The Wild West is in Banff National Park and I never even knew it.
I’d seen the horse-and-carriage rides trotting through Banff town, and I’d even encountered horseback riders on hiking trails. But a five-night horse riding trip to the backcountry launched me into a world where chaps and spurs are standard attire.
Just beyond the borders of Banff’s thriving township, there’s an adventure waiting to challenge and thrill you to your core. If you’ve ever dreamed of life as a cowboy or cowgirl, there’s nowhere more marvellous to try it than in Banff National Park.
From the moment I pulled up to the red buildings of Warner Stables I realised I was going way beyond my previous paddock pony rides. Banff Trail Riders is the largest horse outfit in Canada, boasting over 300 head and a staff that lives for the time spent in the saddle.
We were greeted by the inimitable Julie Canning, Banff Trail Rider’s co-owner and cowgirl extraordinaire. In the next ten minutes, I learned that cowboy time is like island time, that saddlebags will hold a lot more than you would expect, and that there would be no phone reception after the first two hours of our trip.
Meet your horse
We’d all been pre-matched with horses according to our height, weight and riding ability. My guy was called Rumour, and he seemed like every other horse I’d ridden. This delusion may have continued if signed up for the one-hour Bow River Ride, but after a few days in the saddle I learned that horses are as unique as humans.
There was Turnpike, a multi-coloured draft cross who reminded me of a 1,500-pound version of my five-year-old nephew. Tumbleweed was a pretty chestnut who loved to headbutt Rumour, and Wesley couldn’t help but canter on the downhills. The horses have besties, pecking orders, and eccentricities, and getting to know them is one of the joys of the trip.
Meet your humans
The humans at Banff Trail Riders are what made the experience truly extraordinary.
Our guide, Erica, could spin a yarn like no one I’ve ever met. Her endless stock of stories and uncanny talent for accents could entertain even the most jaded of teenagers. Erica also cooked for us on the trail, coached us through any challenging parts of the ride, and took a thousand photographs of the crew against unbelievable backdrops.
Matthias, our unflappable German packer, led a string of ten donkeys up the mountain trails so we didn’t have to carry our own food and luggage. He was the reason that we all walked away from the trip with the ability to lasso a wooden steer, which he managed to teach us using a minimum of words.
Our bellies were kept in a constant state of bliss by Dakota, our lovely Halfway Lodge host, who was always on hand with baked treats and the answer to any questions, no matter how ridiculous.
These are just three of the many staff members who created a trip rich in memorable details.
Find your bunk
Bunk is a funny word when you think of it in the context of Sundance or Halfway Lodges. These welcoming wooden buildings are as luxurious as the backcountry can get.
Sundance Lodge is a solar-powered beauty that is also accessible in winter via cross-country skis or snowshoes, but Halfway Lodge is nestled deep in the backcountry. If you see another human, take a picture.
Every person on the tour announced that they’d happily take up residence at Halfway Lodge. I don’t know if it was the dazzling views, the warm wooden interiors or the unmatched experience of the piping hot outdoor shower, but I instantly knew that this was a place that my heart would stay forever.
The disconnect is total and divine. There is no link to the outside world unless you’re a cowboy with a satellite phone. Once you’ve been enveloped in a lodge welcome, you won’t even notice.
Keep your camera ready
Allenby Pass is one of those landscapes that you have to pinch yourself to believe in. This staggering mountain pass is something I wouldn’t have experienced without Banff Trail Riders, and that’s what I loved most about this trip. It allows more people to explore the wonderland of Banff National Park’s backcountry. Less than 100 people get to experience Allenby in a year, and now I can say I was one of them.
Our horseback day ride from Halfway Lodge to Allenby was a standout highlight, but the views were a constant thrill throughout the trip. The horses carried us across fields of wildflowers, valleys swaying with evergreens and ancient mountain ridges, and you better believe we took photos of it all.
Our very first meal was steak on the grill, whipped up on the trail by the multi-talented Erica. After only a few hours of riding, we arrived at Sundance Lodge and were greeted with spinach and fetta pastries and chocolate chip cookies, fresh from the oven.
As with all Banff Trail Riders overnighters, the five-night Halfway Lodge trip is fully catered. Every dinner was a three-course delight, starting with a soup or salad and ending with a sinful dessert. Our lodge hosts also made sure our saddle bags were always filled with tasty treats, and seamlessly catered to any dietary requirements.
Enjoy the ride, or the rest
Underpinning the entire trip was the privilege of horse riding. Most days you’re only in the saddle for a total of three or four hours, which is broken up by generous breathers that feature plenty of refreshments.
On the fourth day, you have the option to take a day off or hike to an unnamed waterfall and mountain lake. Thanks to the comfort of Halfway Lodge (and the constant stream of treats that issue forth from its kitchen), it’s a win-win situation.
The five-night Halfway Lodge tour is available to riders of all levels, but it is recommended that you have a fair level of fitness, be up for a challenge, and have some experience on horseback – even if it’s only paddock pony rides like yours truly. All available tours from Banff Trail Riders have been adapted to include hygiene measures that ensure your safety.
The art of horse riding is something I’ve only just been introduced to. Although the learning didn’t come easily to me, I can’t wait to try it again.