At 6 a.m., as the sun warms the Livingstone Range just 11 kilometres to the west, fifth-generation prairie cattle ranchers Randy and Ginny Donahue set about the day’s chores. Wearing a white cowboy hat that complements his snowy moustache, Randy heads for the barn and saddles up his horse while Ginny mows the yard and tends to broken fences.
The Donahues operate Sierra West Cabins & Ranch Vacations, a small working cattle and guest ranch on open pasture land in the rolling foothills of southwestern Alberta. Located down a stretch of gravel road off the Cowboy Trail (Highway 22), an hour south of the town of Longview, this is indeed cowboy country.
“Most people can’t believe how much open country there is here,” says Randy. “You can ride for two hours and not see civilization.”
He rides to a nearby field to check on his herd of 150 grazing cattle, then collects his 40 quarter horses from another field. Back at the main yard, he readies them for trail riding.
“Most people can’t believe how much open country there is here. You can ride for two hours and not see civilization.”—Randy Donahue, owner at Sierra West Cabins & Ranch Vacations
Ranching life isn’t easy. Their long days are spent outdoors in all sorts of weather, but, having grown up on ranches near Fort Macleod, the Donahues couldn’t imagine another life.
“My granny said, ‘It’s in our hearts and it’s in our blood,’” says Ginny.
“We wouldn’t feel right if we got up and didn’t have cows and horses to look after,” Randy adds.
The couple chose to share their love of ranch life, converting their property’s 1905 log home into a guest cottage complemented by two guest cabins and “Cowtown,” a frontier town-style cantina, saloon and three bunkhouses.
Herding cattle from one pasture to the next is central to ranching, and city dwellers are given a taste of the ranching mystique on weekend-long cattle drives.
“We let the guests chase the cattle,” explains Randy. “All we do is give them guidance and make sure the herd is going in the right direction.”
Riding 25 km over brush-covered hillsides, across creeks and through wildflower patches, guests may not seriously consider quitting their day jobs for ranching, but do earn an appreciation for its almost magical appeal.
The 2017 cattle drives take place July 15 to 16 and August 12 to 13. Ranch accommodations are open to guests mid-May through November and during the Christmas season, with trail rides offered May through September (weather-dependant).
Three more places to visit in the prairies:
On the Cowboy Trail, take a horse-and-buggy ride through 35 historic ranching structures.
This cliffside UNESCO World Heritage Site is an ancient First Nations hunting spot.
In the Acadia Valley, visit one of Alberta’s dwindling number of grain elevators.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Calgary 111 times a day from 24 Canadian, 12 U.S. and 12 international cities.