Cochrane, Alberta is one of my favorite escapes from the nearby city of Calgary. Cochrane is a small town with deep roots in the Canadian West, and has a long tradition of cowboys, ranching and the mutually-beneficial relationship between people and nature. The best things to do in Cochrane reflect these values, ranging from historic sites to local family businesses to spectacular wild landscapes.
I’ve visited Cochrane more times than I can count. I’m often in Calgary and it’s an easy drive out to Cochrane (or a nice stop on the way back from the Rocky Mountains). When I set out to write this guide to my favorite things to do in Cochrane I decided to once again spend the day in this Canadian town, and I happened to get extremely lucky with the weather. Even though the forecast was actually for the first snowfall of Winter 2023, it turned out to be a bright, clear, sunny day with absolutely spectacular fall foliage at every turn.
Depending on how many of the parks you visit and how long you spend walking through them, you can visit Cochrane from Calgary in either a half day or a full day. Keep reading to see what you can see and do in Cochrane, and then let me know in the comments if you have any questions about visiting this charming prairie town!
Downtown Cochrane – Historical Town Centre
Cochrane was named after Senator Matthew Henry Cochrane, the rancher who established Cochrane Ranche (see below). The ranch was born in 1881 and the town followed five years later as a stop on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Although a modern town has grown around the original settlements, the historic architecture and atmosphere remain in the old town center.
1st Street West
The highest concentration of old-fashioned buildings in Cochrane, Alberta can be found along First Street West. Strolling along the pretty sidewalk here makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the Wild West, where a gun-slinging cowboy might stumble out of the saloon right before your eyes.
First Street West is lined with local businesses including art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and cafes. There are also monuments, murals and other landmarks that tell the town’s tale.
MacKay’s Ice Cream Cochrane
The most iconic business in Cochrane is Mackay’s Ice Cream, located at 220 First Street West in Cochrane. Founded in 1946 by the Mackay Family, this ice cream shop still produces its own flavors in small batches in a secondary shop just down the street. Driving from Calgary to Cochrane for a Mackays ice cream cone is a summer tradition for Calgarians, and you can expect to queue if you’re visiting in the summer months.
My favorite flavors are Barn Floor (chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate chips, chocolate chunks, fudge brownie pieces, cookie dough, Oreo cookie crumbs and Reeses peanut butter cups!), Rocky Mountain Coffee (made with real espresso) and Avocado.
Cochrane Coffee Traders
Cochrane has a thriving coffee scene, and my favorite place to pause over a warm drink is at Cochrane Coffee Traders. If you watch Ginny and Georgia, I get major Blue Farm Cafe vibes inside the cozy wooden interior of this local coffee shop (where they also roast their own beans). The baked goods are a highlight here – don’t miss the muffins!
Other coffee roasters in Cochrane include Slackcountry Coffee Company (roasted at their facility south of the town center, and sold at the Cochrane Baking Company) and Vine Coffee Co. on First Street West.
Historic Cochrane Ranche
From the center of Cochrane it’s an easy three-minute drive to the south entrance of Historic Cochrane Ranche, a beautiful regional park in the Alberta foothills. There is ample free parking at the site entrance here (and lots more at the paved north entrance, which is a ten-minute drive up Highway 22 and then back down Sunset Drive).
The park is home to three “Ranche Trails” that take you through the different ecosystems within the park, plus one regional pathway that connects to the town center. I spent about one hour meandering through the park at a relaxed pace, so fast walkers could do it more quickly, and those who like to slow down and smell the falling leaves could definitely enjoy a more leisurely visit.
Cochrane Historical & Archival Preservation Society (CHAPS) Museum
The Cochrane Historical and Archival Preservation Society (CHAPS) operates a seasonal museum at the south end of park. Opening hours for the museum are extremely limited, and from September to May only pre-arranged private visits are available.
The museum is located inside a former historic home, built in 1909 using local construction materials. Exhibits are focused on the family who originally owned the home and on methods of transportation in the town before the arrival of the automobile. In front of the museum you can see an original baggage cart that was used to move passengers’ luggage ona nd off of the Canadian Pacific Railway trains. There is also a small garden behind the museum.
Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation Library & Archives
At the north end of the park you’ll find the Ranche House, a modern building that is used an an event space (there was a wedding when I visited – I’m sure they’ll get amazing photos!) and that houses the The Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation Library & Archives.
Visiting hours here are much more generous (currently Tuesday to Friday, 9:00 to 3:00), so I spent a few minutes exploring this large room that showcases artifacts relating to the local cattle industry and houses the largest collection I’ve ever seen of livestock-related magazines, newspapers and journals.
There are also modern public toilets inside the Ranche House that are open to park visitors.
The Grandfather Tree
I noticed this tree marked on Google Maps and on the trail maps in the park, so I decided to walk over and see it for myself.
(Sidebar: En route I found myself face to face with a moose, the first one I’d ever seen in my life, and instead of being a good travel blogger and taking a picture I ran away and called for help! 😂)
The ecosystem here along the riverbed is very different from the environment just a few meters away on the grasslands – it was so cold I could see my breath as I stood in front of the sign that explained the importance of the tree. Believed to be more than 300 years old, this white spruce got its name from local children who believed it was the oldest tree in the forest. Today, its exposed roots are on full display (no climbing please) and up at the top, where the branches can get a peek of sunlight, there are still green leaves to be had.
Men of Vision Statue
Accessed via a wide wooden stairwell or several narrow dirt trails, the iconic emblem of Cochrane, Alberta is the “Men of Vision” statue. Carved from bronze more than 35 years ago, this monument reminds visitors of the explorers, cowboys, ranchers and early settlers who grew Cochrane from a singular ranch to the thriving community that it is today.
Other groups who lived on the land first, or settled it along the men, are highlighted on banners strung along First Street West and Main Street in downtown Cochrane. Be on the lookout for the banners celebrating the local First Nations and historic pioneering women.
Bow River Walking Paths
Cochrane is located on the Bow River, and the waterfront is home to many beautiful pathways. The north bank is paved throughout most of the city limits, while the southwest section of the river is also part of the Trans-Canada Trail. Some pathways (including the spot where I took the photo above) are off-leash dog areas, so watch the signage closely if you are traveling with a dog (or want to avoid them).
River Avenue Bridge
I headed to the banks of the Bow River specifically to check out the River Avenue Bridge, a Cochrane landmark that I hadn’t seen on my past visits. This metal bridge was constructed in 1926 and spans 200 meters across the Bow River. It is still open to both vehicle (10 km/h max!) and pedestrian traffic, and is a great spot for taking photos of the Bow River.
Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park
I don’t think that Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park is technically within the town limits of Cochrane, but since it’s only a few minutes out of town I’m going to include it in this guide (same for Big Hill Springs Provincial Park, below). Located just off Highway 1A, this provincial park is still an actual working ranch, where you’re just as likely to encounter cattle and horses as other human visitors.
If you’re a cyclist, this park is ideal for exploring by bike (e-bikes are permitted too). Forty kilometers of wide, paved trails flow down the hillside from the parking lot to the river banks, offering panoramic views of Alberta’s foothills and beyond to both the Rocky Mountains and Calgary’s (distant) city center.
For a short walk, I like both the Tiger Lily Trail and Yodel Loop. If you have more time (or a bike) consider the Bow River Loop or follow the Badger Bowl Trail to Windmill Lookout. No matter which trail you take you won’t have to go far for great views – both of the photos above were taken within 500 meters of the parking lot.
Note: When I visited Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park to write this article, the road from the highway to the parking lot was gravel. I don’t remember that from previous visits, but I might have just forgotten. If you’re not used to driving on gravel roads, follow the posted speed limits, drive carefully and don’t hesitate to pull over if a truck full of cattle is barreling down the hill behind you!
Big Hill Springs Provincial Park
Again, I don’t think Big Hill Springs Provincial Park is technically within the Cochrane town limits, but it’s nearby and easy to visit on your way to or from town. It takes about fifteen minutes to drive there from Cochrane, by heading north on Highway 22 and then east on Highway 567. The turnoff to the park is well-signed.
Many people visiting Calgary think they have to drive out to Banff to see a beautiful waterfall, but Big Hill Springs Provincial Park delivers on the epic waterfall views, with no expensive park pass or long drive required.
There are two trails here and they are both very short: the first one, that takes you past the waterfalls, is only 700 meters. The next trail only adds another 400-meter loop to your hike. In addition to the waterfalls you can see tufa, a unique geological formation where limestone is made from microscopic layers of microcrystalline calcite.
In my experience, the trails at Big Hill Springs are always muddier and more slippery than the trails in the other parks I’ve mentioned above. Wear shoes with good traction and waterproofing, and have a plan for dealing with wet and muddy footwear when you return to your car.
Cochrane Travel Tips
Thinking of taking a day trip from Calgary to Cochrane, Alberta? Here are some helpful tips to make your visit easier.
Where is Cochrane?
Cochrane is located 18 kilometers northwest of Calgary’s city limits, on Highway 1A (which is known as Crowchild Trail within Calgary’s city limits). Highway 22, known as Cowboy Trail, also passes through Cochrane between Sundre and Bragg Creek.
Cochrane is situated on the Bow River, which flows from the Rocky Mountains all the way to Hudson’s Bay. This is the same river you can see in downtown Calgary.
How to Get to Cochrane from Calgary
The best way to get to Cochrane from Calgary is by driving. From the city center, it takes 30-60 minutes to drive from Calgary to Cochrane. If you avoid rush hour traffic, 40 minutes is the average driving time. From Calgary’s west and northwest suburbs, the driving time is only about 20 minutes.
If you travel to Cochrane by car, parking on the streets in the historic center is free.
Cochrane’s regional transit service also offers a commuter bus from Calgary to Cochrane, but the schedule definitely favors commuters heading into the big city each day. The bus stops in Calgary at the Brentwood C-Train station and in the city center. At publication time, tickets cost $10 (each way) and you have to reserve your seat in advance. More information is available on the On-It Regional Transit website.
A bike trail between Calgary and Cochrane is in the works, but it is a volunteer-led project and it’s not yet finished. This website should have updates on the progress of the trail.
When is the best time to visit Cochrane?
I think I’m biased after my most recent trip to Cochrane, where the autumn colors were absolutely stunning!
If you want to explore the town by foot, late spring through early autumn has the best weather and the best walking conditions.
No matter when you visit, always check the weather forecast as rain, hail and snow can come on suddenly in Alberta’s foothills.
If you’re coming by car, try to avoid the busy rush hour periods. Traffic is heavy from Cochrane to Calgary on weekday mornings, and from Calgary to Cochrane on weekday afternoons. As well, traffic can be heavy from Calgary to Cochrane on the afternoon before a long weekend, and from Cochrane to Calgary on the evening before people return to work, as many campers tow their trailers along Highway 1A and Highway 22.
Tourist Information Office in Cochrane
Cochrane has a new tourist information office in The Station, a building just across the train tracks from Mackay’s Ice Cream. The office is currently open daily from 8:30 to 4:30.
If you need a clean public toilet in Cochrane, there are free toilets inside The Station.
Is Cochrane Worth Visiting?
If you have a car and are in Calgary for more than a few days, Cochrane is worth visiting. When I visit family in Calgary we often drive out to Cochrane for a stroll around town and a quick coffee or ice cream stop (depending on the weather).
If your time in Calgary is limited, I would focus on visiting the city’s famous tourist attractions rather than exploring Cochrane.
Would you be interested in reading more posts about destinations in Southern Alberta? Let me know below!
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