Okotoks Big Rock

Athabasca Glacier

Okotoks erratic, The Big Rock

To locals it’s The Okotoks Big Rock, but the name doesn’t convey its significance. It has been designated a Provincial Historic Resource. Well this is a really big rock, 16,500 tonnes (18,200 tons) to be precise. It’s 41 by 18 metres (135 by 60 feet) and is 9 meters (30 feet) high. And it’s sitting out on the prairie.

Let’s start with a bit of history, to understand what is it and how it got here.  Big Rock’s origin is in the Rock Mountains. A massive landslide occurred near Mount Athabasca about 30,000 years ago. This is 280 kilometers (175 miles) as the crow flies to the north east from its current location. Distance traveled was far more because the route was not direct.

mapiong showing distance from origin to final resting place of Okotoks Erratic

Millions of tonnes of rock were deposited on top of the Athabasca Glacier when the landslide occurred. Glaciers “flow,” certainly much slower than a river of water. Over the ages this pile of rock moved eastward and then down the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. During the process, rocks were deposited in what is known as the Foothills Erratic Train. The Train runs 644 kilometers (400 miles) from Jasper National Park to northern Montana. Pieces ranged from gravel to enormous boulders. The largest of these is the Okotoks Erratic, our Big Rock.

 Indigenous Connections

Our local town’s name is derived from The Blackfoot word for rock which is “okatok”. Big Rock has cultural significance for the Indigenous people in the area. Here is a Blackfoot legend:

“One hot summer day, Napi, the supernatural trickster of the Blackfoot peoples, rested on the rock because the day was warm and he was tired. He spread his robe on the rock, telling the rock to keep the robe in return for letting Napi rest there. Suddenly, the weather changed and Napi became cold as the wind whistled and the rain fell. Napi asked the rock to return his robe, but the rock refused. Napi got mad and just took the clothing. As he strolled away, he heard a loud noise and turning, he saw the rock was rolling after him. Napi ran for his life. The deer, the bison and the pronghorn sheep were Napi’s friends, and they tried to stop the rock by running in front of it. The rock rolled over them. Napi’s last chance was to call on the bats for help. Fortunately, they did better than their hoofed neighbours did, and by diving at the rock and colliding with it, one of them finally hit the rock just right and it broke into two pieces.” Credit: Alberta Culture and Tourism https://www.alberta.ca/okotoks-erratic-big-rock.aspx


CyArk is a nonprofit whose mission is to “digitally record, archive and share the world’s most significant cultural heritage and ensure these places continue to inspire wonder and curiosity for decades to come”. They produce high quality 3-D digital scans of archaeological and cultural heritage sites. There are only three sites in Canada that have been preserved in this way. The Big Rock is one of them. CyArk partnered with the Government of Alberta and SarPoint Enginerring and the scans were done in September of 2013. The results can be found on their website here: https://www.cyark.org/projects/okotoks-erratic/overview

Trip Advisor list The Big Rock as the Number One thing to do in the Okotoks area. When you are visiting the area we hope you now have some understanding. And it’s why there are a number of businesses that use Big Rock in their name. Make it part of family day trip. For other day trip ideas click here.

Cool Little Towns

A New Beginning

Eight municipalities south and west of Calgary formed a tourism marketing group that billed the members as “Cool Little Towns.`We have updated this post as some significant changes have taken place. This original organization was municipally run with the long term goal of transitioning operations to participating businesses. The transition has taken place and the new organization is Foothills Tourism. Check out their website here. The Towns are still cool and new organization features even more communities.

The Original Cool Little Towns

This post looks at the original eight communities. All are a short drive from Riverbend Campground which means there is lots to do within an easy drive when you stay here . We have previous posts that featured day trips to two of the original towns Okotoks and High River. In addition to these two, the towns of Bragg Creek, Black Diamond, Turner Valley, Longview and Nanton, along with our Municipal District of Foothills, cooperated to present themselves as the “Cool Little Towns.”

Events and Tours

A visit to the Foothills Tourism website is worthwhile as they provide highlights for each of the participating communities plus events and tours. First, check out events. You will discover that some of the events listed are ongoing such as exhibits at a museum while others such as.festivals, happen over a weekend or on a specific day. Each tour has a theme and takes you through several communities. This means you day can be focused on your interests. You can follow their tours or use one of their tours as a jumping off point for your own adventure. The area is rich in history which encompasses agriculture and energy development. If your interest is the arts find tours and events that explore local galleries or look at film and television production. Dining is a popular theme and you can discover everything from diners to fine dining.

Communities to the West

Now we are going to give you a little flavor of each of the other towns. Our geography includes prairie, foothills and the nearby Rocky Mountains. The first town we are highlighting, Bragg Creek, is the farthest west, and is in the heart of the foothills. As one would expect, the area is scenic, and heavily treed. Here you are at the gateway to Kananaskis Country. Outdoor recreation is popular with nearby Elbow Falls, Bragg Creek Provincial Park and the Canyon Creek Ice Caves. Visitors come to enjoy hiking, fishing, off-roading, trail riding and sight-seeing. In town you will find is a vibrant community of artists and artisans and culinary champions.

This plaque tells visitors the history of Woo`s General Store in Black Diamond.

Black Diamond and Turner Valley are two towns so geographically close there has been talk over the years of amalgamating. A three kilometer walking path, the Friendship Trail, connects these communities. They date back to the 1880’s. The discovery of natural resources was very important historical milestone for these communities. The discovery of coal deposits in the area was the inspiration for the name Black Diamond. A significant milestone for Turner Valley was the discovery of petroleum in 1914. A local historian says that by 1942 the oilfield was producing 90% of Canada’s oil. Guided tours of the historic Turner Valley Gas Plant from this era are available during the summer. Outdoor adventures abound in this area and, within the communities, enjoy shopping and dining experiences. Two popular stops are the famous Chuckwagon Café and Cattle Co. in Turner Valley and Marv’s Classic Soda Shop in Black Diamond.

Communities to the Southwest

The famous Chuckwagon Cafe in Turner Valley.

South of Black Diamond, in the heart of ranching country, is Longview. The town experienced a boom in the 1930’s with oil exploration and production.  During that era, Longview was known as Little New York while a sister town to the north was known as Little Chicago. A roadside monument is all that remains of Little Chicago. Paying tribute to these heady days is the Twin Cities Hotel, which is a popular spot for dining and live music. Another local attraction is the famous Longview Beef Jerky Shop. A short drive south is the Bar U Ranch. The ranch was established in 1882 and is now a National Historic Site preserving the west’s ranching history. Legend has it that the Sundance Kid visited the Bar U.

Communities to the South

Next, the Town of Nanton, which is 49 kilometres south of Riverbend Campground. Years ago, Nanton was a popular stop for water when folks were travelling through the area. Motorists could re-hydrate at a public water tap. Nanton water became well known throughout southern Alberta. This was one of the first waters to be bottled and sold, and the Nanton Water & Soda Company continues to operate today.

There are two standout attractions in Nanton. The first is the Bomber Command Museum of Canada. For those interested in aviation and military history this is a must see. A highlight for many is being able to enter a restored Lancaster Bomber.  The second standout is the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre. Grain farming shaped the west and every fall farmers brought their harvest to the local grain elevator. These huge wooden structures stood as sentinels along the rail lines in almost every town and village. Sadly, most of these elevators are gone, victims of progress but Nanton has preserved three of them. The Discovery Centre tells of the history of farming in Alberta.

Plan Your Day Trip

This is certainly not meant to be a comprehensive look at the Cool Little Towns. We do hope you are intrigued to discover more for yourself. Each town presents a plethora of shops, sights and adventures. We encourage you to visit and discover for yourself. Until next time, happy motoring.

Nearly every town in the west had one or more grain elevators. Most have bowed to progress. The people of Nanton have save three and you can study their history at the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre.

A Day in High River

We have recently been writing about exploring this area while staying at Riverbend. This post describes a day trip to High River, a town just 22 kilometers south on Highway 2. This is another of the “Cool Little Towns” of Southern Alberta. Travelling the highway to town and driving around town, it is clear that agriculture is a main focus of the region.  To the east is mostly grain and to the west, especially through the foothills, mostly cattle.


Southern Alberta experienced devastating floods in 2013. Here at Riverbend, we saw extensive damage when the Sheep River overflowed the banks. The Highwood River which flows through the Town of High River had a history of flooding in low lying parts of he town. Nothing from the past compares to what the town faced four years ago. The town was under water which prompted officials to order the evacuation of the entire population of 13,000. These events received extensive media coverage and the pictures and video can elicit an emotional response, yet these don’t come close to what one experienced being on the ground, in the midst of the event

A staggering $200 million has been spent on flood mitigation and the town now claims to be “…the most well protected town in Canada, from flooding.” The resilience of the residents shines through in what the town is becoming in their rebuilding. The historical portion of the downtown area has seen extensive rehabilitation and restoration. Some buildings in this area that, prior to the floods were starting to show their age, have a new lease on life. Vacant store fronts are filling up and as you walk through the area, it’s hard to image what happened here such a short time ago. The Town had an opportunity to almost reinvent itself, and in some ways is better for it.

Day Trip Highlights

During your visit to High River make certain to visit the Museum of the Highwood. It’s located in the old train station (406 First Street). One exhibit tells of High River’s “big screen” credits. The variety of scenery in the area has lead to quite a bit of motion picture and television production in the area. This began with the 1926 film, “Chip of the Flying U” starring Hoot Gibson.

Another historical site is the Sheppard Family Park which is billed as a “Southern Alberta Pioneer Life Showcase.” The Park features the McCoy log cabin originally built in 1883, a heritage home from 1899, a one room school house and a barn built in 1913. There is a playground and picnic area and the site is home to a community garden project. Community volunteers lovingly care for this showcase. Extensive damage occurred during the floods. As the community has been rebuilding, the volunteers were first focused on personal homes and area businesses. You will find some facilities still have work ongoing. At this writing, the McCoy cabin is very close to completion and will soon be open to the public.

High River Murals

Another favorite feature of High River is the historic murals. These are found on the sides of buildings throughout downtown. They depict the rich history of the area including harvest, cattle drive and aviation. One is titled “Sunday Afternoon at the Polo Match.” You might be surprised to learn about the popularity of polo in this area going back about 130 years to the 1880’s. In fact, the High River community of Polo Park is on the site of the former polo grounds. Murals also feature famous residents from the past, former Prime Minister Joe Clark, and author W.O. Mitchell. You can find a guide to a walking tour of the murals on the Town of High River website here.

Maggie’s Store, a movie set for the CBC Television series Heartland is a popular attraction in downtown High River.

High River Welcomes You

Unique shops, galleries, restaurants and a community full of friendly and industrious prairie folk, you’re sure to enjoy your day trip to High River and you can be sure the town appreciates the return of tourism to their community.

A Day in Okotoks

A great place to begin your day in Okotoks is the Museum and Archives.

When you are camping at Riverbend plan  spend a day in Okotoks. The family will find lots to keep them busy. With recent annexation, the west half of the campground is now within the Town of Okotoks.  Whether on the doorstep or actually in the town, we feel that we are part of life in this “Cool Little Town.”

The Town’s motto is “Historic past, sustainable future” which nicely sums up its character. The citizens take pride in both the past, coupled with a commitment to sustainability, and a bright future. One example of innovation in sustainability is the Drake Landing Solar Community. The homes in this community all have solar panels installed on the roofs of garages behind the homes. These are tied into a central solar heating system. You will notice these homes east of 32nd Street just south of Drake Landing Drive. You can learn more about the community and how the system works here.

Historic Past

Our area has a rich history and an enthusiast can spend time learning about the early days of life in the Foothills. In 1874 a trading post was established and settlers started arriving a short time later. The original name was Sheep Creek, this was later changed to Dewdney and finally to Okotoks. Check out the Okotoks Museum and Archives at 49 North Railway for more history. Just east of the museum in the old railway station you will find the Okotoks Art Gallery. Check here for current exhibits and events. While walking around the downtown area, watch for informational signs found at historical buildings and locations.

The Okotoks Art Gallery is located in the former CPR train station.

Olde Town Okotoks

Businesses in the downtown area have established an association called Olde Town Okotoks. The members range from boutiques and retail shops to galleries, and from restaurants to health and beauty. Look for information on their ongoing “Shop & Win” promotion. Lots of activities take place in Olde Town. Recent events included BuskerFest and a Taste of Okotoks. Scheduled over the next few weeks are the Okotoks Show & Shine on August 14th, ChiliFest on August 27th and HarvestFest on September 24th.

Walking & Playing

Okotoks is a very walkable town. In addition to strolling through Olde Town there are 85 kilometres of pathways. Especially popular are pathways through the river valley and a pathways map is available on the Town website here. Other popular outdoor facilities and activities in the summer are the recently expanded Water Spray Park and the Skateboard Park. These are located at the Recreation Centre on Okotoks Drive. Your active youngsters might like to spend time at the BMX Track in the river valley. If you find yourself looking for things to do with the kids on a rainy day, the activities in town include bowling at Millenium Lanes, Okotoks Cinemas , Playtopia kids indoor play facility, and Paint it Up pottery studio to name a few.

Okotoks Golf

For adults looking for activities, Crystal Ridge Golf Course is a popular 9-hole facility within the town limits. D’Arcy Ranch Golf Club on the west side is an 18-hole public course with views of the mountains to the west. An interesting tidbit about D’Arcy Ranch is that in 2013 it achieved designation as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Just east of us is scenic River’s Edge Golf Course which features a hole with signature island green. There are other options and you will find our list here with links to their websites.

Okotoks Dawgs

In spring and summer and fall, baseball is a big sport for both participation and for fans of the local Okotoks Dawgs Baseball team. Their regular season goes from early June to the end of July. The team has had another good season, and visitors in early August might be able to catch a playoff game or two.

Choosing to include a stay at Riverbend Campground puts you on the doorstep of Okotoks with a buffet of things to see and do in one of Southern Alberta’s Cool Little Towns.

When walking around downtown Okotoks look for these insights into a property’s historical significance.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Exhibit depicting the hunt at Southern Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre.

While you are staying with us here at Riverbend there are many day trips that will immerse you in history, bring you closer to nature or perhaps offer a day of family fun. Situated as we are, with the vast prairies of the east rising to meet our Foothills and then on to the majestic Rocky Mountains to the west, we have much for you to choose from. Today’s post looks at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This historical site is a one hour and 20 minute drive south from the campground.

Your time visiting this outstanding attraction will give you amazing insight into the history of First Nations people here in the west. Head-Smashed-In is the world’s largest, oldest and best preserved buffalo jump and has been designated a World Heritage Site by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This is a prestigious recognition of the historical and cultural significance of this site. UNESCO World Heritage Sites from around the world include India’s Taj Mahal, Britain’s Stonehenge and Egypt’s pyramids.

Historically our Indigenous people were hunters and relied on the buffalo. For nearly 6,000 years, long before guns and horse were introduced to North America, the hunt saw buffalo stampeded over a cliff. This required much planning, favorable weather, timing and great skill. “Buffalo runners” disguised in animal hides were dispatched to locate and herd buffalo into position. This required a deep understanding of the animal’s behavior. When the herd was in position they were then driven into V-shaped drive lanes which had been established and remnants of these are still visible today. The annual hunt provided food, tools fashioned from bones and hides for shelter and clothing. This primitive culture experienced years of plenty with good hunts and some years of shortage. Archeologists studying the site have determined the first sign of human activity in the area goes back 9,000 years. Its first use as a buffalo jump was 5,700 years ago which places its origin in time before the pyramids and before Stonehenge.

The history and story is well told at the interpretive centre. During your tour, learn how the geography, climate and vegetation influenced the lifestyle of the Plains people by examining the many exhibits. A small theatre presents a ten minute film “In Search of the Buffalo” which features local Blackfoot actors re-enacting activities around the hunt.

The interpretive centre is built into the side of the hill. You enter at the lowest level and start by advancing to the upper level and progress through the exhibits on various terraces which take you back to ground level. At the top an upper trail leads to a viewpoint overlooking the entire site and offers an excellent vantage point with prairie to the east and mountains to the west.

During the summer season food service is available in the Buffalo Jump Café featuring native-themed fare.  The gift shop features a wide range of souvenirs ranging from post cards to hand-crafted pieces created by First Nations artisans. Every Wednesday in summer, there are drumming and dancing demonstrations at 11:00am and 1:30pm. There are also more immersive experiences and interpretive walks which you can research by visiting the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump website here. Your day trip to Head-Smashed-In will be a day full of history, culture, and nature.