Horseback riding to the Allenby Pass with Banff Trail Riders

Robin Esrock reports on a bucket list experience with Canadian Geographic Adventures horseback riding in Banff National Park

  • Published Sep 14, 2023
  • Updated Feb 23, 2024
  • 1,472 words
  • 6 minutes
Horseback riding above the tree line. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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With all due respect to rockstar attractions like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, if you truly want to feel the Rockies in your bones, you need to get on a saddle. Specifically, the saddle of a horse that departs Banff Trail Riders twice a week each summer on a six-day Can Geo Adventure to Halfway Lodge. No previous riding experience is required for a slow ride that will redefine your relationship with the backcountry. 

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Relax partner, there will be no trotting, cantering or galloping. Banff Trail Riders’ 300-strong stable of horses and mules largely come from auctions, animals rescued and patiently trained for excursions that range from hour-long joy rides to epic adventures. Either way, the pace is gentle but steady, the horses responsive and sure-footed, and the views guaranteed. Meeting my fellow riders at the stable, I am also introduced to my gelding, Lakota, and our trusty, eccentric pack mule, Aardvark. 

Over the next six days, I will get to know many unique personalities, both equine and human. Riding western style, our patient guide instructs us how to lean forward in the saddle when going uphill, how to lean back when going downhill, and the importance of standing on stirrups when our horses take a pee break. We get the hang of it real fast, and riding horses this calm and well-trained allows us to tune into our surroundings and truly immerse ourselves inside the beauty of Canada’s oldest and most iconic national park.  

Out and back from the Banff townsite, we will visit two mountain lodges en route to our highlight destination, the 2440-metre-high Allenby Pass. After a four-hour ride and having stopped for a lunch of grilled steaks over firewood, I stiffly dismount Lakota at the Sundance Lodge. We’d long left behind cell service, and there’s no wifi, just a welcome party of fat, hoary marmots. The lodge has comfy beds, hot showers, flush toilets, sofas, wood stoves, and a tireless, talented chef. Yes, my knees and butt are on the verge of mutiny, but painkillers and Pinot Noir help, along with the support of fellow riders hailing from across Canada, the United States, Australia and the UK. When you disconnect from the news, email and social media, you instantly connect with the people, landscape and modest options around you. Suddenly there’s time to pick a book from the shelf, rope a wood steer, stargaze, learn a card game, and listen to the stories of your new companions.

Halfway Lodge. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Into the Rockies. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Mule packers collect our bags early in the morning to transport them up ahead.  After breakfast, we load our saddle bags, mount our steeds, and amble into the wild. There may be bears, cougars, moose and other mammals in these woods, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll see them. Animals hear our clopping from miles away, and even though they’re protected within park borders, they’d rather not have anything to do with us. That doesn’t stop me from keeping an eye out for wildlife, which is one of the many advantages of trail riding over hiking. When you walk, you must look ahead, especially on a challenging trail with thick mud, slippery roots, horse manure and sharp rocks. Horses take this in their stride, allowing riders to gaze into the trees, down the valleys, along the creeks and up the peaks. Beyond the dense pines, fir, spruce and wild shrubs, I’m sure plenty of eyes tracked our progress across clearwater creeks and narrow switchbacks. It’s another long day in the saddle, but our reward is the century-old Halfway Lodge, facing one of the most magnificent views in the country. 

The cozy, two-storey, four-bedroom lodge serves as a base camp for three days of off-grid mountain wonderland. Everything is packed in by mule: the propane gas for heating and hot showers, the food that a solitary chef will spoil you with, the warm flannel linen, towels and horse supplies. With pack mules arriving every couple of days from Banff over 32 kilometres away, the unhurried stillness is quite literally a breath of fresh air. We don’t need much: it’s fine to wear the same overgarments every day, and slickers are provided to keep us dry if the weather turns sour. Contact with the outside world is through a CB radio that only reaches Sundance Lodge (there is a sat-phone for emergencies). Adjusting to the remoteness is part of the adventure: unnerving at times, invigorating at others. There’s no electricity, but camera phones can go far on airplane mode, and a portable charger sees me through. Which is just as well because I took a lot of photos on the bucket list ride up to Allenby Pass. 

Lake Matthias. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Steaks on the trail. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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The impact of riding above the treeline surrounded by an amphitheatre of dramatic limestone peaks is indescribable, so I won’t bother. Words like goosebumps and wow are typical, along with prayers of gratitude to whatever deity one credits for the opportunity to be one of the two hundred people who visit the pass each year. One thing is certain: you recognize a bucket list moment when you have it; trust me, you will have it on Allenby Pass.

Mushrooms on the trail. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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The following day, we leave the horses behind and take a steep hike along a creek to Lake Matthias. It’s our own private Lake Louise, a gemstone-hued, glacier-fed marvel cradled by sharp peaks, rock scree and virgin forest. I recharge my off-grid soul with a swim in its icy, drinkable water, grateful there’s a warm, late-summer sun to dry me off. Returning to the lodge, I count the waterfalls and over two dozen species of mushroom. We feast that night, play cribbage, and toast the highlights in a weekend full of them. 

Our group returns along the same path that brought us here, arriving for our final night in Sundance Lodge. Weathered and tired, we greet a fresh group of riders on their way up to Halfway Lodge, envious of the experience that awaits them. As riders and as people, my group has bonded in those mountains through conversation and quiet periods of introspection along the trail. Closer to town, we join up with two front-country riding groups, the short excursions that welcome hordes of visitors each summer. Riding single file, it’s rush hour all the way back to the stables, a poignant reminder that multi-day trail-riding represents a vastly different – and entirely unforgettable –  bucket list experience.

Travel with us

Halfway Lodge & Allenby Pass

Unwind in rustic luxury at the spacious Sundance Lodge and later at the cozy Halfway Lodge – both are quintessential mountain cabins boasting comfortable beds, a crackling fire and some of the most delicious backcountry cuisine you’ll ever try.


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