Friday, January 3, 2014

The Look Ahead: Iron Horse Trail Preview

Smoky Lake's Pumpkin Park: Possible Pit Stop along the Iron Horse Trail
At the top of my to-do list of rides for the 2014 season is Alberta’s Iron Horse Trail (not to be confused with the Iron Horse Trails near Seattle or Waterloo and I’m sure dozens of other places; let’s face it, it’s not the most original name for a converted rail trail). This 300km, gravel, multi-use trail (part of the Trans Canada Trail) stretches along a Y-shape north-east of Edmonton; the western starting point is near Smoky Lake (an hour from the capital) and the eastern tips of the Y are at Cold Lake and Heinsburg, close to the Saskatchewan border. The trail runs through farmland, boreal forest, and a series of small Ukrainian towns and villages (Vilna, St. Paul, Glendon, Elk Point) in a pretty part of the province known as the Lakeland.

I first heard about the IHT about five years ago from my friend Travis, who did some mountain-biking on a section of the trail and reported that, although it was rough in spots, it had definite potential as a longer cycling route. But I couldn’t scare up any information about the thing—nary a brochure nor website. Val and Penn, my two well-informed cycling associates, had never heard of it. Then—and even now—the IHT existed well under the radar of most recreational cyclists in Alberta.

Last year, however, I did find a basic website, with some simple maps and information about services along the route. The website’s a little underdeveloped, shall we say, but it does contain some basic background. The trail opened in 2003, though it’s still considered a “work in progress,” and is overseen by the Riverland Recreational Trail Society—which I interpret as meaning it’s taken care of by volunteers and that there’s little money for promotion of the trail.

Although the trail is billed as multi-purpose—for hikers, cyclists, ATV’s, equestrian activities, Nordic skiers, and snow machines—the website suggests a definite slant towards the local rural favorites: horses, quads, skidoos. Under the Mountain Biking tab, there’s not much to look at—a couple of blurry photos of people tooling along on mountain bikes and one sentence describing the trail conditions. One of the photos shows people riding an ATV with bikes in a trailer. That’s it.

I managed to scrounge up a couple of other web pieces, brief reports/reviews of sections of the trail by cyclists who’ve ridden it, but there just isn’t much out there.  I could be wrong, but I get the sense that there aren’t many bikes to be found along the IHT. Cycling just isn’t a significant part of rural Alberta culture, at least not yet. And city folks just don’t know about the trail.

A trestle bridge along the Iron Horse Trail.

But that’s what I find intriguing about the IHT. It looks like it could have considerable appeal for certain types of recreational cyclists: off roadies, gravel grinders, fat-trippers, and conservative cycle-tourists who would rather not ride on the roads. (In fact, I'm scheming a family trip on part of the trail.) Although there may not be many of those kinds of cyclists actually living in the Iron Horse’s quad country, there are plenty only an hour away in Edmonton, and even more in Calgary and Canmore and elsewhere in Alberta. And while these cyclists know all about the Golden Triangle and the Icefields Parkway, classic Alberta multi-day trips, I suspect the vast majority of them have never heard of the IHT.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. I’ve yet to ride the Iron Horse Trail. Could be that it’s great for actual horses and lousy for steel ones. But I have got a hunch that it’s going to be my kind of trail—that is, dusty, quiet, picturesque, and perogy-laden—and that when I finish the IHT,  I’ll be faced with a dilemma: whether to tell everyone about it or keep it to myself.


  1. I've been contemplating the same trip for the last couple of years now myself. My conclusions are much the same in that it is probably used primarily by quads in the summer time and likely see's very little bicycle traffic. I'm thinking fat tires are a must here as it likely gets pretty sandy in spots due to the terrain and quad traffic.

    If you do happen to tackle this in the comming summer, I will be very interested to read about it. I'm going to try again to make it up there but the great divide mountain bike route is calling my name a bit louder.

    If you pick up a backroads map book for central Alberta the iron horse trail is detailed in it reasonably well.

    1. Yes, BWJ, I haven't decided which bike to take. Without a fatbike, we'll probably have to walk some sections or jump over the roadway for a bit. Still mulling that over. And I've got the very map book you speak of; it should do the trick.

      The great divide sounds like quite the challenge.You're a bit more adventurous than me!

  2. I went camping at Bellis LAke last summer, which is very close to the Iron Horse Trail. I absolutely loved it. If you and Val and Penn are camping on your adventure, I highly recommend Bellis Lake.

  3. jasper...anxiously awaiting your review of the new FB!!

  4. Can you contact for permission to use your pumpkin park photo in a brochure? Thank you, Jolene K.


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