The journey starts near Waterton Lakes National Park, on the border with the state of Montana:
Canadian border to Pincher Creek and Maycroft (120km)
Shops: Waterton Townsite (small shop), Twin Butte (general store), Pincher Creek (supermarkets), Lundbreck (liquor store)
Accommodation: Waterton Townsite (hotels, camping), Route 6 (several B&Bs before Pinchers Creek, also campground not long after Waterton Townsite turnoff), Pincher Creek (hotels, cabins, campgrounds), Maycroft (Provincial Recreation Area, $10/site)
From the Belly River campground, the road glides down to the water and then climbs steadily to a 1,600m peak with a lookout over the park and the praries. Savour this last view of the mountains because unless you’re going to spend time in Waterton National Park hiking, the hills get steadily lower from here on in.
That’s not to say that the road to Pincher Creek is totally flat. It rolls all the way over the extending fingers of the mountains, through the tiny village of Twin Butte and dropping you down in a town where Cowboy Culture is alive and well. The annual Cowboy Poetry Festival is held here every June and you can explore the history of the frontier at the tourist information centre.
You’ll also find two large supermarkets here (stock up because there are no services for over 100km once you turn onto Route 22), banks and a very handy swimming pool, where showers can be bought for just $2. Next door is the library and there’s an open wifi signal in the area.
It’s hard not to notice the wind farms as you leave Pincher Creek. They provide power for thousands of homes in Alberta and they’re an indication of the strong breezes that often whip through the area – breezes that can make the 20km to Lundbreck on Highway 3 a real trial. Perservere through to the Route 22 junction, the Cowboy Trail, where a change of direction will bring some relief.
It’s a relatively easy 24km up this busy road with wide shoulders to the Maycroft Provincial Recreation Area, a simple parking lot with picnic tables, toilets and pump water where you can camp for the night – a well deserved rest if you’ve done this all in one day.
Maycroft to Longview (87km)
Shops: Longview (small shop)
Accommodation: Maycroft (Provincial Recreation Area, $10/site), 47km from Maycroft (Chain Lakes Provincial Park), Longview (hotels, Trails & Tales campground $15)
The road rolls relentlessly between Maycroft and Longview, putting to rest the notion that the praries are all flat! This is ranching country and you pass mile after mile of grassland and cows out to pasture.
The first place to take a break and refill your water bottles is the Chain Lakes Provincial Park, with its picnic area, simple campsite and a lake that’s popular with boaters. It’s just over halfway to Longview, a stretch broken only by the Bar U Ranch, a Canadian National Historical Site.
The highlight of Longview is the Jerky Shop, where carnivores can pick up bucketloads of dried meat from not only beef but also exotic elk and buffalo. There are also several restaurants, a small food shop and a library.
Longview to Cochrane (100km)
Shops: Longview (small shop), Black Diamond (supermarket), Turner Valley (small shop), Bragg Creek (supermarket), Cochrane (several large supermarkets)
Accommodation: Longview (hotels, Trails & Tales campground $15), Bragg Creek (upmarket B&Bs, provincial campgrounds about 10km away), Cochrane (hotels, Bow River RV Park, $26.75)
The rolling hills continue apace to Black Diamond, a fun little town that’s tried hard to keep its downtown vibrant. Check out the Black Diamond Bakery on the main street, with its amazing selection of breads, cookies and other calorie-filled goodies. Just down the hill from the bakery, on the left, you’ll find the library with free internet access and a strip mall with a supermarket.
The same road leads to Turner Valley and just out of Black Diamond you’ll see a bike path that will take you off the road for a few kilometers. There’s a tourist information centre in Turner Valley and some plaques commemorating the history of the oil industry in this area.
Turn right at Turner Valley onto Route 22 and follow that until you see the turnoff for Millarville. A few kilometers down this quiet road you’ll see the well-marked right turn for Bragg Creek, complete with a stunning hill to climb.
When you get to the T-junction of Route 22 and Route 66, you go left and a quick right for Bragg Creek but if you’d just like to camp, you’re better off carrying on down Route 66, where you’ll find several provincial parks about 10km down the road. Gooseberry is the first one you’ll come to, with basic facilities for $20, but for the same price you’re better off carrying on 2km to the McLean Creek Trail turnoff and the McLean Creek Provincial Recreation area. It has far more facilities, including showers.
Otherwise, carry on to Cochrane on Route 22, which gets busy but always has a wide shoulder, sometimes almost as wide as the lane! In Cochrane, the only official camping option is the Bow River RV Park but it’s one of these expensive parking lots aimed at motorhomes. You find it by following the signs off Route 22, taking your first right over the bridge as you come into Cochrane.
The cheeky-and-free camping option is to watch for the bike path on your right as you make that turn just after the bridge. Get on the path and follow it along the river. There are one or two places where you could concievably set up a tent and be relatively hidden or, if you follow it right to the end, you’ll see where the path runs alongside a gravel pit with no houses around and then into the RV park. There are no ‘no camping’ signs but there are a lot of people out walking so it’s only for hardy free campers.
Cochrane to Eckville (170km)
Shops: Cochrane (several large supermarkets), Cremona (small supermarket), Westward Ho (general store), Eckville (supermarket)
Accommodation: Cochrane (hotels, Bow River RV Park $26.75), Spring Hill (RV Park), Cremona (motel), Westward Ho (RV park), Eckville (motel, RV Park $20)
Some sturdy climbs await you as you leave Cochrane on Route 22, bound for Westward Ho. The traffic is busy up until the turnoff for Airdrie (the Spring Hill RV Park is at this turnoff) and then things calm down a bit but in any case the gloriously wide shoulder continues.
Cremona is little more than a crossroads town but there is a reasonably well stocked supermarket here and just beyond the town is one of the few opportunities we saw for free camping along Route 22. Watch on the right as the verge widens and a stand of trees appears. It’s not ideal but in a pinch you’d be mostly hidden from the road.
The road smooths out as you approach the junction with Route 27 and turn left for Westward Ho. There’s a small shop and gas station on the right as you come into Westward Ho and then watch for the first road to your right, at the top of the rise. This will take you all the way through to Raven on quiet country roads, getting you off Route 22 and saving you at least 10km. The catch is that the last 12km of this route are unpaved.
If you do opt to turn right, you’ll go through Eagle Hill, where you’ll find a small open-air horse arena on the left. There’s a pit toilet and the cowboys we met said it was no problem to tent for the night. Just bring ample supplies of water. If you’re lucky, the cowboys might put on a show of steer wrestling or barrel racing for you.
A little further on the road swerves right, then left up to Route 587, where you briefly go left, over the river and right towards Raven and Highway 54.
Another dog leg brings you onto the 766 to Eckville, a tiny farming community with a Lions Campground near the water tower. It’s $20 for a pitch including power, water and showers. If you want to tent for free, locals told us it would be no problem to use the adjacent fields but we didn’t try it.
Unfortunately, we got distracted by bad weather and long days and didn’t take great notes from Eckville to Edmonton. For that part, you’re on your own. Sorry!