Cowboy country in British Columbia: a taste of pioneer days with a ranch stay

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This article is brought to you by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“In some ranches, horses are treated like mere bicycles taken off a rack,” laments Mike Christensen. Sporting a well-worn cowboy hat and a salt-and-pepper beard, he shakes his head and adds, “They don’t even know the horse’s name, reducing it to a mere means of transportation. Here, we strive to build trust.”

Standing beside him is Monty, a horse the color of autumn leaves. With the bridle hanging from his palm, Mike makes soft clicking sounds with his tongue and gently beckons Monty with his fingers, barely touching the horse. Slowly, the steed begins to tiptoe in a circle around him. “Riding the horse is the least important thing. It’s the connection that truly matters,” he explains. “I don’t want to sound mystical, but it’s as much about energy as it is about physical pressure.”

Mike is the wrangler at Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, a 160-acre ranch located in British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, known for its numerous guest ranches and its vibrant cowboy culture. The city of Williams Lake proudly hosts the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame and the historic Stampede showground.

Nestled between the rugged limestone Marble Range, the boreal forest, and the salmon-rich Fraser River, this remote ranch, devoid of mobile phone service, is owned by Norm and Nan Dove. Norm, now in his eighties and originally from Britain, has called Canada home for over half a century. He purchased the working ranch in 1990 and has gradually transformed it into an upscale lodge. Echo Valley Ranch exemplifies the evolving ranch culture, combining horseback riding with comfortable accommodations, fine dining, and resort-style amenities such as a spa and yoga studio.

Having embarked on their Horse Harmony experience, I found myself in the ranch corral with Mike, the sun making us squint. Mike used to sell suits in Denmark before venturing into horseback riding and experiencing the Western lifestyle. He began by living with a ranch family in Montana and crossed the border 11 years ago. “I’m a cowboy now, absolutely!” he enthuses, his Danish accent still noticeable.

Based on our abilities, Mike assigns each of us in the group a horse. He pairs me with Diago, a bay horse with a velveteen muzzle and soulful brown eyes framed by long eyelashes. “It’s disrespectful to expect them to perform without any introduction,” Mike explains, as I gently run my hand along Diago’s neck, flank, hind, and the other side.

Then Mike demonstrates how to establish authority. “Horses are herd animals; they need a leader. If you don’t take on that role, they will and see what they can get away with,” he says, grinning. I walk slowly, just ahead of Diago, and he follows closely, his muzzle almost brushing against the back of my shirt. When I stop, he stops.

After an hour of getting acquainted, we leave the corral and venture into the woods. As we traverse through coniferous, pine, and aspen forests, skillfully avoiding stray branches, Mike encourages us to feel the horse’s movements—to sense how they respond to the slightest shift in our posture, the squeeze of a thigh, or the gentle pressure of a heel. Surprisingly, I find that I hardly need to use the reins at all.

Traversing the trail, I catch glimpses of the Fraser River carving a deep canyon through the 5,778-foot-tall Marble Range, with sagebrush dotting the hillsides. I spot abandoned wooden cabins once serving as offices for the river ferry that transported gold rush prospectors from Lillooet in southwestern BC. It brings to mind the late 19th-century pioneers on horseback, surviving in this wilderness by hunting and foraging to supplement their canned food rations.

Surviving in the Wild

In this vast wilderness, where nature dwarfs human dwellings, it is crucial for ranchers to possess a few survival tricks up their sleeves. Thus, three hours later, after returning the horses to the stables, we venture back into the woods with Daryl Nippard, originally from Newfoundland. He is the ideal guide for Echo Valley Ranch & Spa’s Survival Spirit wilderness experience. “My dad used to drop us off on an island with no shops for the weekend, picking us up on Monday to teach us survival skills,” he says, walking nimbly through the woods, barely disturbing a twig.

Before arriving at the ranch, Daryl lived in Echo Valley for 15 years, becoming the only non-native resident of the nearby First Nation reserve. “They taught me how to dry salmon their way, using smoking sheds,” he proudly shares.

“Imagine nobody plans to get lost in the bush, but it happens. So, what’s the first thing you do?” he asks, the group falling silent. “First thing: find a spot and sit down,” he teases, settling himself on a fallen tree trunk. “You need to calm your mind first. Even if it takes five hours, that’s fine. Your own mind can be your worst nightmare,” he continues, pointing to his head, “but it can also be your greatest asset.”

We continue our journey through the woods. Sunlight pierces through the treetops, illuminating neon-green moss and the red bursts of berries on the forest floor. Squirrels dart through the leaf litter, and the songs of unseen birds trickle down from the canopy. Daryl points out a set of cougar prints and imparts bush wisdom: “If a squirrel can eat it, you can eat it”; “look for deciduous trees—they indicate a nearby spring”; “if there’s a bear, light a fire all night, and they won’t come near.” He mentions that porcupine tastes like fatty beef, while squirrel resembles bacon.

Returning to the ranch, we hop into a 4×4 and make our way toward the Fraser River. According to Daryl, it “runs red because it’s teeming with salmon.” We reach Marble Canyon’s edge, which yawns wide, seemingly engulfing the sky. In the valley below, a few resilient ranchers can be seen.

Curious about what Daryl loves about ranching life, I inquire. “The serenity,” he replies, his gaze fixed on the horizon. “The vastness of the land allows your mind to expand and find peace.”

A short 15-minute drive from Echo Valley Ranch & Spa lies Big Bar Guest Ranch. Formerly private land, it was acquired by the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation community three years ago, with the goal of achieving economic self-sufficiency for the town. While only three staff members are Indigenous, they are actively working to showcase more of their culture.

At the heart of the property stands a log house from the 1930s, surrounded by a kitchen garden, beehives, and a cluster of buildings offering rooms. Further away, a few log cabins provide more upscale accommodation. With no televisions, limited Wi-Fi, and communal dining where jars of spruce syrup adorn the windowsill, the focus here is on immersing oneself in ranch life.

Wearing overalls, a cotton neckerchief, and a wide-brimmed straw hat, farm hand Catherine ‘Cat’ Jameson welcomes us. She chuckles, saying, “I have eight pairs of dungarees in various states of decay,” as she wipes her hands on her well-worn overalls and extends a hand in greeting. She leads us past a group of clucking hens towards a fenced muddy patch, home to two pigs. “Here, we make use of everything, from the animals to practicing regenerative farming techniques,” Cat says, beckoning to the nearby goats, who respond with bleats.

Cat introduces us to Aisling, a 19-year-old wrangler. Both of them sleep above the stables, as they have their hands full with 25 horses. Aisling leads us into a tack room adorned with cowboy boots and hats before leaving us to find our respective sizes while she prepares the horses for our ride. The saddles, impressive pieces of butter-soft leather engraved with floral motifs, boast hand-stitched leather stirrups and pommels polished to a high shine by countless hands.

I choose a chestnut gelding, and together we set off across the grassy plains, where the cattle roam freely. The landscape unfolds like the pages of a book, each valley revealing a new vista. “I don’t understand why people want to travel elsewhere when we have it all here in Canada,” Cat enthuses from the back of the line.

After an hour, the rest of the group returns to the ranch, but my desire to canter lingers. Aisling takes me to the base of a hill, and together we loosen the reins, allowing our horses to gallop up the incline. Their nostrils flare, their manes streaked by the wind. In this moment, I experience the freedom beneath boundless blue skies that I had envisioned. Departing with the scent of sage brush clinging to my clothes and dust in my hair, I develop a newfound appreciation for life on the ranch.

How to Experience It

Discover the World offers a three-night package at Echo Valley starting from £4,747 per person for double occupancy. The package includes accommodation, meals with beverages, guided activities, and access to the spa, sauna, pool, and fitness facilities. Flights are not included. Visit discover-the-world.com for more information.

This article was published in the June 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) and is supported by Destination British Columbia, Echo Valley Ranch, and Big Bar Ranch.

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, click here (available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about ranch retreat

What activities can I expect at Echo Valley Ranch & Spa?

At Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, you can enjoy a range of activities, including horseback riding, wilderness survival experiences, spa treatments, yoga classes, and fine dining. The ranch offers opportunities to connect with horses, explore the beautiful Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, and learn survival skills in the wilderness.

Are the accommodations at Big Bar Guest Ranch rustic or modern?

The accommodations at Big Bar Guest Ranch strike a balance between rustic charm and modern comfort. While staying in log cabins or rooms, you’ll experience a genuine ranch atmosphere without sacrificing essential amenities. The focus is on immersing guests in ranch life while providing a comfortable and cozy retreat.

Can beginners participate in horseback riding activities?

Absolutely! Whether you’re a seasoned rider or a beginner, there are horses and experiences suitable for all levels at both Echo Valley Ranch & Spa and Big Bar Guest Ranch. Wranglers and guides will match you with a horse based on your ability and provide guidance to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone.

Is wilderness survival experience suitable for all ages?

The wilderness survival experiences at Echo Valley Ranch & Spa are generally suitable for adults and older children who can handle moderate physical activity and follow safety instructions. It’s important to note that these experiences involve venturing into the wild and learning essential survival skills under the guidance of experienced instructors.

Do I need to bring my own equipment for horseback riding?

No, you don’t need to bring your own equipment. Both Echo Valley Ranch & Spa and Big Bar Guest Ranch provide all necessary equipment for horseback riding, including saddles, bridles, and helmets. However, if you have personal riding gear that you prefer to use, you are welcome to bring it along.

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3 comments

AdventureSeeker June 5, 2023 - 7:13 pm

omg, this sounds amazin! I luv the idea of connectin with horses and explorin the wildernes. BC’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast seems like the perfct spot 4 an adventur! Can’t wait 2 try it out!

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TravelJunkie82 June 5, 2023 - 7:13 pm

National Geographic always brings us the coolest travel ideas! I’m so drawn to the ranch retreat concept – cowboy culture, horseback riding, and even wilderness survival? It’s like stepping back in time while still enjoying modern comforts. Sign me up!

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WanderlustDreamer June 5, 2023 - 7:13 pm

Yesss, finally a getaway that’s not just about luxury resorts! This ranch stay in BC seems so authentic and exciting. Riding horses, connecting with nature, and learning survival skills? It’s a dream come true for adventurers like me. Can’t wait to experience it firsthand!

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