Hear the words "Rocky Mountain high" and Colorado springs instantly comes to mind. Yet following that singular range to its northern climes and one discovers that our Canadian cousins enjoy similarly awe-inspiring scenery. A four-hour drive west of Edmonton, Alberta, is the 7000-square-mile Jasper National Park, where visitors have headed for more than a century to light out on horseback and experience some of the continent's most spectacular mountains, including the world-famous Skyline Trail.
From the trailhead just off the northern terminus of the Icefields Parkway (which connects Jasper with Banff some 200 miles to the south), riders can set off aboard surefooted packhorses for a six-hour, 3,000-foot trek up to accommodations at Shovel Pass Lodge, the park's oldest permanent backcountry camp, located midway along the Skyline Trail. Outfitter Skyline Trail Rides, owned and operated by a seasoned equestrian and her husband, a former park warden, offers multi-day packhorse trips that include accommodation, meals, horses, and licensed guides (from $350 for two-night stay minimum).
The 27-mile long Trail is one of the signature hikes in the Canadian Rockies, and begins amid thick pine forests. It eventually winds past cobalt-blue lakes before ascending nearly 5,000 feet, high above the tree line, to the jagged ridgelines of the soaring Maligne Range. From there, riders (and hikers) have prime access to a pristine wilderness area of glaciers, alpine lakes, thundering waterfalls, deep canyons, and towering mountain peaks.
Riders eventually make their way to their accommodations for either two or three nights at Shovel Pass Lodge. Its peculiar name comes from the shovels the original railroad surveyors carved from trees in 1911 to dig out the heavy snows along a pack trail they created from the railway head. Many of those shovels, some of which are now displayed at the museum in Jasper, were left as trail markers. Rebuilt in 1991, the lodge includes seven cabins and a main chalet with a spacious dining room and lounge. Each cabin has propane heating and lighting with single or queen-size log-frame beds. Up to 18 guests can dine on hearty home-cooked dinners like roast beef, lasagna, and stew, cooked breakfasts, and self-packed sandwich picnic lunches.
With the lodge serving as base camp, guests are free to roam all day with or without a guide, exploring the surrounding high alpine basins and ridges on foot or on horseback. Many make for the highest point on the Skyline Trail, a windswept, snowy cornice-capped pass called the Notch, home to a family of marmots. Along the way, one will spot mountain goats, bighorn sheep, woodland caribou, elk, or even grizzly bears snacking on wildflowers while golden eagles circle lazily overhead.
More information Skyline Trail Rides (skylinetrail.com) offers two- and three-day pack trips to Shovel Pass Lodge for riders and all-inclusive accommodation for hikers from July to mid September. All trips include meals, private heated cabins, and freighting of duffel to camp. They also operate full-service stables on the grounds of Jasper Park Lodge. For more information about Jasper National Park, visit jaspercanadianrockies.com.