Saturday, August 9, 2014

Victoria Trail Ride

View of the North Sask River from the Victoria Trail
72 km. 20 plaques. 7 dogs. 2 cars.

That’s the stat line from our ride along the Victoria Trail last Monday. But the real story of our glorious Victoria Trail excursion can’t be captured by the numbers alone.

For a few years now, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of riding the Victoria Trail. I don’t mean the drab arterial road in northeast Edmonton; rather, I’m talking about the remnants of a nineteenth-century settler trail that runs along the North Saskatchewan River south of Smoky Lake, Alberta (about 130 km north east of the capital). In the 1860s, the Victoria Trail made up part of the much longer Carlton Trail, used by Hudson’s Bay and Metis traders, which joined Fort Garry (Winnipeg) to Fort Edmonton.

In the 1870s, this trail connected the Victoria Settlement to Fort Edmonton and it was carved out by foot travelers, horse-travelers, and Red River carts. On a map of central Alberta the trail stands out simply because it’s not straight. In this land of perfect grid roads, the Victoria Trail meanders along the organic path of the river, defying the prairie rule of right angles.


The windingness of the road alone makes the Trail an enticing prospect for Alberta cyclists. Throw in the rich historical context (i.e. plaques aplenty) and the promise of many river prospects en route, and you’ve got the raw ingredients for one of the best gravel rides in Alberta.

And it is all gravel—or at least, mostly. The 7-km stretch west of the Victoria Settlement site is paved, suggesting that this provincial historic site and its environs was once conceived of as a minor tourist attraction. (There’s also rustic, unkempt campground complete with abandoned zipline at Metis Crossing, about 5 km west of the settlement site. This was, no doubt, at one time, part of some ambitious plan to draw tourist hordes from the big city. The day we visited the settlement, we saw only one other group doing the tourist rounds. One of the tour-guide gals working in the old Methodist church said they see maybe 10 visitors a summer day.) The pavement says the place is ready for traffic; all that’s missing are the actual tourists.

The Hudson's Bay Clerk's Quarters (1864), Victoria Settlement
Since this was new gravel territory for us, Val and I brought fat bikes, so we’d be prepared for any conditions. Penn, wild man that he is, opted for his Salsa Fargo (with 48 mm tires). In the end, I think Penn got it just right. The gravel was in good condition, generally, so the fat bikes may have been a little overkill for the conditions.

(BTW, we started at the intersection of the Trail and Range Road 201, just east of Radway, and rode 36 km north east to the Settlement site, had a picnic there, and rode back. The trail, technically, does continue southwest for another 15 km or so toward Edmonton, but that section is spotty, interrupted by grid roads in places where the original trail is long gone.)

Our plan was to go full tourist for the way out, stopping at every historical plaque along the way, so as to soak in the “knowledge,” as Val likes to refer to these engraved historical primers. This made for a wonderfully pokey pace on the way out. We read plaques about ferries, plaques about a former general store, plaques about the famous North West Mounted Police ride west, plaques about the Hudson’s Bay Company, plaques about Metis fiddling, and plaques about seasonal aboriginal camping grounds. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a plaque about the history of plaques. We even saw a few plaque-ready boulders off to the side of the road—just in case someone comes up with more “knowledge.”

The actual Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site is plaque central, with a little plaque-driven walking tour that guides visitors around what’s left of what was once a thriving village of over 150 people. (Post settlement, the village came to be known as Pakan, after a local Cree Chief Pakannuk. The site is still marked Pakan on some maps.) There are really just two buildings left from olden times: a Methodist church, built in 1906, and the Hudson’s Bay Company Clerk’s Quarters, built in 1864. When the railway came through Smoky Lake, 15 km north, in 1918, most of the buildings, including the hospital, were relocated there, and the settlement pretty much disappeared overnight. Now, the place is a lovely little park, with several heavily treed picnic areas. It’s incredibly quiet.

Whitford House, with Penn's Fargo
Not all the points of interest along the Trail were plaqued up though. The Whitford House, for instance, sits just a few metres from the road near the Lobstick Settlement, about 12 km from the Victoria one. I had to consult my brochure to learn that it’s one of the few original structures left from the turn of the century. We took a break and poked around inside the house; it was cool, both temperature-wise and history-wise. Sure, the walls feature the usual graffiti, but the original carpentry—squared logs and dovetails--is still visible in places.

The historical bits along the Victoria Trail may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But even if you ignore the plaques, and don’t bother with the old buildings, this ride is still one of the loveliest you’ll find in this part of Alberta. Long stretches run close enough to the river to that you can glimpse the water through the trees or take in some longer vistas from higher ground.

The most impressive part, though, is the lack of traffic. As the stat line shows, the plaque-to-car ratio was 10:1 the day we rode the Trail. It really did feel like the trail was ours, and it was possible to imagine what this route was like 150 years ago, when traders, hunters, settlers, and adventurers followed its twists and turns from one outpost to the next.


  1. I love reading plaques. Some day I will cycle the Victoria Trail just so I can read the plaques.

  2. Just finished driving the trail today. Didn't even know it existed but someone at Metis Crossing told me about it. They have a replica Red River Cart set up in Lobstick Settlement now. I guess they just put it there this summer.

    1. The trail is a great little secret. I was out there again in May but didn't see the cart, so it must be new. Did you see the Churchill LRT station out there?

    2. We have land at the old ferry site, and spend our summers enjoying the beauty this area has to offer. Indeed the cart was just put there late summer. It's a neat addition.

    3. Cool! I recall taking a break there and scrambling down to the old dock. Crazy to think that there were crossings along the river.


Speak up!