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Riding the Western United States- Inspired by HTA

We started trail riding in 2008 when my wife, Melissa (a non-rider at 59), purchased an experienced Paso Fino trail horse, and I gave up showing Morgan horses. Between 2008 and 2013, we trail mainly rode in state parks near our home in Illinois, with occasional trips to Eminence, Missouri, and the Shawnee National Forest (NF), never dreaming it was possible to ride in more exotic places. Our blinders were removed when friends, Carolyn and Darlene, invited us to join them in camping at Broken Arrow Campground in The Black Hills.

We discovered Horse Trails of America (HTA) on Facebook about the same time and began a vicarious exploration of other destinations. Using HTA, we found places we wanted to visit, researched camps and trails in the HTA search bar, and communicated with other HTA members online. The interconnectedness of HTA members has been a real positive for us in our research and travels. We continue to visit the Black Hills annually but have visited many other destinations, including our favorites: Bryce Canyon NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Yellowstone NP, the Dragoons and Chiricahua’s in Arizona, and the Big Horn mountains.

Black Hills

The Black Hills was our first big riding adventure, and it has remained our favorite, even when 16 inches of snow fell on us in May of 2019! Within the Black Hills, our favorite trail is Hell Canyon. We like it because it is just edgy enough to create a thrill but no fear. Leaving the Hell Canyon TH, we climbed clockwise to the canyon's west rim and dropped just below the rim onto a trail that skirts the rim. The trail consists of a wall with an occasional overhang on the left and a drop-off on the right, providing an excellent view of the valley and stream below. After about an hour on this trail, we descended into the canyon floor and followed the stream out, viewing the trail we had just traversed above.

We also love the trail to Mount Rushmore, riding from the Iron Creek TH. Though not as tall, the granite pinnacles along the trail remind us of the spires that grace the Needles Highway. Getting one’s picture taken on horseback with the Faces in the background is always a thrill.

The French Creek trail in Custer State Park is another favorite. The creek is archetypal, with crystal clear water, and the scenic trail is frequently graced by inspiring granite cliffs. Our only challenge was the steep climb with the downfall out of the creek valley to Fisherman Flats.

Bryce Canyon

Camping at Ruby’s, our favorite ride in the Bryce Canyon area is Peekaboo Loop. We have ridden it twice, first in 2018 with Joe and Brenda, who graciously allowed us to tag along with them and their impressive Rocky Mountain horses, and again last year when we rode at 5 pm after the concession horses, and most of the hikers had left the park. We really enjoyed having the Loop, mostly to ourselves.

Thunder Mountain is a unique trail involving some moderately challenging switchbacks, razorbacks, and whimsical orange hoodoos.

Willis Creek provides another kind of beauty. A slot canyon can only be described as a slot cut hundreds of feet in sandstone with a small stream at the bottom. On a hot day, it is really cool. Actually, on any day, it is pretty cool! The Cassidy, Casto/Losee Canyons, and Grandview trails are also pretty wonderful.

We camped for two nights at Paria River Ranch. We rode Buckskin Gulch with two intrepid trail-riding sisters from Peoria – another remarkable slot canyon ride and another set of new HTA friends.

Rocky Mountain National Park

We stayed at Winding River in Grand Lake to ride in Rocky Mountain National Park. There we met Jon and Carol, Coloradoans who were riding young, in-training Missouri Fox Trotters, and they gaited at every opportunity. We usually walk our horses in the mountains and kept wondering how long our horses could keep it up, but they did.

Our favorite ride with Jon and Carol was the Lake Verna trail, a steady climb with switchbacks, often winding along a mountain with a wall on one side and a sheer drop-off on the other. At one point, we encountered a fallen log across the trail. Jon was an experienced mountain trail rider and assured us the ground on the downside was soft enough to step down and go around the log. Not wanting to be left behind, we followed with some trepidation, somewhat to Jon’s surprise. The horse Carol was training later sold for 18,000 dollars.


We camped outside of Yellowstone at the Diamond P campground. We took one ride outside the park to Sheep’s Head Lake, but our primary goal was to ride in the historic park. Our first ride was the Mystic Falls Loop. Going up was strenuous but relatively uneventful. Grizzly bear markings on trees gave us pause, but we figured that we were relatively safe with all the hikers in the area. Coming down was a bit more exciting. On one of those edgy trails, Melissa’s horse was leading, was spooked by a hiker, did a 180 rollback, and ran past Eugene up the trail. Eugene’s horse did not go over the edge, but the incident created a near panic attack in Melissa. Further, Eugene’s horse came to a switchback near the falls and refused to go forward. Getting off and leading her did not restore her courage, but I felt safer when she took an awkward switchback shortcut! Once was enough for this trail; however, the view of the valley from the top and the falls were worth it.

Within the boundary of Yellowstone, we also rode the Nez Perce trail, a trail taken by Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce Indians in their attempt to escape US troops by going to Canada. This trail was relatively flat but was made special by the presence of buffalo and thermal features. We rode the third day from Fawn Creek Trailhead just outside the park boundary.

The Dragoons and Chiricahuas

To ride the Dragoon and Chiricahua mountains, we camped at the Lazy Horse campground in Pearce, AZ, between the two mountain ranges. Our favorite ride in the Dragoons was the Cochise Stronghold. The climb up the stronghold winds through beautiful scrub oak and pine forest. Imagining Cochise escaping from the US cavalry increased the pleasure of this ride.

The Chiricahua Monument ride was described as “challenging” by other campers at Lazy Horse. One camper related that her horse’s front foot had slipped off the edge of the trail, causing her horse to lose his balance; she stated that she would never ride the Monument trail again. None of the campers who had ridden the trail previously were interested in going again, but another couple who had never ridden the trail, Rodney and Charlene, joined us. The beginning of the trail was easy and almost park-like, but about a mile in, the trail began to climb and became more exciting, given edgy, steep drop-offs and switchbacks with good-sized boulders. Eugene’s horse, Stella, would stop occasionally and look at the trail as if to ask Eugene if he were serious. We reached the trail's highest point only to find that Melissa’s horse had lost a shoe. Since the automobile road to the top was too narrow and curvy to accommodate our stock trailer, the park rangers had to close the mountain to traffic so we could get the stock trailer up to the top and back down with our horses. Another HTA member described the ride as “epic,” and we would agree!

Big Horn Mountains

We camped at Ten Sleep RV Park to ride the Big Horn Mountains and trailered to various trailheads. Shawn, the owner of the RV park, took us on a couple of nice rides. The first was to Castle Rock in the high desert, which seemed somewhat similar to the Badlands in South Dakota. He took us up, down, and around the various formations, twisting and turning. It was fun, and the scenery was amazing!

We were there early in the year, so we could not do some of the higher elevation rides, but he did take us on trails where we encountered a herd of elk, snowbanks not yet melted in June, tall pines, and mountain streams. On our own, we rode in Paint Rock Canyon and Medicine Lodge, both of which were up-and-back trails inside canyons. Both had steep, tall, stone canyon walls on both sides with picturesque streams that flowed down the middle of the canyons.

*Sending HTA congratulations on their 10th Anniversary and a big thank you for all the adventures!

*From the August 2022 issue of The Trail Journal


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