The foundation of Alberta ’s cattle industry was laid down here in the 20th century, when Senator Matthew Cochrane established the first of the big leasehold ranches in the province. Today’s town of Cochrane, 38 kilometers (24 miles) northwest of downtown Calgary  along Highway 1A, has seen its population increase by over 10 percent annually since the mid 1990s, now sitting at over 15,000.
Although ranching is still important to the local economy, Cochrane is growing as a “bedroom” suburb of Calgary. The business district, in the older section of town between Highway 1A and the rail line, is a delightful pocket of false-fronted buildings holding cafés, restaurants, and specialty shops.
To prevent the lawlessness that existed across the U.S. West from extending into Canada, the government began granting huge grazing leases across the prairies. One of the original takers was Matthew Cochrane, who established the first real ranch west of Calgary, bringing herds of cattle from Montana to his 76,500-hectare (189,000-acre) holding in 1881. After two harsh winters, he moved his herds south again.
A small piece of Cochrane’s land holding is now preserved as Cochrane Ranche Provincial Historic Site. Almost completely surrounded by development, the 61-hectare (150-acre) site straddles Big Hill Creek one kilometer (0.6 miles) west of downtown along Highway 1A.
A short trail leads up to a bluff and Malcolm MacKenzie’s Men of Vision statue of a rider and his horse looking over the foothills. An old log cabin by the parking lot is used as an interpretive center (403/932-1193, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. mid-May–Sept.) and picnic tables dot the grounds.
Immerse yourself in the Western lifestyle at Griffin Valley Ranch (403/932-7433), one of the few places in Alberta  that allows unguided horseback riding. Trails lead through this historic 1,800-hectare (4,500-acre) ranch along creeks, through wooded areas and open meadows, and to high viewpoints where the panorama extends west to the Canadian Rockies .
Horse rentals are similarly priced to trail riding (one hour $35, two hours $55, three hours $75); the catch is that at least one member of your party must be a “member” of the ranch (simply sign a waiver and pay the $50 annual fee). To get to the ranch, follow Highway 1A west from Cochrane for 18 kilometers (11 miles), take Highway 40 north, then follow the signs.
You’ll find Western-style on a budget at the Rocky View Hotel (1st St. and 2nd Ave. W, 403/932-2442, www.rockyviewhotel.com , $55–80 s or d). Rooms are very basic, with shared bathroom facilities and no phones. Bow River Inn (Hwy. 22, south of Hwy. 1A, 403/932-7900 or 866/663-3209, www.bowriverinn.com , $89 s or d, kitchenette $129) is a pleasant, reasonably priced motel with a choice of family restaurants within walking distance.
Two kilometers (1.2 miles) south of downtown is Bow RiversEdge Campground (900 Griffin Rd., 403/932-4675, www.bowriversedge.com , mid-Apr.–mid-Oct., $35–40), which has a wealth of modern facilities that include Wi-Fi, a playground, and a laundry.
Cochrane Coffee Traders (114 2nd Ave., 403/932-4395, daily from 7:30 a.m.) is as good as any place to start the day, especially if you snag one of the outdoor tables. Choose from a wide range of specialty coffees and sweet treats, as well as a healthy selection of sandwiches.
Back on 1st Street is the two-story wooden-fronted Rocky View Hotel (304 1st St. W, 403/932-2442) which houses the Canyon Rose Restaurant, a popular all-day dining spot, and the Stageline Saloon. Of the many eateries lining Cochrane’s downtown 1st Street, the most popular on a hot summer’s afternoon is Mackay’s (403/932-2455), an ice-cream parlor dating to 1948. A blackboard displays up to 50 flavors, but I’m told the favorites are still vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.