Horsepacking the Skeena Mtns

Exploring Northern BC's Kispiox Valley

Hopping on a horse and heading off into the highcountry is something we've dreamed about doing for years and years. And who hasn't? Our culture is immersed in old classic adventure stories, in tales of pioneers and explorers, in myths and hard-won histories of traveling the land on horseback. It's an iconic and essential experience, an act that resonates through the centuries. The only problem was that we don't have access to a horse. Or know how to ride one...

But at the tail end of our week-long trip down the Stewart-Cassiar Highway an opportunity to realize the dream presented itself. British Columbia has a handful of mountain ranges that are world-renowned for horsepacking trips: the Chilcotins, Spatzisi, Muskwa-Ketchika. And tucked into a quiet corner of Northern BC's Skeena-Bulkley we found another gem: the Kispiox Valley.


Riding horses in the hills of Hazelton and Smithers
Horsepacking through the alder thickets
Smoky, Bearclaw Lodge's oldest packhorse
Picking fresh woodland berries

The Kispiox is a broad and thickly forested valley best known for its steelhead fishing and totem poles. Like many places in BC it is criss-crossed with forestry roads but still manages to feel like a wild and remote place. Travelling up the valley the dramatic mountains of nearby Hazelton flatten out to and the land opens up, but if you keep driving down smaller and rougher roads the mountains begin to loom once again.

We booked our trip with Bear Claw Lodge, who offer stately accommodations miles from anywhere on the banks of the Kispiox, and host a variety of guided trips from fishing to rafting to eco-wild kids camps.

It was our first time on horses since we were kids, but we were expertly guided up the mountain on friendly well-behaved horses, and we were constantly amazed at what they could navigate. It was steep and muddy terrain, but after a couple hours we emerged out of the berry-rich forests into a foggy lush alpine meadow. In previous years the horsepacking trips camped out in tents, but this summer Bear Claw had just built a backcountry cabin. And it waited just up ahead.

Riding horses up a fog-shrouded mountain
Foggy morning in the mountains
Following Willie into the foggy landscape
Horses in the rain
Thick fog at the alpine hut
Guided overnight horse packing trip into the mountains of Northern BC
Saddle resting on the porch railing of the mountain cabin

After reaching the cabin we unsaddled the horses, unpacked our stuff, then headed off on foot as our guides Jim and Connor stayed behind warming up the cabin and preparing dinner. Not a bad way to be in the mountains.

We didn't venture far, just up to the top of the nearby ridge. There were little lakes and broad views of the valley we had just climbed out of, but what really took us were the views over the far side. The thick grey mask of clouds had lifted somewhat, and we were perched at the southern tip of the mighty Skeena Range, with rugged trackless mountains spreading north before us for hundreds of miles.

Returning to the cabin, we found that Jim and Connor had started a little campfire and were frying up some chicken wings and potatoes over the open flames while rain and sun rays drifted over the valley far below. Brilliant.

Exploring the barren rocky landscapes of Mt Gitksan in the Skeena Mountains
A vast open landscape on the shoulder of Mt Baldy
Looking down the vast wild valley from Mt Gitksan
Hiking the open rolling ridgeline of Mt Baldy in the Skeena Mountains of Northern BC
A little cabin in the wilderness
Horses grazing in the meadows of Mt Baldy
Cooking up some potatoes on the campfire
Rays of distant rain showers lit up from the setting sun
Watching rain showers dance over the valley far below
Rays of rain and drifting fog over the Kispiox Valley

The next couple days we explored the surrounding area, starting with the shrouded peak of Mt Baldie. The approach was over gently sloping meadows, dotted with cold lakes and occasional rock outcrops. The southern approach is gradual enough that our horses could climb to the very top of the mountain, but it gets increasingly rocky and barren the higher you climb so we left them to graze and relax in a meadow and scrambled up the last leg on foot.

The top of the mountain was once again obscured in thick cold clouds, and we ascended into a world of grey. Little puffs of white goat hair clung to the jagged black rocks, and Willie Dog seemed to smell something in the air. With scant visibility we crept along the ridge and peered over the edges hoping to see a sign of the goats through the fog. We hunkered down in the wind and ate lunch, little impressions of mountain goats in the soft scree around us.

Megan horseback riding in the mountains of Northern BC
Exploring little mountain lakes on horseback
Guided horseback ride in the mountains of Northern British Columbia
Storm rolling in over the Skeena Highlands in Northern BC
Horses in the rolling mountain meadows of Northern BC
Horsepacking into the cloud-covered mountains of Northern BC
Riding horses in the Skeena Mountains of Northern BC
Willie the karelian bear dog in the alpine meadows above the Kispiox Valley
Making friends with Willie the karelian bear dog
Horses in the fog
Hiking on the fog shrouded hills on BC
Handfuls of wild mountain goat hair on the rocks
Looking through the thick fog

Descending out of the clouds, we continued along the ridge. It was stunningly rugged terrain, in stark contrast to the gentle lush southern slopes we climbed up. And there, way off across the cirque, was a herd of 18 mountain goats. They were barely specks in the distance, but we watched them graze for a bit then nimbly descend the steep slope into the cirque.

Looking for mountain goats in the rocky ridges of Northern British Columbia
Clouds and fog in the mountain landscape of Gitksan Peak
Hiking the crumbling black rock ridgeline of Mt Baldy in the fog
Hiking along the rocky ridgeline of Mt Gitksan in the Skeena Range
High up on the ridge of Gitksan Peak in the Skeena Mountains
Big mountain landscapes in Northern BC
Mountain layers in every direction
Searching for mountain goats in the Skeena Mountains with the Bearclaw Lodge
Hiking below the cloud line on Mt Gitksan in the Skeena Mountains
The desolate mountain landscapes of Northern BC
Little lakes in the glacier cirque of Mt Baldy
Looking over the vast forested Kispiox Valley far below
Descending the rocky landscapes into the lush alpine meadows
Riding horses in the mountains north of Hazelton BC
Horsepacking in the highcountry of Northern BC
Horseback riding in the mountains with Bearclaw Lodge in Kispiox BC
Riding horses in the vast mountain landscapes of Northern BC
Riding horses in the Skeena Mountains
Riding horses in the mountains
Riding horses in the alpine landscapes of the Skeena Mountains
Rode horses up to the Bear Claw Lodge alpine cabin
Wind in the horse's hair
Horses grazing in the mountain meadows in the Skeena-Bulkley
Sunset over the thickly forested Kispiox Valley
Sunset from the hills of Northern BC
Sunset in the mountains of Northern British Columbia
Sunset at the little alpine cabin

After the day on Mt Baldie we woke up to more fog, but this time it quickly dissipated in the morning sun. Bright blue skies spread out on the horizon, and we decided to set off and explore the sloping hills to the south. We packed a lunch and descended back below the treeline, crossing little streams and subalpine swamps before climbing back up into the alpine. The extra distance between us and Mt Baldie afforded some unique views, and the extra time on the horses had us starting to feel pretty confident. I imagined whole summers on horseback, exploring the far reaches of remote mountain ranges. But we were getting pretty saddlesore too. As fun and rewarding as it was, it was also pretty painful. One gets used to it, but three days was by no means enough. For the steeper sections we were more than happy to hop off and give our knees and the horses a break.

Foggy sunrise at the Bearclaw mountain cabin
Morning mist rising over the mountain meadows
A warm welcome at Bear Claw Lodge's little mountain cabin
Custom leatherwork for the saddle
Horseback riding in the mountain meadows near Smithers, BC
Riding horses with the Bear Claw Lodge in the mountains of Northern BC
Riding horses through the mountain meadows of Northern BC
Galloping through lush mountain meadows in the Southern tip of the Skeena Range
Looking back at Mt Baldy
Guided horseback rides with the Bear Claw Lodge
Horses in the mountains
Relaxing in the alpine meadow after an afternoon of riding
Sunny day in the meadows below Mt Gitksan
Wide open ridges above the Kispiox Valley
The little alpine cabin on Mt Baldy
Little details from the cabin
Packing the horses up and getting ready to head down the mountain

We returned to the cabin one last time, loaded up our stuff, and descended back down to the valley below. Tho we took the same trail down as we did up, it now seemed impossibly steep, and it was hard not to wonder how the horses had bore us up. Anxious to be home, the lead horse pushed on and on, causing some of the older horses to pant and sweat with the strain. But eventually, to everyone's relief, we scrambled out of the woods.

Arriving at the Bear Claw Lodge all the horses in the paddock rushed over the meet us and our steeds, and we felt the warm rush of a homecoming. We accompanied them back to the barn where they were unsaddled and washed, said our goodbyes, then headed down to the river looking forward to a quick refreshing dip for ourselves.

A quick cold one before heading out
The horses are happy to be back at the stable of Bear Claw Lodge
Saying one last goodbye to our packhorses
Horses at the Bear Claw Lodge
Bear Claw Lodge's picturesque horse paddock

Big thanks to Destination BC and Stay & Wander for making this trip possible

Super Natural British Columbia