When it comes to snowmobiling, it would be difficult to find a better destination for family riding than the Iron Horse Trail in Alberta. The groomed trail runs 93 kilometres from Waskatenau to Abilene Junction, north of St. Paul, before it splits and goes up to Cold Lake and down to Heinsburg. Altogether, the Iron Horse Trail travels 300 kilometres along an old railway bed, giving riders the unique opportunity to discover various townsites along the way.
“(The Iron Horse Trail) does go through varied landscapes,” said Marianne Price, administrative co-ordinator for the trail. “It's a really good trail for families, groups of friends or beginners—those that want to take a little bit of a slower pace and enjoy the scenery. They can stop in the communities and check out what there is to see and do along with different events and attractions as they're travelling down the trail.”
In addition to enjoying the Iron Horse Trail, visitors can access the trail networks of various snowmobile clubs along the route. There are also warm-up cabins or facilities right on the Iron Horse Trail in some of the communities. Elk Point has a warm-up shack at its staging area, there is another one between there and St. Paul, and then there’s a gazebo and woodstove at St. Paul. Both these communities also boast excellent groomed trail networks.
With the exception of Bonnyville, most communities on the Iron Horse Trail have a staging area. Smoky Lake, an hour and a half northeast of Edmonton, is a popular starting area, but there are lots of options. Each town, other than Cold Lake, also has an access route, providing access to accommodation and places to eat in town. For snowmobilers, Price said she hasn’t found that there is a preference for any one stretch of the trail over another.
“Say you start in Smoky Lake and you make it as far as St. Paul the first day,” said Price. “You could stay overnight in St. Paul, get up the next day, continue snowmobiling and maybe stay in Bonnyville or work your way back to Smoky Lake. You have that option of leaving your vehicle at a staging area. Other people might try to stay more centrally on the trail, so they'll come to St. Paul and they'll get up one day and they'll go one direction and they'll get up the next day and go another direction and then the third day go on the third leg of the trail.”
Before visiting the trail, sledders should find out if there is anything exciting happening at their destination of choice. Smoky Lake and St. Paul hold New Year’s Eve dances, and Cold Lake has an annual Christmas farmers market. There are also other activities riders could attend throughout the winter such as music jamborees, perogy suppers and snowmobile-specific events. The Alberta’s Lakeland Facebook page is a good resource for staying up-to-date with what’s happening in the region. People could also contact Price for information. She has a sheet she can send out that lists suggestions for museums, eateries, shopping and other sights.
“If people are going to Smoky Lake, I make sure (to tell them to) stop at the Smoky Lake bakery—it's really good,” said Price. “Same thing with Elk Point—they have a bakery that is just delicious. (Also), if you happen to be in Elk Point on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, those are the only three nights that the Outback 646 is open. Amongst other things on their menu, they serve local elk.”
The Iron Horse Trail is very well signed. However, sledders with GPS units can also spend their ride finding over 1,400 geocaches that are accessible year-round along Canada’s longest power geocache trail.
Out and about
With all the activities and sights along the Iron Horse Trail, however, sledders still won’t forget to enjoy the ride. Whether it’s taking an easy family trip or exploring the plethora of side trails, there are plenty of reasons to remember why it's the journey that makes the Iron Horse Trail such a popular destination.
“You can go out snowmobiling and it takes you through different landscapes and wonderful scenery,” said Price. “Then, for those that want to take a little bit of a slower pace and maybe want to do something else besides just long days of snowmobiling, that's also possible. When you're on the trail, you're out in the country and you're away from civilization, but you're never really that far from all of the amenities and comforts of being in a community. You kind of get the best of both worlds.”