It’s no fluke the town of Sundre finds itself smack-dab in the middle of Alberta’s so-called Cowboy Trail. Nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the rolling foothills and prairies of southern Alberta, the town of less than three thousand people is like an ode to the wild west, the kind of place where everybody knows everyone. A drive down Main Avenue (yes, it’s called that) is lined with businesses sporting names like Wild Bill’s, Harvest Moon and Wrangler’s, and everyone is just So. Darn. Nice.
While the town may be off the radar compared to its friends to the west like Canmore and Banff, it just so happens to be the jumping-off point for many of the outdoor adventures Alberta is known for, and it’s safe to say it’s one of the province’s best spots to channel your inner cowboy. Not in the mood to get down and dirty? Fear not, Instagramming city slickers—there are lots of other activities for you too. Here are some of the best outdoor adventures in and around Sundre.
Raft on the Red Deer River
There’s no better way to soak up the sun and scenery than to hop on a raft and float down the shimmering Red Deer River. The fun folks at Otter Rafting Adventures will get you geared up at their base in Sundre, then drive everyone out to the starting point about 45 minutes from town. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for wild horses, or even bears along the way.
After a quick safety briefing your group will pile into a inflatable raft, keeping an ear out for commands from the guide like “Forward! Dig! Back paddle!” as you make your way down a nearly 30 kilometre stretch of the river. The float takes you through narrow channels lined with fragrant pine trees and steep, rocky cliffs, and vistas winding toward stretches of vibrant turquoise water…which eventually funnel into a churning whirlwind of water that you’ll head straight for.
The Red Deer River is no stranger to rapids, with spots that have earned names like Staircase, Laundromat and The Wave Train, where brave souls can actually jump into the freezing water, go belly up and cling to the boat as it pulls them through. One of the biggest drops of the day happens right off the bat, so once your crew frantically paddles through it and emerges victorious on the other side whooping with excitement, it’s safe to say the rest of the day just gets even better from there.
Otter Rafting offers half and full day excursions from May through September (weather dependent), and packages include a delicious lunch enjoyed on the shoreline.
Insider tip: Book the full day rafting trip unless you’re pressed for time or the weather forecast isn’t in your favour, as you’ll hit some of the best rapids during the second half of the day.
Horseback ride in the Panther Valley
It wouldn’t be a trip down the Cowboy Trail without channeling your inner cowpoke, so pull on some boots and head out to Sunset Guiding and Outfitting. Located a one hour drive west of Sundre near the border of Banff National Park, the retreat has a few rustic cabins and a campground to host overnighters, and offers trail rides lasting anywhere from two hours to a full day.
Sunset Guiding has a few different guides, including Merle who is the quintessential cowboy—weathered hands, big hat and all. Happy to let visitors enjoy a more authentic experience, riders can hop up on their horse all by themselves, get settled in and take the reins. Helmets also aren’t mandatory like some other operators insist on—because we all know real cowboys don’t wear helmets!
You’ll then set off toward the mountains, and depending on which route you’re booked on could pass through thick forests, crest the grassy hills that make up the arid Panther Valley, or even look down on a waterfall or glistening Klein Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for those elusive wild horses, while soaking in the scenery only accessible to those who make the trek on horse or by foot.
Insider tip: Wear boots, jeans and maybe even a long-sleeved shirt to protect yourself from scratches, as the horses tend to brush up against trees and branches. Also, don’t book a full day ride unless you’re accustomed to riding…or don’t mind being stiff for a few days after!
Hike to waterfalls in Ya-Ha Tinda
From Sunset Guiding, it’s about a half hour drive to what just might be Alberta’s best-kept secret: the Big Horn Falls in Ya-Ha Tinda. It’s safe to say this is the most rewarding view you’ll ever get for less than 10 minutes of work.
Two trails branch off from the parking lot, with one heading up a hill overlooking the other which winds along a shallow creek bed. Honestly, it probably takes longer to order a drink at Starbucks than it does to navigate the entire distance of each path, which follows the steep cliff face before a final curve reveals the main spectacle: Big Horn Falls, in all its tiered glory.
Insider tip: Pack a picnic to extend your visit to the falls, and pack a swimsuit if it’s a hot day. Ya-Ha Tinda is a 75 minute drive from Sundre, and 45 minutes of it are on a dusty, gravel road.
For those looking for an outdoor activity in Sundre that doesn’t involve getting dirty, teeing off at the Sundre Golf Club is just the ticket. The perfectly-manicured par 72 course has 18 holes, which are a mix of wide-open fairways, water features and bunkers.
There’s also a driving range for those just looking to hit around a bucket of balls, and the stone-framed clubhouse has a lounge which is the perfect place to wind down the day with a cold beer.
Explore the trails on Snake Hill
If you find yourself in Sundre craving a taste of the outdoors but are short on time, head to Snake Hill located right in town. The conservation area boasts 17 kilometres of maintained trails that wind through a thick forest, eventually leading to sweeping views of the town, Rocky Mountains and Red Deer River stretched out below. Though it’s highly unlikely you’ll come across any snakes (who names these places anyway?), chirping birds are everywhere and visitors have been known to spot the odd deer or even moose.
IF YOU GO:
How to get there: Sundre is just over an hour’s drive northwest of Calgary along Highway 22 (the Cowboy Trail), so all of the aforementioned activities can also be done as a day trip from the city.
Where to stay: The Best Western Mountainview Inn & Suites is surprisingly luxe, especially if you manage to snag one of their modern suites which features a massive living room and king size bed. The complimentary breakfast is also a welcome surprise, and includes a waffle station, yogurt and oatmeal with every topping you could imagine, as well as pastries and fruit you can grab for the road. The Best Western also offers stay and play package deals with the Sundre Golf Club.
Alternatively, check-in to Rustler’s Lodge which is run by a lovely young family and stays true to the area’s cowboy roots. Those travelling with kids will love this spot, thanks to the indoor pool and hot tub, while the complimentary made-to-order breakfast is the perfect way to kick off a day of exploring.
Travelling with an RV or camper? Tall Timber Leisure Park is a handy spot to park, as it’s right on the town’s outskirts and has playgrounds and a pool to entertain the kids.
Where to eat: While it’s only open for breakfast and lunch, Kodiak BBQ and Deli in the centre of town is well worth a stop, especially if you drop by when they’ve got the barbecue going. Safe to say you’ll be craving their pulled pork for days after!
Top tip: Looking for a quirky photo-op? Drop by the Sundre Museum which is just off Main Avenue, and wander through its outdoor Pioneer Museum which houses buildings dating back to the early 1900s such as a blacksmith shop and ranger station. Then, head inside to the World of Wildlife where nearly 200 animal mounts are on display—just in case you ever wondered what it would look like if a polar bear and elephant got in close quarters.
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Globe Guide explored Sundre and area in partnership with Explore Sundre.