On Friday, June 1 we headed west from Calgary to explore Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park, one of Alberta’s newest provincial parks, consisting of 3,430 acres along the north shoreline of the Bow River, between Cochrane and Calgary. Access is via Glenbow Road, about 4 to 5 km of rolling, gravel road. Road improvements at the Glenbow Road turn-off from Highway 1A are just about finished and the typical blue provincial park sign points out the upcoming turn-off.
The lands of Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park have a history of human use spanning more than 10,000 years. Natives corralled bison in the coulees and used the uplands for seasonal tipi camps. Portions of the park were formerly part of the historic Cochrane Ranche. In 1909, a rail flag station was built to transport sandstone from the on site quarry; some of the sandstone went to Edmonton to build the Alberta Legislature building. After the quarry closed, the lands because known as the Glenbow Sheep and Horse Ranch. The ranch was purchased by the Eric L. Harvie family in 1933.
In 2006, the Harvie family sold the ranch land to the province at a price well below market. Over the next five years, considerable work was done to ensure the preservation of the foothills fescue parkland and to construct the visitor facilities in place today. The province, federal government, Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation, Harvie Family Foundation and others funded these facilities. The main trail running through the park is registered as part of the Trans Canada Trail system. The park officially opened to the public in August 2011.
Planning Your Visit
There’s parking for about 100 vehicles. There are no flush toilet facilities in the park, so you may want to visit the pit toilets at the end of the parking lot before starting to explore the trails. Be advised there are no water fountains, faucets nor any other source of potable water in the park, so be sure to pack enough to stay well hydrated. Dogs are permitted, but must be on a leash (not more than 2 m in length). Informative signage , picnic sites and additional pit toilets are dotted throughout the park along the paved and gravel trails.
In addition to programming for schools, the Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation offers guided tours and other activities for members of the general public. On the day of our visit they ran several golf-cart tours for those with limited mobility or otherwise limited ability to travel the pathways on foot, bicycle or roller blades. View the events calendar for a list of current activities/fees.
Prior to leaving home, we a bit of online research. to get a sense of what we could expect to find in terms of trails and facilities. Since we wanted explore as much of the park as possible, we decided to bring our bicycles. They were pretty dusty by the time we arrived at the fairly empty parking lot and needed a good cleaning and chain lube when we got back home. We stopped many times to take photographs, so at the end of our 3 1/2 hour visit we’d only covered about half of the trails in the park (25 km total riding distance). A few trails are off-limits to bicycles. Bike stands are situated at the start of these trail sections so that you can lock up your bike and travel by foot. Other trails are open to bicycles but access is through a very narrow cattle gate, so you have to stand your bike up on the rear wheel and put a bit of extra effort into accessing those trail sections. In hindsight, we should have taken our mountain bikes – not our road bikes. Fewer gears and smooth tires made some of gravel sections of the Bowbend Trail very challenging (Mrs. GeoK had to get off and push her bike).
Flora and Fauna
This park has a lot to offer when it comes to birds, butterflies and wildlife. We enjoyed birdsong throughout our ride, particularly at the west end of the park. We spotted a couple of hawks (and remnants of a large egg), sparrows, a little yellow bird with black wings that we couldn’t identify, a Canada goose or two and more. Owls and bald eagles have also been spotted in the park.
A vast array of wildflowers was in full bloom: Three flower Avens, Blazing Stars, wild strawberries, alpine chickweed, yellow lady slipper orchids, early blue violets and more.
We spotted two small groups of whitetail deer, an assortment of insects, a wide variety of butterflies and many of the little prairie gophers.
There are no geocaches in the park and another member of the Calgary area geocaching community who toured the park on opening weekend posted in the local forums that the park staff were not keen on the idea of geocaches in this new park. We did make it to a loggable brass cap location just outside the northwestern park boundary and there is a traditional geocache located along Glenbow Road. There are also several geocaches located just off Highway 1A between Calgary and Cochrane. When we stopped in at the visitors’ centre the staff member said they were thinking about setting up a few caches in the park, but they really didn’t want people going off trail and trampling the fescue grasslands. Only time will tell how geocaching-friendly this park will be.
As accustomed as we are to enjoying the provincial parks of Kananakis Country, the fescue grasslands, coulees and rolling hills of Glenbow Provincial Park offer quite a different experience. Between the scenery, ranching history, wildlife, birds and wildflowers there’s something for just about everyone. A bigger network of trails, including some single-track options, would make this park more appealing to cyclists and it was encouraging to see signs of additional trails being developed at the west end of the park.
That being said, the gravel access road, limited parking, and simple amenities will most likely deter some potential visitors. The 100 meter elevation change between the visitors’ centre and the main pathway will deter others from making a return visit. It will also be interesting to see whether the tight controls over public use of the new provincial park will have a long-term negative effect on the number of visitors. For example, there are several locations where signs warn of fines up to $5,000 for going off trail and signage throughout the park clearly states that all visitors are required to stay on the paved and gravel pathways. We’ve bookmarked the Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation website and will continue to follow this story.