Snowcapped mountains. Expansive green valleys. A sparkling, glacier-fed lake. This is Banff, Alberta. Banff National Park—part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is a jewel in Canada’s crown.
Avid trail riders wishing to experience the park’s breathtaking beauty have a variety of options from which to choose. To help you plan your trip, we’ve gotten the inside scoop from three top area outfitters: Banff Trail Riders, Banff Adventures Unlimited, and Brewster Adventures.
Banff Trail Riders
About the outfitter: Banff Trail Riders melds history, exploring, and modern-day amenities, carrying on the long tradition of horseback riding in Banff National Park. Banff Trail Riders’ guides will skillfully take you into a wilderness that has fascinated travelers since the 1800s, following trails blazed in the 1920s and stopping at historic log cabins along the way.
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Horse details: Trail mounts are hand picked to suit each rider, says Amanda Markey, office manager of Banff Trail Riders. She also notes that each horse has years of experience negotiating the area’s mountainous terrain and emphasizes the abundance of care each horse receives.
“What is truly special about our herd is the care and attention that we have for each one of our boys,” Markey relates. “Our herd is all geldings, and each one has his own name, personality, tack, and breeding. Each member of our team has their favorites, and we always look forward to Christmas when previous riders send their equine friends presents from Santa. Truly, our horses are family.”
Most popular attraction: Trail rides with Banff Trail Riders range in duration from one hour to six days, with a wide array of departure times, so you’re sure to find a ride that suits you. “The shorter rides are perfect for those without a lot of time or who are keen to experience the amazing equine world for the first time,” Markey says. “The longer rides fully immerse riders into the remote wilderness with cozy accommodations.”
Can’t-miss sight: Each ride has its own special feature. For example, the one-hour Spray River Ride includes a river crossing, the Wilderness Tent Trips stop at Rainbow Lake, and the Backcountry Lodge Trips take you over the spectacular Allenby Pass. You’ll enjoy a view of Bow River from a Carriage Ride and savor a juicy steak on the Covered Wagon Cookout.
Extra perks: Don’t worry about roughing on the overnight trips, which take you on historic pack trails through the Sundance Range. On a Backcountry Lodge Trip, you’ll relax in rustic luxury, with a hot shower, cozy bed, and tantalizing meals. On a Wilderness Tent Trip, you’ll be pampered with well-equipped campsites, heated tents, an on-site cook, and other amenities. “Our tented camps feature outdoor hot showers, authentic canvas tents, and rustic views that allow people to truly connect with their landscape,” Markey says.
Despite comfortable accommodations, you’ll still get a genuine feel for the Western life, she adds. “People are most surprised about the true, authentic Western experience,” Markey says. “We aren’t dressed up—this is what we do, and we love it, and it shows.”
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Planning tip: Whether you want to spend a few hours out on the trail or prefer a leisurely carriage ride, book your rides seven days in advance to guarantee your spot.
For more info: Visit horseback.com for information on rides, attractions, lodging, and vacation packages.
Banff Adventures Unlimited
About the outfitter: Locally owned and operated, Banff Adventures Unlimited has introduced guests to the Canadian Rockies for more than 20 years. The outfitter offers peaceful, relaxing rides for riders of all tastes and riding experience. Knowledgeable guides will lead you through the West’s most spectacular scenery. “You’ll cross emerald-green rivers backed by soaring peaks,” says Haylie Petrie, Banff Adventures sales and marketing coordinator. “You’ll climb up Sulphur Mountain around the Windy Knoll viewpoint.”
Horse details: For trail rides, Banff Adventures is a booking agent with Banff Trail Riders. You’ll have access to more than 300 horses suited to a wide range of riders, including experienced horsemen.
Most popular attraction: The Raft, Ride & Relax package is one of Banff Adventures’ most popular packages. You’ll tackle the mighty Kicking Horse River by raft, then take in the views of the Canadian Rockies from horseback. “Enjoy a leisurely trail ride along the base of the Sulphur Mountains to a Western barbecue dinner,” Petrie says. “Relax with a game of horseshoes, and try your hand at roping before heading back.”
The rafting trip departs at 9 a.m. from the Hydra river base in nearby Golden, British Columbia. The evening horseback ride departs at 4:30 p.m. from the stables in Banff. You can do both adventures on the same day or on separate days.
Can’t-miss sight: If your time is limited, book the one-hour Bow River Ride or Spray River Ride. “The Bow River Ride is a one-hour horseback ride along the Bow River and past the natural sulphur hot springs flowing from the Cave & Basin—the original historic hot springs,” Petrie says. “On our one-hour Spray River Ride, our guides will lead you past roaring Bow Falls where you will cross the tranquil Spray River, followed by a partial climb up Sulphur Mountain.”
Extra perks: The barbecued steak dinner cooked over an open fire is a highlight on the Raft, Ride & Relax tour. Other activity packages include a sightseeing gondola or a famous Norquay chairlift ride, a visit to Banff Upper Hot Springs, a big canoe tour, and an excursion to the area’s glaciers.
Planning tip: Horseback rides with Banff Adventures are offered from mid-April through mid-October.
For more info: Visit banffadventures.com to peruse the packages and options available; contact customer service to request more information and book online. You can also visit Banff Adventures Activity Booking Centre, located in downtown Banff, to chat face-to-face with a local reservation agent.
About the outfitter: The Brewster family, founders of Brewster Adventures, has been introducing visitors to the Canadian Rockies for more than 100 years; it’s the oldest outfitter in Alberta. In the late 1880s, John Brewster established his homestead at the base of Yamnuska Mountain, which is today Kananaskis Guest Ranch. Two of Brewster’s sons, William and James, became expert mountain men. When they were just 10 and 12 years old, they took their first guests on a pack trip at the request of the Banff Springs Hotel. In the 1920s, the family built the Main Lodge in Kananaskis; in 1996, the 77-room Mountain Lodge in downtown Banff was built.
Today, Janet Brewster Stanton and her husband, Kevin Stanton, have taken over the company reins. Through Brewster Mountain Pack Trains, offerings include summer trail rides, winter sleigh rides, and overnight horseback adventures out of the century-old Brewster Lake Louise Stables in Banff National Park.
Horse details: Brewster Mountain Pack Trains has a herd of seasoned horses that Kevin has worked with for years. The herd is made up of mostly Quarter Horses, plus a few draft crosses, all of which skew on the mature side, ideal for accommodating guests of all riding abilities.
“One of the first things our repeat visitors say is that the horses are amazing, and they’re just sound, good old horses,” says Kevin. “They’re not flighty, and they’re usually pretty friendly.”
Most popular attractions: “In the winter, the sleigh rides that follow the lakeside trail beneath Victoria Glacier at Lake Louise are becoming a big draw,” says Kevin. “You’ll ride in traditionally styled sleighs with upholstered seats and blankets—a cozy, picture-perfect experience.”
In the summer, half-day rides out of Lake Louise Stables to Lake Agnes Teahouse are most popular. You’ll climb to an elevation of 7,000 feet through the tree line of Lake Louise, up through subalpine forests of spruce and fir that open up to a view of Lake Louise and Fairview Mountain. When you reach the teahouse, you’ll view the base of Big Beehive Mountain and Mirror Lake. Past the teahouse, you’ll take in Mount St. Piran, Mount Aberdeen, and the glacial Mount Temple—the third-highest peak in Banff National Park with an elevation of 11,500 feet.
“There are amazing vistas on the way up to both teahouses,” Kevin says. “Each ride has a bit of a destination, and I think that really makes a difference.”
If you’d like to take a longer trip, Brewster Mountain Pack Trains offers two- and four-day riding tours through the Ghost River area beside Banff National Park. Visitors stay in rustic log cabins, which shelter from inclement weather and offer a comfortable night’s sleep.
Can’t-miss sight: The Plain of Six Glaciers ride is another favorite of visitors. This four-hour ride travels to the base of Victoria Glacier, which offers views of glacial fields and Mount Victoria. You’ll ride beneath rock faces, through subalpine forests, and across avalanche passes along the slopes of Mount Whyte. You’ll then ride to a viewpoint where you’ll see the long glacier at the base of the Lower Victoria Glacier. Six more glaciers will come into view: Lower Victoria, Upper Victoria, Aberdeen, Lefroy, Upper Lefroy, and Popes. The last leg of this trip takes you to the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse, built in 1924. Sitting at an altitude of 7,000 feet, this teahouse was built by Swiss guides employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway for the enjoyment of their guests at the Chateau Lake Louise, also built by the CPR. You’ll enjoy grand views of Lake Louise and the lower valley floor as you complete your ride.
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If there’s good weather, the blue skies, the snow, and the rocks just make for an amazing experience,” Kevin says.
Extra perks: If you choose to stay at the world-famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise—a 130-year-old luxury chateau—you can book trail rides with Brewster Mountain Pack Trains right from your hotel, as the two businesses partner for this service.
Planning tip: Kevin suggests booking ahead for all your Banff adventures. The area is increasingly popular, and some attractions may book up in the peak seasons. And plan enough time to see and do everything you’d like, he adds. “Quite often, I think people don’t stay long enough, try to put too much into a smaller timeline,” Stanton notes. “I like to recommend staying a week.”
For more info: Visit brewsteradventures.com for summer trail ride, winter sleigh ride, and horseback vacation details, plus contact information; call or e-mail the outfitter for reservations.
If you’d like to further explore the Banff area, you’ll want to plan your trip armed with information. Banff and Lake Louise’s official tourism website, banfflakelouise.com, is an excellent resource for where to eat, where to go, where to stay, where to park a recreational vehicle, where to set up a campsite, and more. Non-horse adventures in and around Banff include a gondola ride through the mountains, hiking, biking, canoeing on Moraine Lake, visiting world-famous Banff Hot Springs, and a helicopter or boat tour.