LUNDBRECK, AB – It’s been decades since my wife and I camped out under the stars. At this point in our lives, "roughing it" means spending the night in a decent hotel room with a king-size bed, hot shower and flat-screen TV. Free wireless would be a nice bonus.
So there was some hesitation when General Motors suggested that, as part of its media launch of the all-new 2014 GMC Sierra, we’d be spending a night camping in an Alberta cow pasture.
Now don’t get me wrong – in our younger years, we loved camping. We spent numerous vacations under canvas and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Summer weekends were frequently spent camping at various race tracks in southern Ontario and the U.S. midwest as we followed our passion for motorsports. The friends we made, the experiences we shared on those trips are still vivid memories.
As our family grew, the kids, too, were able to experience the joys of outdoor living. Our accommodations progressed from basic canvas to a tent trailer, then eventually to a fully equipped pop-up with a decent list of amenities, including running water and a portable toilet.
But as the kids grew up, the family’s interest in camping waned. So it was with some nostalgia that my wife and I prepared for this adventure.
The biggest shock came when we arrived in Calgary and saw the trailer we’d be using. How things have progressed since our camping days.
Hotel on wheels
The Sierra SLT 1500 Crew Cab we’d be testing had been hitched to an 8.5-metre (28-foot) travel trailer that was literally a fine hotel suite on wheels. The unit, a K-Z Sportsmen, had been provided for the GM event by Bucars, a Calgary-based RV dealer, and it was the perfect model for a travelling couple.
The entry door, located on the side at the rear of the unit, opened into a kitchen with a gas range, microwave, full-size refrigerator and plenty of counter and cupboard space.
To the right, there was a comfortable eating booth, with a pedestal table and two bench seats that could easily be converted into a bed if needed. On the left was a comfy sofa (could also be converted into a bed) built into a slide-out section. With a push of a button the whole area rolled out, opening up significant floor space.
A bathroom, with a flush toilet, full sink and vanity, plus a decent-sized shower and storage cupboard, was located mid-ship, while the front end of the trailer was taken up by a roomy bedroom with a queen-size bed.
An automatic gas furnace and overhead air conditioner ensured we’d be comfortable regardless of the temperature outdoors, and a gas heater kept an ample supply of hot water at the ready for morning showers.
The Bucars folks had even provided a large outdoor mat and a pair of lawn chairs so we’d be able to sit out under the large side awning, which also opened and retracted at the push of a button. If this is "roughing it" in 2013, we were all for it.
The Cowboy Trail
After a quick briefing on the new Sierra’s features and some tips on trailering, we set out for our overnight destination southwest of Calgary – the Sierra West Ranch.
The rolling hills along Highway 22, known as the Cowboy Trail, provided spectacular views, though the damage from the recent floods in the region was certainly apparent at various places along the way. As we got closer to the ranch, the sprawling ranges of Wildrose Country spread endlessly across the horizon.
Arriving at Sierra West, our rig was directed to a hill overlooking a campsite populated by earlier arrivals. Though the skies were threatening – and hordes of mosquitoes hovered – the view was spectacular.
In the distance, the foothills rose to meet the skyline, while below us a picturesque plain was dotted with seven other travel trailers and the barns and other outbuildings of the ranch filled the background.
A stream – Todd Creek – wound through the site adjacent to the event’s dining tent, where hosts Randy and Ginny Donahue whipped up a wonderful buffet dinner with beef and chicken plus all kinds of trimmings. The evening was capped by some live music that had everyone’s toes tapping.
For visitors, Sierra West offers several packages that incorporate the outdoor western lifestyle, including horseback day rides in High Country. As a working ranch, guests can participate in such real-life activities as cattle drives, cattle sorting and roping. Ranch accommodations include cosy log cabins and Cowtown, a replica of frontier town’s streetscape with bunkhouses, a Cantina (cook house) and the Longhorn Saloon. An adjacent gift/souvenir shop was opened just in time for our visit. If you’re looking for a true getaway where you can relax and savour the great outdoors at its finest, Sierra West is an ideal choice.
The next morning we were greeted with sunny skies and a wonderful, home-cooked breakfast. Ginny Donahue said she’d started cooking for us at 6 a.m., but her efforts were much appreciated.
After filling our tummies, we had an opportunity before heading back to Calgary to wander about the ranch, go horseback riding or head off for some sightseeing. As my wife had never seen the Rockies, we opted for the latter, taking a side trip along Highway 3 to Crowsnest Pass.
The drive provided a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the Livingstone mountain range, though time limits didn’t allow us to venture further.
We were able, however, to spend a few minutes at the site of Frank’s Slide, the deadliest natural disaster in Canadian history. On April 29, 1903, at 4:10 a.m., 82 million tonnes of limestone came crashing down on the small mining town of Frank, Alberta, as the face of Turtle Mountain collapsed.
It took just 90 seconds for the slide to obliterate the town, burying everything, including 100 people. Thirty managed to dig themselves out – the rest perished.
Experts today continue to be amazed at how such a massive amount of rock could move so quickly – the debris field is at least 30 metres deep and stretches over a space along Highway 3 that’s three kilometres wide.
Even more interesting is the fact geologists say the remaining mountain continues to move – about a centimetre a year – and is expected to tumble some day as well.
The route back to Calgary took us through the town of Nanton, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch in a classic small-town café. The main street also had several interesting shops, including a neat antique store with all kinds of interesting items. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the fact we would be flying home precluded any purchases, though several were considered.
Our western adventure culminated with an evening at the Calgary Stampede – an unforgettable experience. The exciting chuckwagon races were followed by an amazing stage show in front of the grandstand. One could also spend hours checking out the various exhibits, shops, games and rides on the sprawling grounds, but with an early flight pending the next morning, we settled for a quick walk through the colourful midway.
We’ll save a more detailed check for our next visit – which will surely happen soon.