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People who love driving – golf balls and cars – can have a heyday in the ultra-scenic province of Alberta, home to The Rockies.
Perhaps the best part of a journey through the Rockies is heading up the Icefield’s Parkway to Jasper, and onward to Banff.
The catch phrase “getting there is half the fun” could have been invented by Alberta golfers. People who love driving – golf balls and cars – can have a heyday in this ultra-scenic province. Alberta is peppered with exquisite courses that golf connoisseurs have been ogling for years. Naturally, in a province as big as Alberta, getting to some of these courses requires a bit of time behind the wheel. And you’ll be happy to know the views from the grass tend to be every bit as good as those from the highway.
Not surprisingly, some of the best drives in the province have a westbound theme. Perhaps there’s something about rich, rolling farmland juxtaposed against the chiselled peaks of the Rockies that draws people. It seems impossible to tire of gazing up at the Rockies – whether you’re heading directly towards them on the Chinook-blasted plains or zigzagging through them on some high and heavenly mountain pass.
The many highways that take you west from Calgary all seem worth the journey. Of course, for golfers, there needs to be a pot of gold – some fairways and greens – at the end of the rainbow. Not a problem. There are many highways that take you somewhere you’ll want to go – with golf clubs and a friend or three on board.
A quick journey west from Calgary on Highway 22 – or, my personal favourite, Highway 549 to Millarville – will lead you to the pastoral Turner Valley Golf Club. Although the trip is short, just 40 minutes from Calgary, the foothills-meet-mountains scenery of this trip is idyllic Alberta all the way. Red pumpjacks teeter against the Rockies’ front ranges. Rolling, cattle-specked hills, massaged by a million westerly winds, invoke classic cowboy culture and a way of life that’s still rural, laid-back and decidedly Albertan. This is the West. And it’s good to find yourself right smack dab in the middle of it.
Established in 1930, the Turner Valley Golf Club doesn’t boast all the bells and whistles of an upscale, semi-private city club. The clubhouse is simple (it’s actually an old schoolhouse), the driving range is mediocre (at best), but there’s an alluring, countrified charm here that’s felt the moment you enter the parking lot. And the smooth-flowing, walkable course (another bonus) serves up smokin’ mountain views and an exceptional back nine with a couple of new holes, to boot.
If the thought of going back to cityville is too depressing, fret not. One of the most impressive mountain drives – the highest highway in Canada – is close at hand. And it’ll take you to one of the best 36-hole golf facilities in Western Canada.
To get there, head south from Turner Valley to Longview and grab some beef jerky, a coffee and a sandwich at Ian Tyson’s Navajo Mug (if you’re lucky, perhaps Ian will be hanging out in the coffee shop and you can say hi). Then head west on Highway 541 to the Highwood Pass.
This awesome, two-hour drive takes you to an elevation of 7,239 feet. It’s one of the most spectacular highways in the Rockies. You’ll want to have a camera on hand and make plenty of stops along the way. Perhaps the best time to take this drive is in the fall when the alpine larches turn gold. Most locations in the Rockies require strenuous hikes to reach these beautiful and elusive trees, which only grow at high elevations. However, you can virtually drive right to them in the Highwood Pass. Another fine stop is Elbow Lake. A little-known alpine lake that requires just a 15-minute hike to reach, Elbow Lake is a glistening little jewel surrounded by gunmetal-grey peaks: a perfect spot for lunch.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones in the early 1980s, the two courses at Kananaskis – Mount Lorette and Mount Kidd – are staples on any golf swing through the Rockies. Although the abundance of bunkers on both courses can get a little tedious, the setting is sublime. The looming peaks, their upper reaches often caked with snow and ice; the continuous presence of the Kananaskis River; the hushed valley setting – it just doesn’t get any better. And the golf courses are walkable, reasonably priced, and always enjoyable, in spite of the surplus of sand.
Obviously, one of the most well-travelled scenic drives west of Calgary takes you down the Trans-Canada Highway to the beautiful mountain courses in Canmore and Banff. However, instead of blasting down the usual raceway, a more leisurely journey down Highway 1A is the better call. Starting in Cochrane, the 1A affords plenty of interesting stops. For example, the boat-filled marina at Ghost Lake is a welcome sight, something most prairie folk aren’t accustomed to seeing. A little further down the road, the historic McDougall United Church is a great place to stretch your legs. This church, built in 1875, is the second-oldest structure in Alberta still standing on its original foundation.
While the journey down the 1A is great, the golf at the end of the line is world-class in every sense of the word. If you leave early enough (watching the Rockies ignite with soft, morning sunlight is always memorable) you can play 36-holes of mountain golf in Canmore.
Designed by Gary Browning and Wade Horrocks, Stewart Creek has been a favourite with Alberta golfers since the day it opened. The course is relatively wide with huge, rolling greens and plenty of one-of-a-kind holes. Throw in beautiful conditioning, sublime views and awesome food, and you’ve got the recipe for an epic day of golf. After your early-morning round at Stewart Creek, head across the valley to Silvertip and get ready for a test of golf unlike anything else.
Although the course has been softened somewhat in recent years, Silvertip is a course with altitude and attitude. Tee shots must be hit to precise positions in order to score. Greensites are challenging, with severe drop-offs, deep bunkers and rock-lined ponds punishing errant shots. But the setting here is unquestionably one of the best in the entire Rockies. Plenty of late-day sun, ideal for enjoying the deck after the round, is a major benefit. And the cuisine, thanks to executive chef Stefan Mahon, is outstanding. If you like to swirl a fine pinot noir and sink your teeth into a 100-per-cent Canadian Prime steak, you’ll find your happy place at Rustica Steakhouse, Silvertip’s signature dining option and one of the best new restaurant openings in Canada last year.
Heaven forbid your road trip west should end in Canmore – there are many marvellous miles to go. Before you head out of the Bow Valley corridor, a round at the Fairmont Banff Springs should be mandatory. The historic Stanley Thompson layout, one of the most recognizable mountain courses in golfdom, boasts many incredible golf holes. The 170-yard fourth, dubbed “The Devil’s Cauldron,” never disappoints. It is, perhaps, the most famous par-3 in Canada. But the run of holes along the banks of the Bow River – the 10th through the 14th, which used to be the closing stretch before the routing was changed – are timeless, make-it-or-break-it holes that exemplify Thompson’s brilliance in golf course architecture to a T.
Perhaps the best part of a journey through the Rockies is heading up the Icefield’s Parkway to Jasper. To say this drive is a “classic” is an understatement. This highway is a national treasure, a glorious 230-kilometre trail of sky-piercing peaks and vast wilderness. Just a few of the many highlights include Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Sunwapta Falls, the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Falls.
In Jasper, one round at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course is never enough. This is the type of course you could play forever. Another vintage Stanley Thompson creation, Jasper is about as close to a perfect golf course as exists. Every hole has character, and every hole is beautifully envisioned.
If possible, your trip back to the plains should incorporate an eastward turn at Saskatchewan Crossing along the David Thompson Highway. Amazing in fall when the colours go crazy, the David Thompson is a majestic, rolling highway encased in jaw-dropping beauty. Also, if you’re craving another round of golf, the Pine Hills Golf Club in Rocky Mountain House is one of the most underrated golf courses in Alberta.
Unquestionably, in a province as beautiful as Alberta, there are, literally, a hundred other scenic drives that could be mentioned. Highway 9 to Drumheller, Highway 43 to Grand Prairie and Highway 22 through Crowsnest Pass are just a few that immediately come to mind. And really, that’s one of the sweetest things about Alberta. It really doesn’t matter what direction you go, great golf – and some of the most scintillating spins in North America – are at your fingertips.