When it comes to day trips from Calgary, many think west is best. But, if you can resist the call of the big-name Rocky Mountain destinations, head just south of the city to explore bucolic Foothills County. Named for the lush rolling hills that ramp up west of the province’s plains before giving way to Rocky Mountain peaks, Alberta’s Foothills region is home to under-the-radar towns filled with art galleries, craft distilleries and delicious eats. Best of all, you’ll have the verdant Rocky Mountain vistas all to yourself.
A Perfect Day in Alberta’s Foothills
To fully experience the landscape transition from prairies to undulating hills to mountains, start on the east side of the Foothills at Saskatoon Farm, 30 minutes south of downtown Calgary. Its 20 hectares of pick-it-yourself fields are not only home to the Prairies’ prized berry, but sour cherries and black currants, too. Fill a bucket yourself or purchase one that’s ready to go and spend your time roaming the garden centre, farm market and general store before digging into a hollandaise-covered cheese biscuit with bacon and eggs. Don’t leave before picking up a Saskatoon pie (or two) from the bakery to take with you.
A 30-minute drive west from there plants you right in the hills where, at the Leighton Art Centre, you’ll be treated to one of the best views of the landscape punctuated by a wall of Rockies in the distance. The site is the one-time home of prominent Alberta artists A.C. and Barbara Leighton – the former, a landscape painter, came to Western Canada from the U.K. in 1924 as an artist for the Canadian Pacific Railway – and offers the opportunity to view their own art, as well as work from active Alberta artists, all in the heritage Arts and Crafts-style house. On now is the Summer Salon, featuring pieces from the centre’s member artists, all available to purchase on site, or via the virtual version of the exhibition. Leave time to explore the 33-hectare, wildflower-strewn grounds.
After a taste of the walking paths at the Leighton Art Centre, you’ll be ready for the 12 kilometres of trails in pint-sized Brown-Lowery Provincial Park. The Wild Rose loop, which is just under five kilometres, takes you on stretches through woodlands as well as atop hills, with lookouts that offer both city and mountain views – and the potential for lots of bird sightings, and maybe even an elk or moose, too.
Take a seat on the cozy patio at the Westwood in Black Diamond, a charming town home to everyone from artists and musicians to ranchers and retirees. Start with an order of halloumi fries with chili mayo before tucking into fried fish tacos or a crispy chicken rice bowl with pickled carrots, avocado, crushed peanuts and a fried egg. If you’re day-tripping on a Saturday, plan ahead: Every Wednesday, the restaurant releases an online pre-order for homemade doughnuts for pick up on Saturdays at noon. Rotating flavours include banana Boston cream (we can’t recommend this one enough), earl grey glaze and strawberry rhubarb.
After lunch, wander around town to check out the array of shops and galleries, starting with Bertie’s General Store across the street from the Westwood. Friends Isis and Jolene took up shop in the town’s original general store, where Isis sells her Tender Living Farm tea blends, bath salts, salves and other tinctures using ingredients she grows and gathers in the Foothills, and Jolene curates a beautiful selection of vintage finds, from flowing dresses to vinyl and teapots. Next, visit Bluerock Gallery to peruse pieces from nearly 200 regional artists and craftspeople, many of whom make their work within 100 kilometres of the Centre Avenue shop. Finally, pop into Vale’s Greenhouse on 3rd Street, where six greenhouses, a palm tree garden, pond and perennials in every colour will delight your senses.
Now, it’s about time for a beverage! Pull up a stool in the tasting room at Eau Claire Distillery, located in neighbouring Turner Valley, in what was once the town’s movie theatre and dance hall. Using grains harvested from nearby farms and fresh mountain water, Alberta’s first craft distillery produces varieties of gin and vodka as well as a single malt whisky on site. Gin lovers should go for a flight, selecting four of the Seven Deadly Gins cocktails – like Wrath, which mixes the Cherry Gin with house-made Original Tonic Water and cherries, or Lust, with Parlour Gin, beet juice, maple syrup and Elderflower Tonic Water. Don’t worry if you can’t sample everything you want to in one sitting: There are bottles for purchase, as well as four-packs of canned cocktails and tonic waters.
If you’re day-tripping on a Friday or Sunday, make a dinner reservation at Azuridge Estate Hotel – a 13-room hidden-gem property set on five lush hectares, 30 minutes northwest of Turner Valley on the Cowboy Trail – for the Burgers & Beer menu. Bite into chef Yoshi Chubachi’s wagyu beef patty piled high with smoky chipotle honey mayo, candied bacon, cheddar cheese and caramelized onion on a brioche bun served alongside an Alberta craft beer while seated on the pond-side Gazebo patio. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun go down over the foothills after your day discovering them.
Make it a Weekend
Instead of driving back to the city, why not check in? Each of Azuridge’s guest rooms is themed around a gemstone (the owners are geologists), meaning a restorative sleep is in store – up the chances of that with a pre-bed bath, drawn by your own personal butler. The next morning, keep the good vibes going with a visit to the property’s new-this-year Flourish LIV Well Spa, where the hot stone massage also incorporates the hotel’s signature gems and crystals.
After checking out, continue west to the mighty Elbow Falls – after being on the precipice of the mountains for a couple of days, this set of waterfalls sits at the front range of the Rockies. Head to Bragg Creek for a pasta and pizza lunch at the delightful Italian Farmhouse before making your way back to the city, or carrying on to hike in Kananaskis, tour Canmore or Banff or gaze at emerald-blue Lake Louise.