Giddy Up. Exploring Banff’s Backcountry on Horseback

Crossing creek on Trail Ridge, Banff National Park
Trail ride, Banff National Park horseback riding adventure
Crossing Brewster Creek on a trail ride through Banff National Park.

We recently had a chance to venture deep into the backcountry of Banff National Park, well away from the busyness of Canada’s most popular park. But our horseback adventure was quite a change from our usual remote trips where we have to carry all of our gear and be self-sufficient for wilderness camping. Instead, we got to sleep in a real bed, have hot showers, eat extremely well, and not even worry about cooking – hardly roughing it!

Banff beyond the busyness

We were on a three-day, two-night horseback trip with Banff Trail Riders to Sundance Lodge, about 16 km from Banff townsite. It didn’t take long before we entered a completely different world. As we rode away from Warner Stables on the outskirts of Banff, we passed the last of the hikers and cyclists, and until we returned we saw no one other than our fellow riders and those running the lodge.

Arlene on Banff backcountry horseback adventure
Arlene with her horse, Marlin.

Banff is justifiably famous for its magnificent landscapes but road-accessible areas can get crazy busy. With 6,000 sq. kilometres of wilderness, there’s plenty of space to escape the crowds. Travelling by horseback and staying at the lodge offers an attractive alternative to heading into the backcountry while lugging a heavy backpack.

Banff backcountry scenery
Deep into the Banff backcountry, well away from the crowds.

Steak for lunch

A couple of hours later, we stopped for lunch beside Healy Creek. The guides unloaded the grub carried by Katie the mule and started a fire. This was no quick sandwich-type lunch. Instead, we dined on barbecued steaks accompanied by salads and pastries, washed down with cowboy coffee. No worries about going hungry on this trip.

Lunch on backcountry horseback adventure in Banff
Barbecue steaks for lunch on the trail. Trail riding in Banff National Park.
Mule, Banff backcountry horseback adventure
Katie the mule carried our lunch supplies.

As we sat down to eat on a nearby log, it became apparent that the one worry we would have is sore legs and rear ends unaccustomed to long hours in the saddle. Halfway through lunch someone shouted “bear!” as we looked up to see a grizzly wandering by on the opposite side of the wide creek. It completely ignored us, and never even looked our way as it slowly ambled along.

Grizzly bear, Banff National Park
Grizzly bear, Banff National Park.

As the guides reloaded the mule after lunch, we learned just how important these animals are to the entire operation. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in the park’s backcountry, so absolutely everything from food (for both people and horses) to supplies, visitors’ gear, you name it, goes in or out by mule. Some employees are full-time packers, almost continually guiding mule trains between Banff and Sundance Lodge.

Mule, Backcountry horseback riding adventure in Banff National Park.
Mule train, Banff National Park.

Sundance Lodge

Late that afternoon we arrived at the lodge, an 11-room, two-story log building in a picture-perfect setting next to Brewster Creek, backed by soaring mountain peaks. An inviting verandah with chairs and benches overlooks the creek, while the main floor is divided into a comfortable sitting room with a wood-burning stove, and a spacious kitchen-dining room where all meals are served. The lodge is off-grid with no electricity, phone or cell service, though power is supplied by large solar panels and propane.

Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park
Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park.
Sundance Lodge
Sundance Lodge by Brewster Creek.

A big hit with everyone is the resident wildlife. Hoary marmots have adopted the area around the lodge and we frequently watched them feeding on the grasses in front. It’s always a treat encountering these fluffy, oversized rodents in the Rockies, but often it’s a challenge to find and photograph them. Here we can almost walk right up to them.

Hoary marmots, Banff National Park
Hoary marmots are very much at home on the grassy areas at Sundance Lodge.

Next morning it was back on the horses to explore farther afield, along more gorgeous valleys, meadows, and wooded hillsides. We rode across Brewster Creek a few times, with some exciting crossings in the fast-flowing water. The trails we followed date back to the early days of exploration on horseback and patrols by wardens and fire spotters.

Robin and Arlene on Banff horseback adventure
Robin and Arlene on the trail ride. Banff National Park.

Canada’s largest trail riding outfit

Horseback riding, Banff National Park
Julie Canning, owner of Banff Trail Riders.

Back at the lodge that evening, we sat down with Banff Trail Riders owner Julie Canning to learn more about running the largest trail-riding outfit in Canada, with everything from hour-long rides along the Bow River to five days far into the backcountry.

Canning has around 300 horses at a ranch near Didsbury, Alta. They winter there and most are brought to Banff in the spring. A lot goes on behind the scenes in the stable, such as the almost constant work of the farrier, leather repairs to some of the 500 saddles, and keeping tabs on the horses’ health.

Josh, guide at Banff Trail Riders
Josh works as a guide and packer at Banff Trail Riders.

The company decided to go strictly with geldings for trail rides. As Julie explained, “It’s like high school with a bunch of boys together. Everything’s OK, but throw a couple of girls in the middle and all hell breaks loose.” The exception is for mules, where both males and females are used.

Banff Trail Riders at Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park
Getting ready to leave for an outing from Sundance Lodge.

Besides being a business, Julie sees riding as playing an educational role. “The gap between urban and rural is widening. I’m committed to our rural and wilderness lifestyles. If we can help people connect with their landscape through riding horses, there’s a lot of joy that can come from that.”

Muffins, Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park
Freshly-baked muffins for breakfast at Sundance Lodge.
Kitchen staff, Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park
Kitchen staff kept us well fed at Sundance Lodge

She also stressed the importance of environmental stewardship – things like packaging, handling garbage, storing feed, and the increasing reliance on solar power. “We have a great experience at the lodge, but we do it in a socially and environmentally responsible way.”

The Photography Experience

Since this is Banff, photo opportunities are around every corner. But photographing on a horseback trip has its challenges. When you come across a photo opportunity on a hiking trip, for example, you simply stop and take the shot, and can even take the time to try different angles and compositions. Not so straightforward on a horse. These horses are used to following each other, often immediately behind, so it isn’t an easy matter to coax one of these set-in-their-ways animals to stand still long enough to carefully frame a shot. Photographing while on horseback was mostly a matter of grabbing quick shots whenever possible.

Moonrise, Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park
Moonrise over Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park.
Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park
Evening light on Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park

How to carry a camera on the horse is another consideration. Arlene used a compact camera with a wrist strap, while Robin carried a small camera bag (big enough for one DSLR) around his waist. He also carried a GoPro to take video.

Everyone is given saddle bags to use on the trip so these can be used for a camera as well. But trying to quickly dig something out of a saddle bag while trying to control your horse at the same time is no easy matter. And you could drop it, or even worse, the horse could step on it. Whatever you use for a camera while riding, the main consideration should be that it is quickly and easily available.

Roping practice at Sundance Lodge, Banff National Park.

Our favourite photos were ones we got with both feet firmly planted on the ground, such as at lunch stops or at Sundance Lodge in its gorgeous setting. Our best creek crossing images were taken at the start of the return trip from Sundance Lodge when the guides crossed the creek before we got on our horses, so we were able to shoot while standing at the water’s edge.

Trail ride, Banff National Park backcountry adventure
Crossing Brewster Creek near Sundance Lodge.

While we are limited in the amount of stuff we can carry on the horse, guests can pack a small duffle bag of personal gear for use at the lodge. These are carried separately by mule train. We packed a compact tripod which was useful for low-light photos at the lodge, and a small telephoto lens which proved handy for photographing marmots close-ups. If you do pack any extra camera gear, be sure to put it in a hard case or put a lot of padding around it. When the duffle bags are packed on the mule, they are tied on extremely tightly with ropes.

Resources:

Banff Trail Riders

Banff & Lake Louise Tourism

Banff National Park, Parks Canada

Exploring the Sights and History of Banff Townsite on Photojourneys

Banff Horseback Adventure PIN

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *