Alberta’s foothills ranch country, with its rugged splendour, is a world-renowned summer vacation destination. Lesser known is that the working ranches in Calgary’s backyard remain open to visitors after the snow falls.
Winter on the ranch leans heavily on rejuvenation. With a view of the Rocky Mountains, the crisp air is exhaust-free. Bursts of snowy outdoor activity including horseback trail rides, sleigh rides and tobogganing are followed by cozy indoor and outdoor fireside relaxation.
And while out-of-province visitors typically head for the ski slopes, Albertans make up the majority of winter ranch clientele. Natascha Moore, chair of the Alberta Country Vacation Association, says people are typically looking for a getaway with family and friends. “It’s the whole romantic feel of being out in the country, away from traffic and people, cozy and warm in front of a fire.”
“Eighth wonder” sleigh ride
Kevin Stanton of Brewster Adventures Lake Louise Sleigh Rides may be exaggerating slightly in describing his family’s winter sleigh ride route, but only just. “We call it the eighth wonder of the world,” he says.
The 45-minute to one-hour lakeside trips depart day and night from the stables in Lake Louise. Nestled in the mountains, the scenery is crazy good no matter the hour. However, under the light of the moon and stars, the shadows and reflected light of Chateau Lake Louise add a goosebump-inducing dimension to the nighttime experience.
Guests can follow their sleigh ride with an evening of dining and dancing at Brewster Cowboys BBQ and Dance Barn.
Sleigh rides run seven days a week, mid-December to early April. Adults $28, children $24. Dance Barn: adults $55, including sleigh ride transfer, dinner, live music and entertainment.
Horseback snow safari
Dewy Matthews of Black Diamond’s Anchor D Outfitting is a second-generation horseman who’s run trail rides and outfitted horseback hunts for 26 years. He’s one of a handful of ranchers offering winter trail rides.
“With the backdrop of the Rockies right there, it’s pretty special,” he says of the two-hour and half-day rides on the edge of Kananaskis Country. “It’s drop-dead gorgeous country.”
He says that the horses’ “four-beat footfall” makes it easier to approach the local elk, bighorn ram and moose herds.
Matthews also conducts sleigh rides with a team of sturdy draft horses.
Trail ride: one hour $69, three-hour or half-day $99. Hour-long sleigh ride with post-ride bonfire and access to “Olympic calibre” toboggan hill is $250 for 12 to 15 people.
Snow dogs and superb dining
Rafter Six Ranch Resort is one of the best-known vacation ranches in the province and it’s the family business for horse trainer and marketer Kateri Cowley. If it’s serenity you crave, winter on the ranch is the perfect getaway as summer tourist traffic slows. “It’s almost like your own private resort,” says Cowley. “It’s something you have to experience.”
Dogsledding is one of several winter activities offered on the ranch. Trips last 1.5 to two hours, winding their way along the Kananaskis River. Relax in a sled and enjoy the barky ride with its view of the rolling foothills or, provided your group is large enough, mush your own sled. Stop at a teepee midway for a hot chocolate and cookie break next to a wood fire.
Aside from sleigh rides and horseback trail rides, Rafter Six’s accommodations are a big draw. Visitors can stay in its rustic hotel lodge or log cabins. The restaurant and lounge serves high-end western cuisine featuring steak, bison and elk dishes as well as a lower-priced lounge menu.
Half-hour sleigh ride for up to three people, including hot chocolate, $98. Dogsled ride, $115. Approximately one-hour trail ride through Bow Valley Provincial Park or various ranch trails, $46.