’s about 2 1/2 hours each way – long enough to feel like a trip, but not long enough that anyone is going to get tired of driving.
Before the townsites, you go through Frank, site of the Frank slide in 1903, when at 4:10 am, 82 million tonnes of limestone rock slid off Turtle Mountain onto the townsite below. I remember going on a field trip to the Frank slide in elementary school, and it stuck with me, imagining the tiny town and its people still under all that rubble.
Just past Frank are Coleman and Blairmore – close enough that they could be one town, with a bit of extra green space in the middle- it’s easy to confuse the two. They’re old towns, with not much in the way of new developments – but the aging facades are part of its charm.
One of the best things about small town Alberta are the diners – the legit ones, with actual round vinyl-covered stools lined up at a low counter, Jell-O cups and pie in a display case, and rows of thick ceramic mugs piled within easy reach for the bottomless black coffee.
And burgers piled like this. And grilled cheese sandwiches cut like this.
I somehow stumbled upon Chris’ Restaurant – perhaps by googling “diners in Crowsnest Pass” – and made Mike turn off the main road to get to it, a minute or three into downtown Coleman. We walked in and the handful of regulars turned to look at us – not in a weird way, in a sleepy small town way – and W was ecstatic to sit at the counter, and would you look at this menu?? A Denver sandwich for $4.50! Grilled cheese with chipped beef! Beef dip au jus! Patty melts! I am so excited to go back.
They also had 18 kinds of milkshakes – W’s favourite – served straight from the metal blending cup, no glass even. They also make their own pie – of course they do – but happened to be out that day except for one slice of pumpkin, which I don’t love. But the milkshake? Bliss.
And then – second dessert in Blairmore. Cinnamon Bear always has a lineup, and it’s easy to understand why – for one, I found the best chocolate cake on the planet – no seriously, the best – there. A straight-up thick slab cake, dark and moist, with a thick layer of chocolate buttercream on top. Just a cake, no layers, no decoration, no fuss. A square of cake on a plate with a fork. If they were closer to Calgary I’d be making the trek on far too many midafternoons. Coffee and chocolate cake? Yes please.
And Stone’s Throw Cafe is a friendly little family cafe with sandwiches and chili, and things like rhubarb crumble bars, butter tarts and Nanaimo bars – pure Canadiana.
Coffee + baking = best road trip fare.
In Coleman, there’s a brilliant yellow old church that has been for sale for years – it had Blackbird painted on one side, and I wanted to turn it into a pie shop. We heard just before heading through that it had been transformed into a cafe and music hall, and so we popped in. When I asked the owners at the counter when they had opened, they answered kind of cautiously… “today?” and I thought they had misunderstood, and rephrased my question, but no – they had literally just opened their doors, and it was their very first day of business.
All good reasons to head in a whole new direction if you have road trips planned this summer – or not – the best thing about this kind of short trip is that you can just hop in the car when you need to get out of town, and they don’t require a lot of pre-planning.
* Huge thanks to Travel Alberta for sponsoring this post, and helping me share this corner of my world.