Saddle up at ranches in B.C.'s cowboy country

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      There are lots of ways to get into the B.C. backcountry, but the vast lands of the Cariboo Chilcotin are best explored from the saddle. This is, after all, the time-tested way that First Nations people and pioneer rancher-settlers explored one of this province’s lesser-known frontiers. The trusty, sturdy warmth of an equine companion provides a unique experience of this most gorgeous, remote terrain, and horses’ hooves can pick their way up steep, rocky foothill paths and gallop across grassy meadow plateaux with perseverance and grace.

      This is cowboy country, and there are numerous ranch experiences on offer, including health ranches, old-fashioned cowboy meet-ups, and horsemanship workshops. The Cariboo region spreads out along Highway 97, the north-south artery that branches off Highway 1 at Cache Creek; it’s also accessible from Vancouver along Highway 99 through Whistler and Pemberton.

      Located east of 70 Mile House, glamorous Siwash Lake Ranch bills itself as “private & exclusive”. However, while the ranch does serve three-course meals and offer massages in safari-style tents, the real appeal is its horsemanship program, as I learned during my stay as a guest of the ranch.

      The ranch’s founder/owner/operator, Allyson Rogers, is a true pioneer of the region and a brilliant horsewoman—her signature horse program, Synergy With Horses, is a good place to begin to learn techniques of natural horsemanship or “horse whispering”, which offers an alternative vision of how to train, ride, and relate to horses. If she deems your horsemanship abilities adequate, she’ll trust you to pathfind guide-free on trails through Crown lands in the wilderness (with a walkie-talkie, natch)—a truly rare feature at a guest ranch. Rogers’s operation embodies the values of sustainability and self-reliance inherited from early settlers, being run mostly on solar power and other off-the-grid innovations. Of course, all this awesomeness puts this ranch on the high end of the price spectrum.

      Spring Lake Ranch, off Highway 97 near 100 Mile House, is a more down-to-earth (and affordable) option. I woke up to a mother mare and her young foal grazing on a patch of grass directly in front of my log cabin, then rode through the woods and made two creek crossings before stopping near a lake to cook up a cowboy campfire lunch with my guide. The only downside was that our horse path was also used by ATVs, so it was hardly the deep-wilderness experience I was seeking.

      West of Williams Lake on the Chilcotin Plateau, there’s often no cell reception—certainly not at Chilko River Lodge & Guest Ranch, reached via a good hour’s drive on a gravel road in the wilderness near Ts’yl-os Provincial Park. The lodge area and rollicking saloon are run by a big friendly bear of a Swiss expat named Hausi Wittwer. The horses are hardy and the landscape stunning. With my guide, I explored the Crown land adjacent to the ranch; we rode across grassy pastures with views of the Waddington Range and the glaciers of the Homathko Icefield, through herds of cattle, and down to the banks of Tatlayoko Lake. It’s a wild and woolly place, with rugged riding on varied and interesting terrain.

      If none of the above suits, there are plenty of other guest ranches to choose from, including Chezacut Wilderness and Ranch Adventures, Big Bar Guest Ranch, and Sundance Guest Ranch. For more options, browse Destination British Columbia and the website of the B.C. Guest Ranches Association.