If you’re looking for an authentic cowboy and horseback riding experience in Alberta head to Sierra West Ranch.
I cupped my fingers onto my forehead as we blasted into the hot heat of summer. I sat in the passenger seat of a comfy SUV while Heather Travis, PR Director for Canada Beef took the wheel. I got a quick glimpse of Calgary before we hopped on the highway bound for Canada’s Cattle Country. We would be spending the next few days living the life as cowboys, just two hours southwest of Calgary at Sierra West Ranch.
Driving from Calgary to Sierra West Ranch
I stared out the window taking in the rolling hills, grassy green as sun blasted itself across the bovine dotted landscape. Heather humorously repeated, “look at all the cattle, isn’t it exactly as you imagined it?” This would be my first visit to the rolling rangeland of Alberta and over the course of my cowboy, tenure at Sierra West Ranch, quickly fell in love with the romanticism of the place. A tip of my hat to the studs which made Legends of the Fall and Brokeback Mountain so dreamy.
We enjoyed a quick stop after an hours drive to grab a bite to eat in the small town of Black Diamond. We strolled up and down the street, popping into a hilarious vintage shop with a cowboy cardboard cutout which read “If it ain’t Alberta, it ain’t Beef.” We screamed with girly glee after discovering Marv’s Classic Soda Shop. The restaurant features an ice cream parlour, gift + candy shop and vintage diner decorated with plush pink and black booths, jukebox and ton of kitschy Elvis and Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. We devoured two Alberta beef burgers with fries and slurped it all down with an orange soda + vanilla ice cream float and chocolate + peanut butter milkshake. We continued to cruise south along Highway 22 arriving at Sierra West Ranch an hour after finishing lunch.
Sierra West Ranch
The property straddles the banks of Todd Creek and features three log cabins as well as a cutesy village the owners have erected called Cowtown complete with Longhorn Saloon, Cantina and three bunkhouses. We checked into our very own two-storey log cabin which featured a main floor open concept kitchen, cozy dining + family room, vintage soak tub and comfy bed. A spiral staircase leads to a second floor bedroom which opens up onto a backyard balcony. Standing here at night one can take in stunning views as the sun sets over the ranch which sits nestled below a post-card-perfect Canadian Rocky Mountain backdrop.
I spent the next two days running around in my leather cowboy boots + brimmed hat. I initially felt goofy but quickly relaxed into “right at home” as I perfected my lasso twirling and horseback riding skills. I was a city boy throwing myself into ranch life City Slickers style and while I was apprehensive at first (stepping in the mud, oh lordy) I quickly found the fun and adventure in ranch life.
The History of Sierra West Ranch
Our knowledgeable guides for the next few days would be the always smiling Sierra West owners Randy and Ginny Donahue. Both were born in southwestern Alberta and raised with the ranching way of life. Randy moved into the area in 1973 and has been actively ranching on this spot since 1979. The horse industry has always been a way of life for him from being stock rider in the Bow Crow Forest reserve to President of the Northfork Livestock Cattle Association. Ginny was born a ranchers daughter and spent her youth riding horses and handling stock. The Donahue’s make a great team and are perfect ambassadors for tourism in Alberta and Canada’s beef industry. Their passion for ranching is infectious and do they ever appreciate a good steak!
Sierra West Ranch Highlights
Sierra West Ranch consists of approximately 270 acres of deeded land and another 800 acres which they rent. The land is used to run a few head of cows and calves however most of it is used for yearlings that they buy in the spring and sell in the fall. For the past few years they have run Sierra West Frontier Cattle Drives (one in July and the other in August) to move cattle through various pastures. This labour intensive process is very important for grazing rotation so that the land remains in good shape for years to come.
Truck Safari at Sierra West Ranch
Heather and I hopped in a truck and enjoyed a tour of the various plots of land that the Donahue’s graze their cattle. Their herd consists of mainly black Angus and Red Angus along with a few Longhorns. I’ll never forget standing on the side of the road and listening to hundreds of moo’s being thrown in my direction as hooves inched closer to the fence to say hello. We turned off a gravel road and zoomed through long grass as we inched through a munching herd. The Donahue’s most famous cow is a massive longhorn which they have affectionately named Big Red. I turned to Heather and exclaimed, “I feel like we are on a safari right now!”
Al Fresco BBQ Steak Dinner at Sierra West Ranch
To celebrate our first day on the ranch we dined al fresco on a red linen draped picnic table in Cowtown. Special thanks to Andrew “The Beef Geek,” Stevens for preparing a fine feast showcasing local Alberta flavours. Andrew is the Corporate Chef for the Vintage Group in Calgary and is recognized across Canada as a chef with a passion and penchant for promoting Canadian beef. And does he ever cook a good steak! Our BBQ dinner was accompanied by several bottles of local craft beer from Village Brewery in Calgary.
Striploin Beef Carpaccio
salad of shaved carrot, candy cane beets, arugula and quick-pickled green strawberries
Angus Beef Ribeye Steaks
hodge podge of mixed garden fresh vegetables, including potatoes, peas, yellow and green beans, carrots and kale
Redwater Grilles Carrot Cake
graham cracker cream cheese icing and pistachio gelato
Cowboy Training at Sierra West Ranch
The following morning we gobbled up breakfast at the Sierra West Ranch saloon. Lip smacked bacon, sausage, eggs, french toast, fresh fruit and a box of donuts from Jelly Modern a famous little sweet shop in Calgary. Once fuelled up I pulled on my leather cowboy boots courtesy of The Calgary Stampede and hopped on a horse.
A group of us trotted over a hill and into a wee valley where we scooted cattle into a pen. Over the next few hours I watched as real cowboys spun ropes into the air and dragged calves to the ground. Each of them were quickly administered a vaccination, punched identification tags on each ear (one RFID and one ranch specific) and branded on their rump. It was in these few hours that I silently observed a team of ranchers pitch in to prepare calves for maturity. The calves were then released back into the field to happily graze with their mums. I stared back at a pair of exhausted ranchers who wiped their brows in the hot heat. It was at that moment that I promised myself, “for the rest of my life when I stand before a steak I will remember and appreciate the hard work of Canadian beef farmers.”
Horseback Riding at Sierra West Ranch
Chef Andrew Stevens left us a Do-It-Yourself Beef Brisket Cobb Salad featuring avocado, hot house tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, lettuce, smoked beef brisket and herb and buttermilk dressing. We devoured our meal then hopped once again on our horses to enjoy one last romantic ranch moment. Our adventure would have us trotting through tall grasses, zig zagging along rocky mountain terrain and splashing through a creek.
Pitchfork Fondue Finale at Sierra West Ranch
The Donahue’s prepared a fun farewell feast for my final evening at Sierra West Ranch. At large rodeo events ranchers enjoy Pitchfork Fondue where steaks are literally pierced by a pitchfork and submerged in boiling canola oil. The steaks cooked quickly and had a lovely browned crispy coating which were served with boiled potatoes topped with sour cream and bacon, corn on the cob, a slice of hearty loaf and a mixed green salad. A sweet finish featuring Angel Food Cake topped with fresh berries and sweet whipped cream provided a perfect moment for me to close my eyes, smile and clink the heels of my cowboy boots one last time.