The Big Rock, a.k.a. Okotoks Erratic


My first day in Canada had one mission: drive from Calgary to Pincher Creek, for the first of three nights in the vicinity of Waterton Lakes National Park.  It could have been a remarkably beautiful drive, since I chose to take the Cowboy Trail, Alberta Route 22, most of the way.  The Cowboy Trail parallels the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains, so the views are potentially stunning.  Instead, I found nothing but a thick layer of clouds — just high enough that they couldn’t be considered as fog — for the entire trip.  I knew the weather in Canada would be a roll of the dice, especially in late March, but this was a depressing way to start the trip.

I did manage to make one stop along the way, west of Okotoks, Alberta:

This is the “Okotoks Erratic”, better known as the Big Rock.  It’s the largest known example in the world, of a huge chunk of rock, deposited by a glacier in a place that’s far from its place of origin.  It’s also a part of a chain of similar (although smaller) rocks, dropped in a line that stretches from Montana to Jasper National Park.

The name for the rock is derived from the Blackfoot word for rock, “okatok” — which also happens to be similar to the name of the nearby town of Okotoks, 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the east.
My visit to the Big Rock quickly had me wondering why I had chosen to take a vacation in the frozen north, when I could have just as easily opted for the American desert southwest or some other place that was experiencing 80-degree temperatures.  Still dressed in the clothes I had worn on the plane (translation: no thermal underwear or ‘layers’), I was immediately struck by bitter cold and brisk winds.

A few inches of snow were on the ground.  Since the Okotoks Erratic is officially closed in winter, the government had placed a chain across the entryway.  Plenty of people had climbed over the chain, and trudged through the snow — but getting over the chain (at the top of a staircase) made a mildly dangerous walk much more perilous.  And then, there was the long walk out to the rocks.  The wind cut through me, as the snow dampened and chilled my feet.

Yes, I was in for a very long, very cold vacation.

I took a couple of pictures of the rock, then briskly made my way back to the car.  The photos were unimpressive — mostly due to the lack of light, and for that matter, the lack of a horizon.  The grey of the snow-covered prairie blended seamlessly into the grey of the sky.  Is this how my entire trip would look?

I drove on, with barely a stop, to Pincher Creek, found my hotel and cranked up the heat.  Any of those warm destinations were out of the question now.  This is where I was. And it was going to be interesting.

If you’d like to follow my exact course, take Alberta Highway 2 south from the airport, through metro Calgary, and then follow 2A into Okotoks. Turn on Highway 7, and head west, passing the Big Rock, and on to Highway 22, the Cowboy Trail. It ends at Highway 3, the Crowsnest Trail, which will take you east to Pincher Creek. As an alternative, you could follow Highway 2 all the way to Highway 3 — but this route is to the east, further from the mountains, and on a clear day, that might make a difference in the quality of the scenery.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s the time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Calgary to Okotoks…

… the first part of Highway 22…

… and the final part of the drive into Pincher Creek:

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