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Exploring Alberta’s Iron Horse Trail

I get quizzical looks when I tell friends and family in Calgary that I’m off to explore the Iron Horse Trail. My husband guessed at its roots – an abandoned rail line but its location stumped everyone.

The Iron Horse Trail is the longest completed section of the Trans Canada Trail in Alberta. Located northeast of Edmonton, it cuts a 300 kilometre swath across the province beginning 20 kilometres west of Smoky Lake at Waskatenau and continuing to a junction near Ashmont where it splits south to Heinsburg and north to Cold Lake. The trail is for hikers, cyclists, horseback riders ATVers and even canvas covered wagons in summer. In winter it’s used by cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

Sheila – one of the most enthusiastic volunteers you’ll ever meet and a huge proponent of the Iron Horse Trail

Along the trail you can enjoy a diverse landscape of rolling hills, boreal forest, parklands, wetlands, jack pine forests along with stops at historic towns, a National Historic Site – Métis Crossing located beside the North Saskatchewan River, and Fort George Buckingham House, a provincial historic site near Elk Point. This part of Alberta is called the Land of Big and after a few stops in the small towns you’ll soon understand why.

Giant pumpkins in Smoky Lake, Alberta

The Iron Horse Trail takes you through the Land of Big – pumpkins in Smoky Lake

The town of Vilna on Alberta's Iron Horse Trail is home to the world's largest mushrooms

The town of Vilna is home to the world’s largest mushrooms

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

The world’s first UFO Landing Pad is in St. Paul

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

The Peter Fidler (Alberta’s first mapmaker) Statue stands 34 feet tall in the town of Elk Point

The Iron Horse Trail owes its life to the CN Railway.

For years the train was an important artery through many of the small towns you end up visiting along the trail including Smoky Lake, Vilna, Bonnyville, St. Paul and Elk Point. Over the last few decades service has been discontinued along these uneconomical lines. As the lines were retired, CN pulled up the rails, leaving a nicely graded, albeit overgrown trail behind.

Along came dedicated volunteers with a vision to turn these old rail-beds into a year round recreational corridor. The land between Heinsburg and Elk Point was the first section acquired through much negotiation with CN. That started the whole process with more communities to the west and north jumping on board. Today there are ten municipalities in eastern Alberta with a very big interest in seeing the continued success of the Iron Horse Trail, including Vilna with its beautiful old buildings pictured below.

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

The town of Vilna has beautiful old buildings

Biking the Iron Horse Trail 

I explored the trail over a couple of days with Sheila and Jim, a couple who spent a large part of their working lives living in eastern Alberta as educators. Sheila has been particularly invested as a board member and tireless fighter for the Iron Horse Trail. She was extremely keen to show me as much as we could cover in the short time that we had. Jim was ever patient as a chauffeur and car washer (you’ll understand if you scroll down).

Our original plan had been to canoe the North Saskatchewan River from Métis Crossing to Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site and then return to Métis Crossing via bike. Unfortunately the day before we’d had extreme weather conditions with lots of wind and rain. The North Saskatchewan River was full of whitecaps and running hard so we nixed that – and drove instead – but first we got a tour of Métis Crossing, one of the sites for a supper and voyageur dance as part of this summer’s Voyageur Brigade.

You can paddle the North Saskatchewan River which is considered in these parts to be part of the Trans-Canada Trail

The North Saskatchewan River is running hard and full of whitecaps

Admiring a Red River cart at a stop in Metis Crossing - a National Historic Site while exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

Admiring a Red River cart at a stop in Metis Crossing – a National Historic Site

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

This is how dirty the car and our bikes got driving to communities along the Iron Horse Trail on backroads (we’re at a carwash here)

We settled on a bike ride between Lindbergh and Heinsburg, one of the prettiest sections of trail. However, after testing conditions for about six kilometres we wimped out and called it a day. The trail is best cycled when dry on a mountain bike. My bike had bigger tires than Sheila’s and was easier to maneuver through slippery cow paddies and deep mud. You can tell she doesn’t look too thrilled in the photo below – and this was the clean section.

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

Biking is challenging and muddy after a full day of rain on the trail

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

Prepare to get dirty if you bike after a recent rain on the Iron Horse Trail

The terminus of the Iron Horse Trail in pretty Heinsburg

The terminus of the Iron Horse Trail in pretty Heinsburg

Some parts of the Iron Horse Trail are more compacted than others so the cycling is easier. A case in point is Warspite, one of twenty staging areas along the trail, complete with washrooms and parking.

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

Notice how flat the Iron Horse Trail is here in Warspite

What you should know before you visit the Iron Horse Trail 

  • There are loads of events along the trail including the Iron Horse Ultra 100 Marathon.
  • Locals are incredibly kind and helpful. Ask for help if you need it.
  • There are lots of campgrounds and small hotels/motels along the route. Whitney Lakes Provincial Park is in a particularly attractive area.
  • If you’re biking take a patch repair kit, pump and spare inner tube as there is little in the way of bike services.
  • Wildlife including moose and deer are often sighted. Birding is excellent.

Exploring the Iron Horse Trail helps you learn something of Alberta’s history and shows you a side of the province you probably haven’t seen. I discovered a beautiful and underappreciated landscape with some of the friendliest people west of Newfoundland.

Visit Iron Horse Trail for more information and a downloadable map.

Exploring Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

A huge thank you to Sheila and Jim and Alberta TrailNet for hosting me.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Marianne Janke says:

    Thanks for visiting our “Alberta’s Iron Horse Trail” Leigh. It looks like you had fun despite the weather! Anytime you are back this way, let us know and we’ll introduce you to more of the trail.

  • Allegra Tingley says:

    This is right in my backyard and I had no idea it existed! Can’t wait to check it out :)

    • Leigh says:

      @Allegra I love it when people discover something completely new. You’ll have fun exploring. I hear from several people that the prettiest section is from St. Paul to Heinsburg.

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