I welcome travel on trails where no vehicles are allowed, as it means there will be fewer of us and more of the “wild” out in the wilderness. In Banff National Park, the oldest national park in Canada, you won’t run into a lot of people as you ride the varied trails. This was truly the case on my horse pack trip aboard a horse named Tumbleweed, led by guide Barry Ferguson on his mule named Sharon Stone. Yes, Barry seemed to prefer mules and because of this, tolerated Sharon’s sometimes-irritable attitude. Whatever your equine preference, riding into Banff gets you to some of those spectacular views that are best seen on horseback.
I trekked out with Banff Trail Riders, which has been leading travelers into Banff since 1962. Our three-hour ride out from the stables in Banff to our first camp was eventful––a mix of sun, rain and hail –– yes, hail in July! We passed through deep forests, teeming with moss, both on the ground and hanging from the branches of tall spruce trees. My horse Tumbleweed drank from cool mountain streams and trotted and walked along the sometimes rocky trails. We passed through forested trails that opened up to reveal dramatic, tall mountain peaks, piercing the sky.
I felt like I was looking at an Ansel Adams photograph, except that I was there, seeing it in color, smelling the forest and rain, and hearing the birds. On the ride to camp, we passed only one other soul, a packer with a string of mules. He was making a supply run for the camp where we were headed.
For the most part, we rode in silence– in a Zen-like state. We stopped a few times in picturesque areas to film and take photos or to wait out some of the storm. That’s when I realized that Tumbleweed, my trusty trail horse, didn’t like being left alone. Every time Barry and I tried to ride away from the group, Tumbleweed called out to make sure that the other horses in our group knew he was nearby. I reassured him with pats and tried to make sure the other horses were in view.
Once we arrived to Mystic Camp, all a little damp and cold, I was all too happy to get warm in the dining tent by an old wood burning stove. To get even more cozy, we enjoyed home cooked roast beef with baked potatoes and French onion soup with corn, beans, Caesar salad and garlic bread. I even had s’mores around the campfire for dessert.
Mystic Camp is well equipped with a large tack tent, outhouses, a small slew of sleeping tents and a dining tent complete with propane stove. All of the tents, except for the sleeping tents, are large enough so that you can walk around inside.
I found it fascinating to learn about how this hotel in the woods runs, so Tanya, the camp cook, introduced me to her kitchen, where she cooks up amazing meals like our dinner, and breakfasts with pancakes, oatmeal, fresh muffins, eggs and sausage. Mystic Camp is the closest camp to civilization and it’s still three hours away. Tanya gets her meats and those items that need to stay cold brought in frozen by a packer and she keeps a list for each time he comes to camp. When the frozen foods arrive, she immediately buries them in her insulated ground box to keep them cool for the week.
The second day of our trip was the most beautiful. That’s when we did our ride to Mystic Lake, a beautiful jade green-colored, glacial-fed lake about an hour and a half’s ride from Mystic Camp. Along the rocky and sometimes muddy trails, as if the scenery wasn’t enough, Barry added to the drama by pointing out fresh bear scat. Banff is home to black bears and grizzlies.
Once we reached Mystic Lake, surrounded by grand snow-capped Mount Ishbel, the setting was absolutely pristine. Again, no one else was anywhere around. Sitting on Tumbleweed at Mystic Lake, I took in the chilly breeze coming off of its waters. It sure was special to be able to gaze at its beautiful, glassy waters, and absorb the wilderness within Banff National Park on horseback.