Flying U Ranch
A day at Canada's oldest guest ranch
The Cariboo is a wild, wide open country. Bounded by rugged mountains to the east and the rushing Fraser River to the west, it is a landscape brimming with lush forests, desert canyons, and vast rolling grasslands. It's the kind of country that just seems custom-built for a horse — and sure enough, we can think of no better way to experience the Cariboo than by visiting one of its many guest ranches and heading out on horseback.
On our journey down the Gold Rush Trail we stopped in at the Flying U Ranch and were instantly smitten. Even with the rich and varied history of ranching culture in the Cariboo, the Flying U stands distinct offering free-to-roam unguided riding on a web of trails across 60,000 acres.
From its rustic log cabins to its communal dining and tasty home cooking, Flying U just feels like a ranch should. Nestled on the shore of the brilliantly-hued Green Lake amid copses of aspen trees, the ranch appears almost like a little wild west town unto itself, with numerous guest cabins, a shop, billiard and dining halls, boot shed, and even a saloon complete with swinging doors. Pulling in off the highway we were greeted with a view of horses idly grazing in between the buildings, two friendly dogs, and honestly it kinda felt like we had arrived back at a long-forgotten home.
And we aren't the only ones. Guests routinely come back year after year, the staff regularly greeting them like the old friends they were. And as Canada's oldest guest ranch, it has no doubtedly been a home away from home to generations of visitors.
Established in 1849 by a Crown grant from the Queen of England, Flying U was once a traditional cattle ranch used as a waypoint for early trappers and fur traders on their way to the Yukon and Alaska. After hosting a giant rodeo in 1923, the ranch traded its cows for horses and used its newfound notoriety to become Canada's first guest ranch. Many of the ranch's traditions date back to these early days, when it first put its name on the map and travellers came from around the world to learn how to ranch and wrangle and be close to its larger-than-life characters.
And, thanks to their minimal but inspired updates, you can fully imagine what those early days might have been like. Sure, the lodgings now have electricity and are comfortable as all get-out, but each cabin is still equipped with a wash basin in lieu of in-suite bathrooms, and they still clang the dinner bell for every meal. Offering a true-blue taste of the rugged wild west, Flying U is the type of place that makes you want to rush out and buy a denim shirt. It just feels good to be here.
For most guests the day begins at 8am with the clanging of the breakfast bell, but if you're extra keen you can get up a little earlier and watch the 6:30 wrangling. The horses wander about all night, grazing in the myriad fields and meadows across the 60,000 acres and need to be corralled, brushed, and prepped for the day's riding. Wranglers ride out into the woods whooping and hollering, and drive the horses back towards the ranch. Even with over 100 horses it only takes 15 minutes or so.
One of the wrangler's most important jobs is simply getting to know the horses' personalities. They note the horses' ever-shifting friend groups, their moods, their temperament — allowing them to better pair guests with a horse to match their abilities.
Once the horses have been collected and your experience summarily sized up by the wranglers, you get paired with a horse of your own. The ranch offers unguided riding, and this includes the start time, so you are free to head out anytime after 9am. If you're riding all day you can choose to either take a packed lunch and eat out in the bush, or return for a hot meal and head back out afterwards. The day is up to you.
There's a network of trails through the meadows and aspen forests, and as you gain confidence you can open up different gates to unlock new areas. We wandered around a bit, definitely took a couple random weird turns, but that was half the fun of it. There's nothing quite like heading out on your own, and just exploring wherever you (or your horse) feels like.
But we are very very novice riders, so we totally understand if being unsupervised on a giant animal in a sprawling acreage might sound daunting. Luckily the horses always seem to know where they are, and if you start to feel lost you can pretty well trust them to start heading back on their own. And if you are totally new to riding and want lessons or a more structured guided ride, they of course offer that too.
We rode through fields and forests, past rough wooden gates and pristine little lakes. It was an amazing experience to ride at our own pace, to stop in meadows to admire the view, to take all the side trails that caught our eye. But eventually it was time to head back, and we couldn't help but notice the horses grow livelier as we turned towards home. Our meandering wander quickly became a meaningful trot, the horses eager to be back at the ranch.
And who could blame them? It was so nice being at the ranch, surrounded by old cabins, snacking on freshly baked cookies, listening to the aspens and gazing at the bright blue lake. We leaned in, the wind in our hair, feeling a little bit like wannabe cowboys as the horses rushed us back to the ranch.
Big thanks to Cariboo Chilcotin Coast for helping make this trip possible