There’s something about Tombstone Territorial Park in Canada’s Yukon that speaks to the adventurer in everyone. Perhaps it is the fact that the only road through the Park is the infamous Dempster Highway with a reputation for intimidating even the most seasoned of drivers. Or maybe it is the Tombstone name itself, evoking Wild West imagery of rugged landscapes and untamed wilderness. Whatever the reason, it seemed only fitting to include horseback riding in our recent Yukon adventures, in order to explore some of this ‘Wild North’ frontier.
Start Your Adventure at Tombstone Interpretive Centre
Any adventure in Tombstone Territorial Park should start at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre, located in the Park just off the Dempster Highway. The Centre is a great resource for learning about the environment, wildlife and features within the park, as well as the place to get information about hiking conditions and routes. Staff at the Centre can help you plan your activity, but keep in mind that Tombstone is a huge wilderness park with little or no facilities and no cell service, so visitors should heed the advice offered by the staff and not overestimate their abilities (either fitness-wise or with respect to their orienteering skills).
Luckily for us, we were leaving all the navigating to Tombstone Outfitters, who have been operating in the Park for decades.
Tombstone Outfitters is a third-generation family business and one of the only outfitters who operate horseback adventures in Tombstone Park – and the only one with a location within the park. Clint Collins, who runs the business today, grew up here, learning first-hand from his father and grandfather how to be a bonafide outdoorsman. As comfortable exploring the mountains as he is flying over them in his bush plane, Clint considers Tombstone his second home, and in fact, it is: every summer he and his family and crew relocate themselves and their herd of horses from Fort St. John, British Columbia to their base camp a few kilometers north of the Tombstone Interpretive Centre. From here visitors can set out on day or overnight trail rides from July to October.
Not Your Typical Trail Ride
Henk and I and our group of travel writers were booked for a 3-hour ride, so after saddling up with the help of Clint and his crew, we set out into the hills with Clint leading the way and Colin (a genuine rodeo cowboy) pulling up the rear. This wasn’t your typical trail ride, however, with horses plodding along nose-to-tail that only get moving when they see the barn on the return trip: Clint’s horses were as alert as they were sure-footed. And even though they were responsive to even the most inexperienced riders amongst us, all of our horses were good-natured and not prone to any antics that might have made some newbie riders nervous.
Beautiful Vistas and Tricky Terrain
Weather-wise, the day was spectacular with clear skies, great visibility and nothing but sunshine that added sparkle to the river we were following through the valley. Riding out of sight of the Dempster highway, we began to see parts of Tombstone that typically only hikers would get to see: flat plateaus covered with vegetation just beginning to show their autumn colours, and mountains and hills on both sides of us that we constantly scanned in the hopes of seeing Dahl sheep.
Despite the spongy footing and narrow paths, the horses seemed to navigate through the scrub brush with little difficulty. Galloping wasn’t really an option, however, as with ground this soft, running would be dangerous for horse and rider alike. Instead, our group took advantage of the slower pace and brought out cameras to capture the views from horseback and just enjoy the ride.
Described by many as the ‘Patagonia of the North’, the mountains in Tombstone are some of the youngest in the Yukon, and as such are ragged, peaked and imposing, especially the deeper you go into the Park. Two of the most famous granite peaks are Mount Monolith and Tombstone Mountain, after which the Park gets its name. Tombstone’s shape resembles that of a grave marker and is one of the most recognizable mountains in the Ogilvie range. Even though our horseback ride took us in a different direction so that we wouldn’t be within sight of the Park’s namesake peak, the mountains we did see were impressive in their own right.
TIP: There’s a great vantage point for viewing and photographing Tombstone Mountain from the highway a few minutes north of the Inerpretive Centre.
A Tantalizing Glimpse of Tombstone
With over 2100 square kilometers of Park to explore, we would only be able to see a small fraction of Tombstone on our ride, even though the scenery on the horizon beckoned us to go farther. But distances are deceiving here, and we had already been riding for 90 minutes so we decided to take a break to stretch our legs and walk around a bit for ourselves. Just feeling how difficult it was to walk on the spongy ground gave me a new appreciation for the horses who were doing all of the work for us. Permafrost makes for tough terrain and very little to graze on, so it’s no wonder Clint winters his horses back in BC where feed is plentiful and the winters are less harsh.
After exploring a bit on foot we all remounted and began retracing the route back to base camp. With the mountains ‘smoking’ beside us like wanna-be volcanoes, we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for a ride.
As we passed a couple of hikers laden with backpacks and picking their way slowly through the scrub brush, I couldn’t help thinking that when it came to our Yukon adventure exploring Tombstone, four legs were definitely better than two.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Tombstone Outfitters is about a 90 minute drive from Dawson City inside Tombstone Park. Weather in Tombstone can be different than in Dawson and more unpredictable, so be prepared. Even though we had an amazing day in mid-August, we wore layers and had rain gear just in case. Bring water and/or snacks along as well if you are going on a long ride, and be prepared to pee behind a bush as there are no bathroom facilities.
Special thanks to Travel Yukon who hosted Henk and I on our first visit to this adventurous playground.