Planes, Trains and Airstreams on the Prairie

Go back in time, way back – In Stettler and Donalda

There’s no point in going anywhere if you’re going to come back unchanged.

The places we visit and the people we meet guide our perspectives and show us things we haven’t seen before. While we may quickly step back into routine once we’re back home, hopefully those experiences further afield will be cemented in your memory for decades to come.

For me, it was experiencing a new part of my own backyard, venturing to the northern part of the Canadian Badlands, and the towns of Stettler, Big Valley and Donalda.

Stettler’s Steam Train

Going anywhere by train brings with it a sense of arrival that doesn’t quite compare with any other way of getting there. The blast of the horn, the hurried goodbyes and the anticipation of going somewhere new. In Western Canada, the train brought thousands of pioneers to the region, and while highways and planes have generally replaced the tracks, this way of life lives on in Stettler.

Alberta Prairie Railway

The Alberta Prairie Railway train travels through the heart of Central Alberta, venturing south to the hamlet of Big Valley before returning back to Stettler at the end of the day, a 42.4-mile roundtrip distance. It’s a family-friendly trip suitable for all ages.

During the trip, passengers can enjoy the open-air car, take in live entertainment, enjoy a cocktail in the lounge car, or sit back in your seat and watch the Alberta scenery roll by. A live train robbery on horseback often takes place along the route, so be certain to keep a few cents in your pocket to pay off the “criminals”.

Live train robbery on the Alberta Prairie Railway

In addition to the scheduled summer trips, there are also a number of seasonal travel opportunities, including pumpkin patch trips and Polar ExpressTM adventures.

City souls will find themselves walking a little slower through Big Valley, shedding away urban life for something a little simpler. A bright blue 100-year-old clapboard church sits on a small hill above town, while a boardwalk mall beckons shoppers with fresh fudge, ice cream, antiques and souvenirs. Lunch is served in the community hall, featuring roast beef with all of the fixings.

Returning to the train station in Big Valley and gazing down the track, my mind went back to generations before, families like my own who made their way by train to rural Alberta to homestead, eagerly awaiting a new way of life after the war, and venturing to new places, with nothing more than a few suitcases and a dream. Places like Big Valley still hold an indescribable charm, where neighbours are family and historical roots are cherished.

Breathing in “LaPrairieaire”

North of Stettler lies the village of Donalda, the most northerly point of the Canadian Badlands. The main part of town is accented by the world’s largest oil lamp, standing 12.8 metres high. Step out of town and discover the Battle River Valley, with its distinctive “badlands” geography. Local Forrest Hagen is the owner and host of LaPrairieAire, offering guided “Stones and Bones” themed eco-hiking adventures and unique lodging in a restored 1972 Airstream Land Yacht.

Local Guide Forrest Hagen

Forrest understands the history of the area well – he was raised there and is proud to share its unique geographical and geological features with guests from all over the world. As we made our way through the incredible landscape, Forrest pointed out ancient tipi rings on a plateau, with sweeping views of the river valley below. The view had been unchanged for centuries.

Stepping Back, Way Back

I gazed around and saw the province where I was born and raised in a whole new way – this area, which I always thought of as desolate prairie, was rich in history: from Indigenous traditions, all the way back to dinosaur remains. Filled with colour, native grasses flourish in the most challenging of environments, and the coulees capture the late summer afternoon sun, bringing an array of colours to nature’s masterpiece.

Just a few moments later, Forrest eagerly showed us the side of a slope, which had a number of large fossils exposed among the dirt and rock. We excited but delicately moved through the area, my jaw-dropping at the vast number of fossils just “laying around” this untouched area.

As the sun started to settle on the horizon, we made our way to Hagen’s home base, which includes a restored schoolhouse (now his residence) and a restored Airstream, giving guests the chance to enjoy the solitude of rural life. The 25 foot-long Airstream is well-equipped with a toilet, shower, furnace, air conditioning, stove, fridge, BBQ and sleeping space for 4 people.

For a city dweller like me, falling asleep in the darkness of the prairie is like a lullaby; fresh air, stillness and quiet. For anyone looking to experience rich Alberta history with a few surprises along the way, a hike with Forrest is a must, and alone is worth the trip to the northern Badlands.

La PrairieAire Airstream

Fly-In, Fly Out

The following morning, I made one last stop in Stettler for their annual Fly-In breakfast, which welcomes recreational pilots and all kinds of aircraft to the Stettler airstrip.

Locals and visitors alike enjoyed a pancake breakfast and the chance to get an up-close look at the aircraft.

Whether it’s train, planes, automobiles or Airstreams, a visit to the northern Badlands gives you the chance to take a step back in history, and a journey into its splendour. 

Paula Worthington is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer and the Founder of Worthington PR & Story. She's an avid traveler, loves staying active and getting off the beaten path. She also authors www.wanderswild.com.