No matter how wired or worldly we may be, the old-fashioned romance of the outlaw hiding in wide-open spaces never seems to fade. Just north of the U.S. border, Canada's wild west lies in the rugged middle of the country, in Saskatchewan's Big Muddy Valley. Its remote badlands proved an ideal hideout for famed bandits such as Sam Kelly, Dutch Henry, and the Sundance Kid—and continue to enthrall today.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was easy for bank robbers and horse thieves to "disappear" in the sweeping landscape of Big Muddy Valley, which extends from Saskatchewan to northeast Montana. Today, the region, with its wind-carved buttes, prickly pear cacti, and deep-cut sandstone ravines, still "draws people in," says local innkeeper Linda Kirby. "They're attracted to the beauty and the vastness of it all. When you come to Big Muddy, it's easy to see there's truth to those horse-stealing stories. The border is only 12 miles away, and the outlaw caves are only one hill from the border."
The valley also is dotted with strange ancient aboriginal stone effigies with names such as Minton Turtle and the Big Beaver Buffalo, which add to the mystery and magic of the landscape.
When to Go: Summer months are most popular for exploring the area. Late June to early August rain brings out prairie wildflowers. Guided tours run from early May until end of September. Bengough draws thousands each summer to its Gateway Music Festival, featuring Canadian and international artists.
How to Get Around: Guided Big Muddy tours can be arranged through the Town of Coronach. Choose from half-day short tours or the daylong tour, which visits nine sites of interest including the so-called Outlaw Caves and 230-foot-high Castle Butte. Private tours in your own vehicle are also available. Prebooking is essential. Big Muddy is approximately a two-hour drive south from the nearest international airport in Regina.
Where to Stay: Bengough's Big Muddy Inn is a 16-room hotel with free Wi-Fi, a bar, and a restaurant. In Coronach, try the historic, two-story Country Flavor B&B located on a nearby ranch. Visitors can also camp or park an RV at Coronach's fully serviced campground. In the regional hub of Assiniboia, you'll find the modern 121 Steakhouse Motel and a new Canalta Hotel.
What to Eat or Drink: Offering Cantonese, hamburgers, and Szechuan, R C Chinese Restaurant in Coronach is a landmark. "People come a long ways for it," says Big Muddy tour guide Trish Manske. Fresh soups and sandwiches are available at Deb's Country Kitchen (127 Railway Ave W). Assiniboia's 121 Steakhouse Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and has a varied menu that ranges from burgers and pizza to a 14-ounce T-bone steak and lobster.
What to Read Before You Go: Butch Cassidy: Lost Years (Kensington Books, 2013) is a highly entertaining and fictional account of one of Big Muddy Valley's most famous outlaws. It takes place years after Cassidy is thought to have been killed (1908).
What to Buy: One of the stops on Big Muddy's guided tour is Aust's General Store, an old-fashioned prairie shop in the hamlet of Big Beaver. In operation since 1959 and carrying everything from crates of local fruit to camping supplies, the store's motto is "If we don't have it, you don't need it."
Fun Fact: Inspired by the Pony Express, Butch Cassidy created his Outlaw Trail from Big Muddy all the way to Mexico. Sympathetic (or frightened) ranchers had fresh horses available every 10 to 12 miles, aiding escapes from pursuing lawmen. Station #1 is on a ranch just south of Big Beaver.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.