“Want to ride the Goat Trail? You sure aren’t frightened of heights so I bet you’d love it!” So said our guide, Josh Walton of Alpine Stables in Waterton Lakes National Park. Located four hours south of Calgary in Alberta, this park is renowned for its lofty mountains, clear lakes, hiking and horseback riding – a great place for horse riding holidays.
Waterton Lakes National Park
A well-deserved reputation. Canada’s smallest Rocky Mountain park packs a treat of ecological and topographical diversity. Our first day thrust us into the midst of its natural splendour.
After leaving our pack horse, Spirit, at Snowshoe Campground’s corral, our group of four riders negotiated the scramble up Avion Ridge on our sure-footed mounts.
Its 2,500+ metre elevation rewarded us with a 360º panorama, where wave upon wave of Rocky Mountain ridges extended to the horizon.
Dismounting, we sat on Avion’s spine, feet dangling over a precipitous drop of 500 metres or so. While we gazed, our horses dozed in the sunshine, unperturbed by the gusts of wind whipping their manes and tails into a frenzy.
Wondering what Watson’s Goat Trail would bring, we descended the scree, entering akruppelholz zone marking the treeline. (“Kruppelholz” is German, meaning “crippled wood” describing trees which are stunted and twisted by the elements.)
With the wind blowing force fully at this exposed altitude, we understood why these trees growshort and bent by its onslaught. Soon we slipped into the protection of larches and fir trees.
Watson’s athletic, purebred quarter horses won our trust that day. My horse Major picked his way through rocks and narrow paths while Eric’s mare, Jackie, muscularly plowed through thick and thin.
While returning to Snowshoe Campground for the night, Watson said, “I’ve not been to Goat Lake for four years: it’ll be fun!”So, that trail was confirmed: we’d passed his test.
Departing after breakfast, we discovered “the Goat” ascends mild-enough hairpin trails until bang: vegetation ceases.
Our hearts skipped a beat: the trail dwindled to a skinny metre-wide path along a precipitous talus slope, while a sometimes serious overhang of the cliff meant we’d be leaning over the drop.
Now, I trust horses along such scree: after all, they have four legs and, like us, seriously don’t want to fall. Nonetheless, this was a nail-biter, particularly when Watson asked us to dismount on the right (not the usual left) side of the horse.
You want us to do what?
Now, this made sense because sticking with a traditional dismount would’ve meant we would dismount onto the 45º talus slope.
One slip and we’d be plunging to certain hurt if not, well – you get it. After accomplishing this feat, while perching on the cliff-face, I followed Watson’s directions: pass the reins over Major’s head, grasp the very tips of them, and lead him up the next several metres of trail.
My question (“why are we doing this?”) was answered. Ahead was a 1.5 metre-high rock, coincident with a companion outcrop, cliff side. By holding onto the reins as Watson suggested, I created space for Major to leap the ledge.
Once everyone had made it, we remounted, ascending to Goat Lake at Waterton National Park – and then lunch.
However, notwithstanding being an intrepid rider, I wondered: how will we descend? After all, any hiker and expedition mountain rider knows descents are trickier…
Lunch was calming… Evergreens surround Goat Lake’s shallow turquoise, trout-filled waters, and in the background, Goat Mountain forms a bowl of jagged cliffs.
These I scanned with binoculars and voilà! I spotted the blocky form and chiselled head of a male mountain goat traversing the rock wall, jumping nonchalantly from one toehold to another.
“Look over there,” Watson whispered. Following his gaze I spied eight other goats, a herd of females and kids. The youngsters were cuteness personified, as they bounced about on the rocks.
Once we remounted and started descending, concerns vaporised because our experienced horses and Walton’s advice vanquished apprehensions.
I discovered I’d become “an old pro” at dismounting and leading Major down the ledge leap and so, typical for me, after we conquered the talus, I wanted more adrenaline rushes.
Didn’t have long to wait. “More” arrived the next morning.
That day saw us ascending South Kootenay Trail, riding the Continental Divide’s spine along Waterton’s Great Divide Trail.
We zig-zagged, slipping in and out of Alberta’s Waterton and adjoining British Columbia’s Akamina Kishinena Provincial Park. Here, waist-high, dense kruppelholz spruce once again graphically proved how brutal these exposed elevations are.
Like Avion Ridge, suddenly we were beyond the treeline, where roiling clouds looked ominous. From the Great Divide’s elevation of 2,000 metres or so, we peered down a 300-metre drop to Lone Lake Campground where we would be staying the night.
Mountain weather now set in: hail, windswept drizzle, then swirling mists descended, reminding us that Mother Nature rules. Regarding us, Watson grinned bleakly, shouting, “We’d best go down. These exposed ridge trails aren’t so nice in this stuff!”
The weather socked in but who cares? That night we pored over topographic maps and listened to Watson tell of First Nations peoples who used the Kootenay Pass to trade their goods for bison (often erroneously called ‘buffalo’) meat and products, long ago.
Happily, our next day’s return to Alpine Stables offered us a stellar blue sky and 24ºc warmth. Already, I long to return.
But that’s my nature. I am passionate about horses and the exploration of our Canadian west with these animals fascinates me. I love riding because it connects us not only to these intelligent animals but also to Canada in unique ways.
Canadian cowboy culture and mountain-horse guiding are an intrinsic part of our country’s history and fortunately, many exciting riding adventures area vailable throughout Canada, from one-hour saunters to multi-day lodge – or camping-based rides.
Banff National Park
Also in Alberta, Holiday on Horseback outfitters in Banff National Park offer several-day expeditions to hour-long trail rides. One multi-day ride thrills because it weds spectacular mountain riding with overnights at rustic lodges.
A two-day ride includes an overnight at Sundance Lodge. Here, cozy bunk beds with colourful western-themed blankets await, while the cook conjures bounteous, scrumptious cowboy cuisine from her stove.
Marry such delights to a crackling wood fire and easy chairs, a twinkling canopy of stars overhead and… you’ve captured an unforgettable Rocky Mountain ride.
Hankering for Canada’s full-on backcountry? Annually during summertime, Royal Canadian Geographic Fellow and experienced mountain guide Wayne Sawchuk rides into northern British Columbia’s Muskwa Kechika, a region approximately the size of France.
With Sawchuk, our horses navigated lofty mountain passes and crossed (sometimes swimming) turquoise rivers.
The “M-K” is authentic wilderness and if you’re like us, you’ll thrill to pitching your tent, catching your horse and saddling up, plus helping cook all campfire meals.
Still another mood awaits in another of Canada’s 37 National Parks: Saskatchewan’s is where Gord Vaadeland, owner of Sturgeon River Ranch operates.
With him, I rode into grasslands dotted with lakes, and along woodland trails in search of Canada’s only free-roaming bison herd.
My cowboy guides prepared a campfire dinner, sang and played guitar, then spun tall tales into the wee hours. They were still at it when I tucked myself into my sleeping bag in the nearby tipi, the Milky Way twinkling overhead.
Another different feeling is captured at George Gaber’s La Reata Ranch, his operating cattle ranch about two hours south of Saskatoon, in Saskatchewan. Here, everything is laid back and totally cowboy.
I asked Gaber why he left Germany to become a rancher. In fact, his story is that he was a “cowboy wannabe”. “Ever since I was little, I loved the cowboy heroes. When I came to Canada on holiday, I saw this ranch, decided to quit my job and live my dream.”
Looking the part, you’d never guess this former horticulturalist-landscaper hadn’t been raised to ride horses and ranch.
At La Reata, there is a bunkhouse, funky “cowboy bar”, and cookhouse where cook reigns. The ranch has a pretty setting overlooking the Saskatchewan River.
Grasslands, shady coulees (gullies), and grandly open sky-scapes offer fabulous riding where the wind tousles your hair and sunshine warms your back.
Sage perfumes the air, and as you ride your horse (which Gaber has perfectly matched to your capabilities) curlews call their mournful songs on the open range.
So truly, whatever your cowboy dreams may be, why not indulge them in Canada?
Katharine and Eric Fletcher are keen horse and outdoors enthusiasts who are based at Spiritwood, their farm north of Quyon, in the province of Quebec.