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Alberta's Iron Horse Trail: The Hidden Adventure you Need to Explore

Iron-Horse-Trail-Alberta-56 Alberta's Iron Horse Trail

Alberta's Most Underrated Epic Recreational Trail

Venturing through the 'Land of Large' YOUR way!

Alberta's Iron Horse Trail is one of the province's top multiuse recreational trails, and one of the province's must visit hidden gems. It is the longest completed section of the Trans Canada Trail in Alberta, and it is open year-round, allowing access to off-road vehicles like all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), off-highway vehicles (OHVs), Quads, Side by Sides, snowmobiles, horses, mountain bikes, fat bikes, and hikers. As a result, whether you're looking for a spontaneous day-trip, an epic overnight camping trip, or an unforgettable multi-day excursion it has something for everyone. Not only does Alberta's Iron Horse Trail offer stunning scenery and landscapes, but it provides unparalleled opportunities to discover local history, visit some unexpected roadside attractions in the 'Land of the Big', and experience small town spirit during local events. 

"For they looked in the future and what did they see?
They saw an iron road runnin' from the sea to the sea"

Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Gordon Lightfoot

Alberta's Iron Horse Trail. Photo credit Sean Morton

Iron Horse Trail: An ATV Touring Trail

Natural Alberta

Alberta's Iron Horse Trail is just over 300 km long, providing the perfect way to experience some of the most spectacular landscapes of northeastern Alberta, including boreal forest, aspen parkland, rolling pastureland, natural wetlands, and sand dunes.  From its western terminus in Waskatenau, which is a charming village located about 100 km northeast of Edmonton, trail users head east to Abilene.  From there they have the option to continue down the northeast branch to Cold Lake or take the southeast route to Heinsburg, which is an historic hamlet located 66 km northwest of Lloydminster.

Rails to Trails

Canadian Railway History

The Canadian National Railway built the line from Waskatenau to Cold Lake in the early 1920's, and a spur from Ashmont to Heinsburg was completed in 1928. The line was used into the 20th century, and many small communities developed along the transportation corridor. However, highway development in the region eventually provided a more efficient means of transport, and the railway line was abandoned in 1983. Consequently, in 2000 the tracks and trestles were removed. Surprisingly, just two short years later the route had been developed into a multiuse recreational trail, largely thanks to the dedication and hard work of local volunteer groups. It was given the name ' Alberta's Iron Horse Trail' in honour of the steam locomotives, which were nicknamed 'iron horses' because they could pull so many carriages.

Trail Conditions

Route Information

Following the bed of an old CN Rail Line, Alberta's Iron Horse Trail is generally wide and relatively flat, with gentle curves. Exceptions to the level grading are a few elevated road crossings and several missing trestle bridges, where steeper ascents and descents are necessary. The trail bed is a mix of dirt, sand, and course gravel. As a result, depending on weather conditions, it can be quite soft or muddy in some stretches. Therefore, trail conditions on the Iron Horse Trail make it perfect for exploring by off-road vehicle, horseback, or fat bike.

Iron Horse Trail Map

Facilities Along the Iron Horse Trail  

Signage and Staging Areas

The Iron Horse Trail is very well signed and maintained by a dedicated group of local volunteers. In addition, approximately every 5-8 km there are Staging Areas or rest stops, which are typically large green spaces with trail signage and maps, picnic tables, pit toilets, and garbage cans. Some of these rest areas feature covered shelters, fire pits, and a supply of firewood, and in our experience they were extremely clean and well stocked.

History along the Iron Horse

Railway Sights to Visit

Evidence of the original CN Railway and its influence on the region can be seen along the length of Alberta's Iron Horse Trail. For example, the Staging Area at Heinsburg features a well-preserved historical wooden water tower that was once used to service the steam locomotives, as well as a CN caboose and the original train station. In addition, the train station in Elk Point has been fully restored to create an eco-centre featuring displays on the town's rich and interesting history. Finally, the historic trestle bridge at the western terminus of the Iron Horse Trail in Waskatenau provides an opportunity to capture that picture-perfect Instagrammable moment.

Things to See and Do in Alberta 

Land of the Large

Not only does the trail offer beautiful scenery and a chance to immerse yourself in nature, but it also passes through many small communities along the way, which offer unique, unexpected, and unforgettable experiences. For example, in St. Paul, which is the Centennial Capital of Canada, you can venture into the unknown with a visit to the world's first UFO Landing Pad. Alternatively, the historic hamlet of Vilna, which is home to Alberta's oldest operational pool hall and barbershop, offers fans of quirky roadside attractions the opportunity to see the World's Biggest Mushrooms. Not to be outdone, visitors to Smoky Lake can visit Pumpkin Park, where a collection of giant pumpkin sculptures were created in celebration of volunteerism and cooperation and to inspire community service in future generations.

Take Your Experience to the Next Level

Epic Exploration and Adventure

With a little extra planning, you can time your excursion along Alberta's Iron Horse Trail to catch local festivals and events. For example, the Pro Rodeo and Chuckwagon Races are held at the Bonnyville Rodeo Grounds at the beginning of June. Alternatively, Haying in the 30's is an annual fundraiser for cancer held in St. Paul at the end of July, where attendees can experience and learn about historic farming methods at a fun-filled festival. Another great event along the trail is the Smoky Lake Great White North Pumpkin Fair, which is held the first Saturday of October.

"Your life is just a train track and you are the train."

Alberta's Railway History, Smoky Lake

Alberta's Iron Horse Trail is a Must do Adventure

The stunning scenery and unparalleled opportunities to discover local history, visit roadside attractions, and experience local festivals and events make Alberta's Iron Horse Trail a must do adventure. This hidden gem is one of Alberta's most underrated multiuse recreational trails, offering outdoor adventures to suit everyone's interests. Whether you're into ATVing, horseback riding, or fat biking this trail provides the perfect way to experience the beat of what Alberta has to offer.

Alberta's Iron Horse Trail 

The Province's largest section of the Trans Canada Trail


Location (Map)

Alberta's Iron Horse Trail, Alberta, Canada
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Comments 5

Janel Coe on Sunday, 31 July 2022 23:48

Very informative blog post, Sonya! The history of the Iron Horse Trail is really interesting - thanks for sharing.

Very informative blog post, Sonya! The history of the Iron Horse Trail is really interesting - thanks for sharing.
Andrea Horning on Monday, 01 August 2022 06:47

I've looked at this trail before because it is packed with geocaching spots. But I never realized how awesomely interesting it is. Thank you for this write up, it will come in handy for me for sure!

I've looked at this trail before because it is packed with geocaching spots. But I never realized how awesomely interesting it is. Thank you for this write up, it will come in handy for me for sure!
EH Canada : Support on Tuesday, 02 August 2022 15:07

As the Administrative Coordinator for and on behalf of Riverland Recreational Trail Society, the operators of Alberta's Iron Horse Trail, thank you for the wonderful blog on the trail and all the great things you've said about it!

As the Administrative Coordinator for and on behalf of Riverland Recreational Trail Society, the operators of Alberta's Iron Horse Trail, thank you for the wonderful blog on the trail and all the great things you've said about it!
Sonya Richmond on Friday, 05 August 2022 01:43

Janel Coe It was really fun to hike along! Northern Alberta is wonderful!

Janel Coe It was really fun to hike along! Northern Alberta is wonderful!
Sonya Richmond on Friday, 05 August 2022 01:44

Andrea Horning There are an absolute ton of geocaches on this trail!

Andrea Horning There are an absolute ton of geocaches on this trail!
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Monday, 15 August 2022