TURNER VALLEY, Canada — Just below the summit of Cougar Mountain, in southwestern Alberta, is a grassy plateau the size of a football field. The meadow is roughly 8,000 feet above sea level, a modest altitude for the Canadian Rockies, but standing there is a singular experience. What makes the humpbacked mountain such an unforgettable place is the surrounding scenery: a 360-degree panorama of deep, forested valley and craggy, snowcapped peaks.
Unless a person has access to a helicopter, there are only two ways to reach this spot and enjoy the spectacle: on foot, or with the help of a four-legged friend.
The former method would consume an entire day and an incredible amount of energy. My wife, Leona, and I chose the latter. On horseback, we discovered the ups and downs of riding through the Rocky Mountains.
For those who can tolerate the physical challenges, a hoofed trek through the Rockies is a fantastic way to spend a vacation. Rugged terrain is no obstacle (as it is to those traveling by foot or mountain bike), and a person can get far enough away to forget everything but the natural world. The sights, sounds and most of the smells are so incredibly delicious that by the end of the trip we were talking about getting back in the saddle the next summer. But next time I'll remember to bring a flask of whiskey to soothe the sore spots.
The Rockies span almost the entire continent, but one of the best spots to explore them on horseback is Kananaskis Country, a 1,600-square-mile mountain playground nestled in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Named after an Indian who survived a blow to the head by a battle ax, Kananaskis is one of Canada's best-kept secrets.
A provincial mountain park established in 1977 by the government of Alberta, Kananaskis is a mere child compared with its 100-year-old neighbor, Banff National Park. The park encompasses the foothills and eastern slopes of the Rockies southwest of Calgary, Alberta's largest city, and borders Banff and the Continental Divide to the west.
Within the borders of Kananaskis lie an unparalleled 500 miles of trail open to horses, not to mention some of North America's best fly-fishing and kayaking. The area also boasts the highest drivable point in Canada and the highest established hiking trail in the Rockies.
Something other than age and geography separates Kananaskis from Banff and most other Rocky Mountain resorts: people. Because the area is quite young, it has received very little marketing and media attention. Hence many of the trails are as secluded as they were when Pacific settlers first passed through the region on their way to Oregon.
Kananaskis is an easy area to explore as a side trip to Calgary, just one hour away by car. In fact, the busiest time for Kananaskis outfitters--whose season usually starts in May and ends in October--are the days surrounding the annual Calgary Stampede (July 9 to 18 this year). Horse riding in the mountains before and after the Stampede is so popular that some outfitters are booked six months to a year in advance. And this year is an especially advantageous time for Americans to visit, since a strong U.S. dollar (about 73 cents buys one Canadian dollar) translates into travel bargains.
Several professional outfitters offer day rides and overnight trips through Kananaskis. The one we hooked up with, Anchor D Guiding and Outfitting Ltd., has been inflicting saddle sores on city dwellers for almost 16 years. I first discovered Anchor D on the Internet at http://www.anchord.com.
The Anchor D ranch is located 50 miles southwest of Calgary in the Sheep River Valley, not far from the edge of Kananaskis. A range of rides is available--from single-day trips ($73) to week-long treks over the Continental Divide (about $870). We booked a weekend ride (about $240 per person) up through the Sheep River Valley to Anchor D's wilderness camp.
(In retrospect, we should have chosen a longer trip. We discovered that horse-riding adventures, while long on peace, are not exactly short on suffering, at least for a couple of greenhorns. After the first day, we slid off our saddles with knees so sore we could barely walk. Those aches greatly diminish after a person has been "broken in.")
The drive from Calgary to the Anchor D ranch and nearby trail head was the first pleasing experience of the trip. With the mountains to the west lighted up by a brilliant yellow glow from the morning sun, we drove down provincial Highway 22 through Alberta's premier ranching country, a verdant landscape of gently rolling hills. The last stretch of asphalt before the trail head is Highway 546 west of the town of Turner Valley. Winding through the foothills, we passed through enormous stands of aspen and spruce that rise up from the Sheep River. A whitetail deer watched us go by.