By Kim O’Hare
With a cloud of political uncertainty hanging over some parts of the world, many people will be looking for something different for their summer vacation. Maybe this summer won’t be about sandy beaches, or golf courses or museums. Maybe it is time to get active, without risking life and limb.
Remember the movie “City Slickers” with Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby and Jack Palance? Three buddies in search of adventure sign up for a Wild West cattle drive. While the success of City Slickers was based on some improbable and unlikely scenarios, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a horseback holiday.
From ranch holidays and cattle drives to horseback riding and cowboy poetry, Alberta, Canada, has a vast range of western adventures to choose from with one of the largest horse populations in the world. Whether it’s an hour’s easy amble on horseback or six days in the saddle, there’s a wide variety of trail riding, pack trips and ranch vacations to suit your style. Some outfitters even offer specialised packages such as all-girl rides, or corporate team-building challenges.
Not sure which side of the horse to get up on? Most guest ranches, stables, outfitters and equestrian centres offer lessons and family horseback trips for children and adults - from basic western style horsemanship to English style, show jumping and dressage. Many places offer day camps for young riders. Whether you’ve never ridden or haven’t ridden lately, experienced instructors can make sure you’re ready to roam.
More experienced riders, sign up for multi-day horse-packing into the backcountry with Alberta’s legendary outfitters, who can put together a hands-on tent trip, where you ride all day and then pitch your own camp. The less experienced can rough it the easy way on a guided lodge ride, where you can bed down at night with a roof over your head, and some excellent meals.
There are more than 30 Alberta guest ranches offering family horseback trips. Many of them are working ranches where you can experience traditions that go back generations. You might have a chance to ride the herd with real working cowboys, or learn how care for your own horse. And after a good ride, take a dip in a lake or go for a paddle and then sit down to a hearty western barbeque around a campfire. Accommodation can be in the main ranch house or in individual cabins, but try sleeping under the stars on a warm summer evening - you won’t believe your eyes. The Alberta Outfitters Association lists dozens of ranches and each ranch provides all the information you’ll need about costs and what to bring.
Your western vacation need not be restricted to trail riding. Many of the Alberta guest ranches offer activities and amenities such as, canoeing, fishing, hiking, rafting, whirlpool, licensed dining room and cocktail lounge. The ranches offer customized programs that range from barbecue lunches and dinners, cowboy cookouts and Wild West rodeos. Breathe fresh Country ‘Canadian’ air, while you take part in daily ranch activities. Escape the normal routine our your life by getting a bit closer to nature and a time when life was a lot simpler.
Alberta is divided into three distinct areas. Southern Alberta where the prairies unfold to meet the Rocky mountains. From the Montana-Alberta border, north to Calgary and west to the Rockies, this is classic Alberta ranching country. It is also an area where the old blends with the new. Visit Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site with one of the most extensive dinosaur fields in the world. Stop in at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, the largest and best preserved buffalo jump in North America, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump bears witness to a custom practiced by native people of the North American plains for nearly 6000 years. (They hunted buffalo by chasing them over a precipice and subsequently carving up the carcasses in the camp below.)
You’ll also find modern cities and warm friendly towns throughout the region. Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Calgary - home of the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” the Calgary Stampede. And of course, the town of Banff and the spectacular beauty of Banff National Park.
North of Calgary, south of Edmonton and west to the Rockies lies a land of infinite variety, Central Alberta. Grain fields and rolling cattle country dotted with oil and gas wells. Prairie parkland, foothills and majestic mountains. Every town has a museum; every person on main street has a story to tell. Throughout the summer central Alberta towns come alive with rodeos and pioneer day celebrations. It’s hard to find a weekend when there isn’t something happening. The Westerner Exhibition and Red Deer International Air Show are major attractions. Innisfail is the home of the RCMP Dog Training Centre. And if you are looking for a “road less travelled”, the Forestry Trunk Road runs parallel to Banff and Jasper National Parks. Spectacular waterfalls, breathtaking scenery, river, streams fish and wildlife galore.
From Edmonton, west to the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park and north to the border with the Northwest Territories is a land of rugged forests, peaceful lakes and unmatched serenity; where outdoorsmen and fishermen are king. Throughout the North Country you’ll find small towns dotted along modern, well maintained highways. Historical sites, museums and points of interest are plenty. Northern Alberta is vast, its people are friendly and full of the pioneering spirit - even today. Here you’ll find the city of Edmonton, also called the “Festival City”.
Whether you are into art, music, drama or just want to simply have fun there’s a festival suited to you. Jasper National Park is home to beautiful lakes, hot springs, abundant wildlife and incredible mountain scenery. North of Jasper National Park you will find Willmore Wilderness Park and Kakwa Wildland Park. This area is home to the famous Kakwa and breath taking waterfall - which few people ever have a chance to see. The area is only accessible by horseback or foot
Several major air carriers either fly to Calgary or Edmonton and most international carriers have arrangements with domestic operators. For outdoor adventures such as horseback holidays, May to October is the best time; most of the destinations are near capacity during July and August which are the school vacation months in Canada. Booking ahead is highly recommended. More information is available at the Alberta Government Tourism website.