THINGS TO DO:
The Iron Horse Trail
Fur traders and explorers blazed most of the trails in Alberta. The railway soon followed, its iron horses hauling freight and settlers to open up this land. Many of the communities founded by those first settlers still stand along the old rail bed of the Iron Horse Trail in northern Alberta, keeping much of that past alive.
The Iron Horse is a rich network of communities plotted between stretches of wheat fields, forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers. Each town along the way shares a familiar thread of rural Alberta charm, offering replenishment of supplies along the way, a home cooked meal when the mood suits, insight into the region's history, and welcoming places to spend a night or two.
Depending on which of the three legs you choose, the Iron Horse Trail begins or ends in Cold Lake, Heinsburg, or Waskatenau (pronounced wah-SET-nah) and passes through other small towns along each route. Each leg meets in the middle at a place called Abilene Junction.
Smoky Lake County
Today, me and my trusty mountain bike are off to explore the section from Waskatenau to Smoky Lake, a 23 km (14 mi) stretch that passes through rolling farmland and valleys dotted with pothole lakes.
Leaving Waskatenau, I take a quick cruise along the historic Victoria Trail to stop at the RCMP memorial commemorating the arrival of the NWMP in Alberta in 1874. Soon I'm pedalling the Iron Horse through gorgeous countryside. In the distance, a moose and her calf cross the trail. And then I'm crossing over the Waskatenau trestle. From the other side, I stop and look back to admire this impressive feat of engineering.
At my trip's half-way point I arrive at a place called Warspite (population: 75), where I find an abandoned church. In a cemetery almost buried in a thicket of willow and lilac, some of the headstones are more than a century old.
Missions and Forts on the Victoria Trail
I continue on through the picture perfect Smoky Lake Valley and make my way into the community of Smoky Lake. After a most satisfying lunch at Betsy's Burger Shack, and with the sun high in the sky, I decide to press on, leaving the Iron Horse to head south 10 km (6 mi) on secondary highway 855, then east to pick up the Victoria Trail and then on to Victoria Settlement Historic Site, which captures the historic cultural landscape of Métis, Methodists and merchant traders.