Athabasca River, Banff, Chinaman's Cap, Eagle Lake, Equestrian Camping, Forestry Trunk Road, Free Camping, Hidden Falls, National Parks, Sundre, The Slides, Tracey Millar, Trail Riding, Warden Rock, Wolf Creek, Ya Ha Tinda
The Ya Ha Tinda Ranch was one of my very few “must go” places on this trip. I intended to split about a week between Ya Ha Tinda and Hummingbird, or one of the several other equestrian campsites off the nearby Forestry Trunk Road.
Eight days later, I was still at Ya Ha Tinda.
Ya Ha Tinda means “Prairie on the Mountain”, or at least, so I was told by Ruth, the temporary camp host at the Bighorn campsite there. Ruth was replacing Tom, an eighty-year-old fella who generally looks after the campsites at Bighorn and Eagle Creek for Friends of the Eastern Slopes, but who had gone home for four or six weeks to hay. Ruth’s sister Jean and her brother-in-law Rick manage the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, a 10,000 acre property bordering Banff National Park and owned by Parks Canada, which is where the Parks patrol horses are wintered, and trained, and where Parks equestrian staff do their courses and their continuing education on horsemanship.
Ruth gave me the lowdown on the ranch history and area ecology, and also delivered to me news that just about brought tears of joy to my eyes: dogs are allowed on the trails. I’d been keeping Spy tethered/kenneled/leashed, as per the “dogs must be on leash” signs posted everywhere, resulting in my puppy turning into a crazy thing. I’d taken him out for a 35-minute run that morning, and then for an hour’s walk (flouting what I thought were the rules and letting him off leash on a gorgeous little trail along Bighorn Creek to the falls) – neither of which came anything close to the amount of exercise it takes to make him something resembling civilized.
Ruth, who’d come by my campsite on my second day with her Aussie, Molly, cheerfully trotting beside her off-leash, poo-pooed the idea of dogs needing to be on leash. “That’s only in the campsite,” she said. “And really, all anyone cares about is that your dog is under control.”
So suddenly, life became better.
This conversation took place as we were sitting at her picnic table, just outside the amazingly well-appointed tarp-fest that is Tom’s summer abode. He has solar panels, a generator, a fridge, a freezer, an ice-maker, a sink, a well-stocked bar, and a woodstove. Pretty much around the time Ruth told me the meaning of Ya Ha Tinda, we heard a sound like a chainsaw starting up, and then realized it was coming from inside Tom’s tent. When we rushed inside, the woodstove was shooting flames out the damper a foot long, and the tent was full of smoke.
Now she’s scared to go to sleep at night.
Anyway, Ya Ha Tinda is “Prairie on the Mountain” because, at an elevation of 5000 feet, and surrounded by mountains, it is an anomaly of a place, growing native prairie grass in a wide open valley with mountains on all sides. Elk over-winter here. My camp neighbour, Dan, told me there’s a photo from when the old Mountain Aire resort used to be located here, with 3000 elk on the hillside. I’d seen a small herd of elk earlier that day, out on my run with Spy.
There are wild horses too, but I never saw them.
I arrived at Ya Ha Tinda mid-afternoon on Tuesday, after spending a leisurely morning in Sundre. I’d managed to get my ass in gear out of Irvine’s by 8:30, and that got me to Sundre at 9:30, ample time to (1) get gas and ice; (2) go to the visitor’s centre and gather intel about getting to Ya Ha Tinda and other rec sites in the area; (3) call my Dad, with whom I hadn’t spoken in six weeks, and break to him the news that I’d been camping with my horse in remote wilderness areas for the past month (he who, once I finished the very safe, Trans-Canada highway oriented, X-Canada trip in 2012, breathed a sigh of relief and said to me, “Don’t EVER do that again.”); (4) fix my No Clean Underwear Problem by hanging out at the local laundromat, which, with its good internet service, also allowed me to do some e-mailing while I waited for my clothes; (5) pick up dog food, an Alberta fishing license, groceries, booze*, and a tarp (hoping to rig something to remedy the awning fail – did I mention it blew all to shit in Cypress Hills?).
*Alberta is not the wasteland of good beer that is Saskatchewan. Sundre’s tiny little cold beer and wine store had ample beer to please me. I stocked up, bigtime.
It took me more or less fifty tries to get my truck and trailer parked exactly just so in the camp site I had chosen. My neighbour, Dan, at one point asked if I needed help. I don’t think he realized that the issue wasn’t a failure of reversing skillz, it was an issue of obsessive perfectionism. I do this a lot, at campsites. I am sure onlookers think I am koo-koo bananas. Or can’t back up. One or the other.
The wide valley in which the Ya Ha Tinda is situated offers amazing views in every direction.
This camp was the first time I used the Hi Tie, the gadget that was late getting to Nanaimo, and which Mr Andrews shipped to Vernon for me. Horses tend to prefer high lines to being tied to a trailer or standing in a tie stall, and Pai, who’d had a few short practice sessions with the Hi Tie at other campsites, was pleased with the arrangement. She had as much room to move around as she would have in a roomy stall, and she could lie down at night.
Our first ride was a short 2-hour evening ride to Eagle Lake, which is a trail Ann had recommended. It was a pretty little ride to a pretty little lake.
The next day, I had the goal of reaching The Slides, another trail recommended by Ann, but, given that I had no map and only vague directions and a GPS that had run out of juice (and which, admittedly, I don’t really know how to effectively use, anyway), I ended up somewhere most definitely Not The Slides. We climbed a hill so steep that at one point, Pai asked to stop, and her legs were trembling. I got off and led her, and by the time we topped the rise, my legs were screaming. Luckily, when we were stopped for a break, two riders came by, and told me roughly where I was headed: the trail to Chinaman’s Cap (with the awesome news: “The steepest part is ahead of you.”) Workout though it was, the views over the valley from the highest point we reached (we quit before summiting the Cap) were stunning.
My neighbour Dan is one of those folks I seem to be blessed with finding. He’s not a horseman, but he’s been coming here with his buddies for years, to hike. He comes in winter. When he said he came in winter, I assumed he meant to X-country ski, but no, he meant to hike. That’s how little snow there is here, despite the altitude and the latitude. He had to go into town to fix a flat, and so packed out my garbage and brought me water (I’d not realized that Ya Ha Tinda has no “people” water, and I was going to be tight). He also sent Ruth my way, to give me the lay of the land. And he gave me directions to Eagle Lake. When he left camp on Friday, he stashed some firewood in and under my truck, and left me yet more water.
On Thursday, Spy and Pai and I headed out in a freezing cold rain (it was 6 degrees C outside), off to find The Slides. My mare was in a good mood, and trucked along at a good clip with little input from me, which is a good thing, since I was busy trying to warm up my hands and wasn’t much engaged with steering. The rain cleared up after about forty-five minutes, and we got a bit of sun amid the clouds for the rest of the ride, as we crossed first a wildflower-filled meadow, and then wound our way through the trees, crossing the creek four times on the way.
We did reach The Slides, which are a series of natural water slides on Scalp Creek, that skim the surface of smooth rocks and tumble into pools. It would have been an awesome lunch stop on a hot day – on a day like that, a bathing suit would be a must. We wound our way back along higher ground, and got home just before thunder and hail hit.
As I’ve said before, being a woman traveling on your own with a horse always seems to grab people’s attention. I’m not sure whether people feel like they need to take me under their wing, or whether they are just intrigued, or maybe a little bit of both, but somehow, they do seem to want to meet me and look after me, and I always end up meeting the greatest, most interesting, most generous people.
That’s how I ended up playing beer pong on Saturday night up at the ranch.
Friday was an abysmal day of unrelenting rain. I’d socialized with Jean the night before in Tom’s (now Ruth’s) very cozy tarp-o-rama, and had gotten an enthusiastic “Yes!” when I asked if I could have a tour of the ranch buildings the next day, and an offer to use the phone or internet or whatever I needed. Ruth very nicely drove me up, and she and Rick toured me around the ranch – the log barn at the Ya Ha Tinda is a National Historic Site.
In his pre-ranch manager life, Rick had been a bronc rider and a rancher and an outfitter in Banff, and he is a great person to talk to about history and horses and riding. Anyway, there was some coffee and some chatting, and I met up with Rick and Jean again on my ride to the Outpost the next day, and I ended up being invited over for dinner, which they were sharing with a big crowd of relatives from Edmonton and the Netherlands. The rellies are beer pong experts, and, with Ruth as my partner, I had my initiation into a game I somehow (embarrassingly) missed out on learning back in high school and university. I’m no good at beer pong at all, compared to those Edmonton and European beer pong sharks.
The ride earlier that day to The Outpost at Warden Rock, a place first mentioned to me by Lyle back at Nipika, was a gorgeous one. Pai and I set off on our own again on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, taking the meandering trail that follows the Red Deer River for about 13 km until it reaches the boundary of Banff National Park.
The Outpost sits in a little no-man’s land between the ranch and the park. Tim Barton takes people in by stagecoach across the Ya Ha Tinda, and the guests stay in sweet little cabins on the river, surrounded by mountains. From there, they can ride into the Park for day or pack trips. I had a cup of coffee on the porch with Julie, Tom’s wife, and Jean, where the (questionable) wisdom of the Parks decision to re-introduce bison to Banff National Park was discussed.
By now, I’d decided to knock Hummingbird/Ram Falls off my itinerary. There was tons more riding to do right where I was, besides which, I’d been informed that there was an ATV rally happening at Ram Falls that weekend, news that sealed the deal.
Sunday was another fine day, and we rode up to Eagle Lake again, and beyond it to James Falls.
From there, we rode back in a loop that may or may not have been the Poplar Ridge Trail. It was on a ridge, but there were no poplars, so I think I missed my turn. No matter. I couldn’t complain about the scenery.
By now, I had new camp neighbours. In Dan’s place were Laurie and Tom, from Red Deer. Laurie had ridden at the Ya Ha Tinda many times in the past, but that had been a decade ago, and she was no longer sure of the trails. Behind me were Don and his wife (Shirley? I am abysmal at remembering names) from Ponoka, who rode Tennessee Walkers and who knew the place well; they were joined by some friends who were heading out on a 12-day pack trip with their own Tennessee Walkers.
I’d intended to leave on Monday, but if enough other riders tell you what a great ride it is to Hidden Falls, and you get the opportunity to go, well… I stayed another day. Laura and Tom and I made a date with some gals staying at Eagle Creek, Brenda and Zip, to head to the Falls; after hanging about for a long time after the appointed hour, we decided to go it on our own, and so off we went, braving the river crossing on our own – no small thing, since the river was running high and fast after the rain, and came well above the horses’ bellies.
We met up with Brenda and Zip at the falls, where they turned up a half hour or so behind us.
The Hidden Falls is the coolest waterfall I’ve ever seen. Photos don’t do it justice. The water spills from a sort of funnel and drops into a cavern whose walls lean and almost meet overhead.
Brenda and Zip and Tom and Laura made plans to ride the Wolf Creek loop the next day. Once again my resolve to head off wavered, and I decided to see how I felt in the morning.
The campfire that night at Ruth’s, over at Tom’s tent, was a treat. Tom’s musician friend Tracey Millar, who has a knock-you-down-flat beautiful voice, was visiting, and had brought her guitar, and so she played and sang. There was a good crowd gathered to hear her sing – Rick and Jean came down from the ranch, and brought along various wardens and other Park staff who were at the ranch on various missions – like Jim from Jasper, there to retrieve horses evacuated during the Jasper Park forest fire, and Derek and Jamie from Yoho/Banff/Kootenay, there on a 3-day horsemanship course.
And when I went to bed, I still wasn’t sure whether I’d be pulling up stakes the next day, or staying to ride.
As I was lying in bed the following morning, staring at the ceiling of my “living quarters”, I decided that it was definitely time to go. I’d get up early, pack, and get out of Dodge. And then I stepped outside. At six a.m., the sky was a cloudless deep aquamarine blue. It was not a driving day. It was a riding day.
So I joined Zip, Brenda, Tom and Laurie on the Wolf Creek loop. Zip is a great horsewoman, knows the trails minutely, and has a gentle way of dealing with people. She guides whoever wants to go on a tour with her, but won’t take a fee. “It’s a ministry,” she said. “Showing people God’s creation.” She led us on a ride that turned out to be one of the loveliest rides of my stay – there were meadows, mossy woods, hill climbs and descents, waterfalls, rock canyons, cliffs, trails clinging to hillsides, river crossing, views across valleys…
Our lunch was spent by the side of a pool at the bottom of a stair-step waterfall. The day was warm enough that I had a quick swim (“quick” being the nickname for “lightning-fast”, just like “refreshing” is the pet name for “turn-your-lips-blue” – the water was seriously as cold as a bucket of ice cubes.
By his third river crossing, Spy learned to start his swim upstream, so that the strong current wouldn’t land him a hundred metres downstream from where we exited the river. Smart doggie.
The Wolf Creek loop – which my friend Ann from Calgary had enthusiastically recommended as a must-do, and the one I almost missed – ended up being probably my favourite ride in a week of fantastic rides.
Wednesday morning dawned with an earth-shaking thunderstorm, and lightning bolts that lit up the mountains. After coffee with Tom and Laurie, I said goodbye to Ruth, and to Rick, who was doing his morning drive-through of the camp. I hope to see Rick and Jean and Ruth in Nanaimo someday down the road, and re-pay the hospitality and generosity they showed me.
I think they’re wrong about the translation, though. I’m pretty sure Ya Ha Tinda means “heaven on earth”.
Trail and camp notes for horsey folk:
There are two campsites at Ya Ha Tinda, both maintained by Friends of the Eastern Slopes. The Bighorn campsite is inside the ranch perimeter, the Eagle Creek campsite, which you come to first, is just outside the perimeter, which means that ATVs may occasionally appear there, though their access to trails is limited (Ya Ha Tinda does not allow motorized vehicles on the property). The Eagle Creek site is more sheltered and treed; the Bighorn site is treed but much more open, with views of the mountains.
Both campsites are along the Red Deer River, and camping is free, although it’s well worth supporting the Friends of the Eastern Slopes by buying a $30 membership. There is no potable water; horses can be watered at the river or, at Bighorn, at Bighorn Creek as well. There are pit toilets (bring your own TP).
The manure pile (bring your own fork and wheelbarrow) is at the entry gate, 700m from where I was camped. Most people drove their manure down to the pile in their pick-up trucks. If you’re pushing a barrow, it’s a bit of a slog.
Camping is fairly free-form, with people just pulling in as they please. There are tie stalls at some sites (4 stalls per structure – bring your own tarp for shade/rain shelter), skookum high-line posts at others, and other sites have no real horse confinement, but you can tie to your trailer. High-lining to trees is not allowed, nor are electric corrals, and grazing is prohibited (so no tethering or hobbling). Limited panels are allowed in a very area on the south-east side of Bighorn. Some sites have picnic tables and fire pits, some don’t.
Most (but not all) of the trailheads are at the Bighorn campsite, but from Eagle Creek, it’s an easy ride across a meadow alongside the Red Deer River (it’s maybe 3 km, which takes about 20 minutes or so if you walk it, or, if you’re Pai and you have a ground-eating trot, about 10 minutes if you trot and/or canter it).
One of the many great things about the trails at the Ya Ha Tinda is that you can always ride with a destination – a lake, a waterfall, a viewpoint, The Outpost… You can stay on the valley bottom, or you can ride up the mountains. You can ride for a couple of hours and make a nice loop, or ride all day. You could ride to The Outpost, and stay, and ride into Banff from there. You can cross the river, or not.
The terrain is varied – winding single track through trees, flat meadows, hill climbs, creek crossings – but the footing is generally very good. There are a few steep bits that would get a little slick in the rain, and some rocky areas here and there, but nothing I rode was in any way alarming.
The map (available from Tom (or Ruth)) is basic but accurate; there are also trails that don’t appear on the map. Major intersections tend to be marked by a signboard with a helpful “you are here” marker, and other trail directions are marked on moose antlers. There are enough landmarks in sight that you pretty much always have an idea of which direction you’re headed.
The operating buildings of the ranch are about 4 km from the Bighorn campsite. You can ride there, tie up, and take a tour.