By Kim Gray
It’s sundown at Thanksgiving Ranch near Pincher Creek, Alberta and I’m standing on a hill, witnessing one of the most moving vistas I’ve ever seen.
To my left is a magnificent mountain range. To my right, crashing over the horizon towards me, I see an ocean of whipped-cream clouds backlit by a tangerine sun.
Below me stretch more than 3,000 acres of green forest, grasslands and rolling hills — a seasonal home to 1,600 cattle that graze here during the warm summer months.
Located less than three hours by car from Calgary, Thanksgiving Ranch is a relatively undiscovered southern Alberta gem. I was let in on the secret by photographer Lori Andrews, who spent time here after the family-run operation first opened to the public in 2019.
Convinced the comfortable guest ranch should be on my radar, an enthusiastic Andrews told me the surrounding landscape was at once rugged and beautiful. The sunsets, she observed, were particularly intense.
Now that I’ve visited, I’m here to share 13 reasons why Thanksgiving Ranch should be on your radar, too.
1. Laid-back atmosphere
From the moment I arrive at the ranch, I’m struck by the property’s chill vibe. Owners Brad and Christi Bustard welcome my husband and I as if we’re family. There’s no pressure to do anything, just settle into our rustic quarters and consider the options. Should we head out for a gentle horseback ride, wander the property or just hang out at the lodge (which, on this occasion, we have entirely to ourselves) and play guitar or read a book?
In short, we’re able to step back from our hectic city lives and take a much-needed breath. “This place gives guests a chance to exhale and to be themselves,” Christi tells me. “I really believe that the people who visit us are meant to be here.”
2. Home on the range
To stay at the lodge is to be a guest in the house that Christi once lived in. She was born to German immigrants who came to Canada when she was nine. Her parents bought the land in 1979 and “built everything from scratch,” including a luxurious log home. After they married, Christi and Brad would move together to the ranch in 1998 and build their own house on a different section of land.
The lodge now serves as guest accommodations (with capacity for up to 14 people), featuring several comfortable bedroom suites (ideal for solo travellers, couples or families), plus a kitchen, dining room, bar and two sitting areas. On my two visits to the ranch during the Covid-19 pandemic, I appreciate the privacy and safety we’re given as the lodge’s sole guests.
3. Location, location, location
With two grown sons, Aiden and Isaak, and with future generations in mind, Christi and Brad consider themselves the caretakers of the ranch. They tell me they’re grateful every single day for their property’s extraordinary location, which is why they formally named it Thanksgiving Ranch.
“There is something special about this place. People often tell us that they feel it when they’re here,” says Christi. “I can tell you that no price tag will ever be enough to replace what we have.” I get a glimpse of what she means when I’m standing, gobsmacked, in front of the sunset shown in this story’s lead image. The feeling I experience is so profound, it’s impossible to describe.
4. Memorable Meals
You definitely want Brad Bustard to cook you a meal. The self-taught chef has mastered flavour.
I’m not talking about the inventive, often disappointing, cuisine found in high-end restaurants. I’m talking about home-cooking that satisfies like no one’s business, whether you’re enjoying his famous croissant-like waffles with Saskatoon berries and amaretto at breakfast, cauliflower soup with grilled cheese for lunch or a juicy steak paired with perfectly seasoned vegetables for dinner.
I interviewed two other guests who stayed at the ranch recently and the consensus? Brad is a helluva of a good cook. He accommodates his guests’ dietary restrictions, too.
5. Adventures, big and small
On the ranch, we go horseback riding with Brad and Christi, along with their boundlessly energetic Jack Russell Terrier pup, Pip. My husband spends a few hours fly-fishing on Pincher Creek, guided by the couple’s nature-loving son, Isaak, and he enjoys taking a dip in the lodge’s private swimming pool.
We choose to be as quiet or as busy as we like, with our hosts letting us set the pace. We appreciate opportunities for photography and we dream, given that this is an all-season destination, of returning during winter when we can snowshoe around the property or go skating on the ranch pond.
Even a late afternoon cocktail on our deck — which features a fabulous mountain view and cheerful red Adirondack chairs — feels adventuresome to us city slickers.
6. Nearby Unesco World Heritage Sites
Thanksgiving Ranch is located just 30 minutes by car from Waterton Lakes National Park which, in 1932, was combined with Glacier National Park in Montana to form the world’s first International Peace Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Arguably one of Alberta’s most striking mountain parks, with its steep terrain and deep lakes, Waterton Lakes National Park has always been a favourite destination of mine.
While visiting the ranch, my husband and I drive into the park’s townsite where we spend time walking the wild and windy lakeshore. We follow this adventure with a tour around the park’s bison paddock in search of the plains bison that were recently introduced to the area. Blackfoot Elders blessed the animals and their new home with a prayer ceremony upon their arrival in 2021.
Next time I’m here, I hope to visit, just 45 minutes by car from the ranch, another nearby Canadian Unesco World Heritage Site — Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump.
7. Ranch life
I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day I get to see how a ranch operates. Brad and Christi are willing to share if guests are interested, but it doesn’t have to be part of their experience.
My husband and I are keen to wake up early one morning and join Brad as he heads out on the range to gently herd cattle from one grazing field to another. We’re impressed with how kind he is to the animals, which immediately — eventually all 1,600 of them — head his way as he yodels them towards the open gate of a fresh pasture.
Just as Christi and her husband foster a chill environment for their guests, they work hard to ensure that their cattle live stress-free, too, and enjoy the high life during their summer months on the ranch.
8. Family gatherings
While doing research for this post, I reach out to Samira Viswanathan, who paid a visit with her extended family to Thanksgiving Ranch in the summer of 2021.
Ontario-based Viswanathan had read a story in The Globe and Mail’s Hidden Canada: 2021 Edition featuring Brad and Christi’s operation. She booked the whole place for her mom, husband and children, as well as for her brother and his family who live in Alberta.
“It felt so good when we got there. It was clean, which is my No. 1 thing when I travel. The towels were fresh, the food was excellent and the setting was comfortable,” Viswanathan says.
“Everything was so laid-back. If you wanted to chat you could. If you wanted to be left alone, that was OK, too. With the pandemic, we didn’t want to be around other people,” she continues. “It turned into a great shared memory for the young cousins who live on opposite sides of the country. One of the kids even asked recently — ‘Are we going back to the ranch this summer?’ Made me laugh!'”
9. Celebrating, country-style
The first thing I think when I arrive at the ranch is “Wouldn’t this be a great location for an outdoor concert?” It’s ripe for gatherings of all kinds. Stampede parties. Family reunions. Weddings.
I contact Stephanie Mawson, who got married here in 2021, for an interview about the experience. A geological engineer who lives in Fernie, she and her husband-to-be stumbled upon the ranch while exploring the Pincher Creek area for wedding locations.
“It was a great find and it turned out to be perfect with its mountain setting and rolling foothills. I love the lodge, which has Turkish and Moroccan rugs and lamps and antique, European furniture,” says Mawson. “Brad made us the most beautiful charcuterie tray for after the ceremony, before dinner. I wish I’d taken a photo. It blows my mind that they do everything. The fact that our experience was the quality that it was, with such a small team, impressed me.”
For the photo above, the couple rode horses to a hill on the ranch with a gorgeous view. Ducking behind a stand of trees, Mawson climbed into her wedding dress and then the pair got hitched.
The newlywed tells me she feels like she’s made new friends in Brad and Christi. Then she laughs, adding that as she was leaving the ranch after her wedding, she found herself saying: “Well, at least we know where we’ll be going for our anniversary.”
10. Delicious dessert
It’s no surprise when Brad tells us that his family used to own a bakery in Pincher Creek. In the 1970s, it was known as the Maple Leaf Bakery but it morphed into the now-closed Country Bakery in the ’80s. While his savoury dishes are something to write home about, so, too, are his desserts.
During our last visit, Brad delivered an after-dinner tray of gluten-free, taste bud-exploding lemon squares. The photo above features his lemon-meringue cake. His most coveted go-to wedding creation these days is reportedly a lemon-blueberry-curd cake. “I’m constantly surprised at how much people enjoy our food,” says Brad. “In my world, it’s just normal to eat well. It’s how I was raised.”
11. Bustard’s Mustard
I confess that I fell hard for Bustard’s Mustard during our first visit to the ranch. I can’t say that I’ve ever tasted a mustard so yummy that I am inspired to layer it on my sandwiches, but there you have it. I even purchased a flat of jars to give out at Christmas over the past three years. The recipe came from Brad’s mother.
“It was the mustard we made for Easter dinner when we were having ham. Eventually, we were putting it on submarine sandwiches — when they were becoming all the rage — at the bakery. People kept asking about the sauce on our buns and whether we could sell them a jar,” he says.
“I remember my mom wondering what we should call it and I laughed, asking ‘How many last names rhyme with mustard? We had to name it Bustard’s Mustard. It’s good on a bratwurst or corned beef sandwich and even on salmon. People say ‘What? You’re serving salmon on a ranch?’ I like to reply, ‘Well, it’s a salmon steak, after all.'”
12. The Batmobile
When my husband and I accompany Brad as he moves cattle from field to field, we travel with him on his UTV, or Utility Terrain Vehicle. The Batmobile, it turns out, can go anywhere and it’s ridiculously fun to bomb around in.
“When I organized black body parts for the vehicle, I also wanted a black roof and a big windshield,” says Brad.
“When I got it home, my sons and I looked at it and went… ‘It looks like the Batmobile,’ so we got a Batman sticker and a Batman mini-figure key chain to go with it. When I tell our local mechanic that we’re bringing in the Batmobile for servicing, he knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
13. Starry Nights
If this post started with the story of a sunset, it only seems right that it finishes with a starry, night-time sky.
Staying at the ranch on a clear evening is like camping in the midst of a dark sky preserve. On one of my three visits, I wake up in the middle of the night during our stay just to step outside and, as Brad would say, “see what I can see.”
What I see is intoxicating and so, so beautiful. I’ve heard that the Milky Way, our galaxy, has over 100 billion stars and it sure rings true this night at Thanksgiving Ranch.
“The stars out here make me feel tiny,” says Brad, who took the above photograph from his back deck. “I’m always humbled by them.”
This is what I’ll look for when I return again. The elements of nature that are hidden from us in the city, the ones that put our little lives in perspective. I’ll be looking for this, with maybe — if it’s not too much to ask — a few of Brad’s legendary lemon squares on the side.
*To inquire further about The Lodge at Thanksgiving Ranch, call 403-627-1961 (toll free 1-866-966-7484) or check out their website for more details.
As always, Toque & Canoe is grateful for our partners in travel who keep us paddling forwards.