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.
Banff is justifiably famous for its magnificent landscapes but road-accessible areas can get crazy busy. With 6,000 square 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.
Steak for lunch
After riding for a couple of hours, 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.
As we sat down on a nearby log to eat, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Next morning it was back on the horses to explore 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.
Canada’s largest trail riding outfit
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. The horses winter there, then most are brought to Banff in the spring. A lot goes on behind the scenes in the stables, such as the almost constant work of the farrier, leather repairs to some of the 500 saddles, and keeping tabs on the horses’ health.
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.
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.”
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. We found that photographing while on horseback was mostly grabbing quick shots whenever possible.
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 so these can be used for a camera as well. But quickly digging 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.
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 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.
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 that was useful for low-light photos at the lodge, and a small telephoto lens that proved handy for photographing marmots close-up. If you do pack extra camera gear, be sure to put it in a hard case or make certain that it is well padded. When the duffle bags are packed on the mule, they are tied on extremely tightly with ropes.