Riding horses in the mountains is an adventure I have enjoyed for many years. This month I enjoyed taking two girls, ages 10 and 11, on an overnight camping trip near the Lizard Head Wilderness in southwest Colorado. The enthusiasm and energy of youth made for an exceptionally fun and memorable trip and the girls enjoyed riding their horses in the mountains at elevations of up to 11,500 feet.
The Lizard Head Wilderness can be accessed via Dolores or Telluride. Riding horses in the mountains of this wilderness is a real treat because of the colorful wildflowers and unusual peaks such as El Diente and Mt. Wilson. From Durango Colorado, we drove less than three hours to the Burro Bridge campground. This campground includes sites with permanent horse pens. Our camp was cool, quiet and directly across the road was access to the Burro trail. This trail was a stunning switchback climb through aspens and into expansive parks. We topped out at a spot where we could view many of Lizard Head’s famous peaks. The girls were so excited that we set up camp and ascended this trail immediately.
The next day we ate breakfast and cleaned up our camp spot. We hauled two miles down the road to the Navajo Lake Trailhead. I had ridden this trail twice before, but 11 years ago. I remembered that the trail included extremely steep climbing, but later that day as we ascended the last few miles of trail, I realized that my mind had minimized the exceptionally steep grade of the last few miles to the lake.
The Navajo Lake trail intersects with the Kilpacker trail. If you prefer a more moderate trail, take a right onto Kilpacker where you will enjoy seeing a waterfall and riding trails that meander through forest. If you continue on the Navajo Lake trail be prepared for extremely steep climbing – once you are committed there is nowhere to turn around and no allowance for horse mistakes. After a mile of steep grade and narrow trail, you will crest the climb and be on very rocky footing for less than a mile. Then, there it is – the mountain bowl that you viewed from far below that encompasses Navajo Lake.
Riding horses in the mountains is far different than riding flat trails and lower elevation terrain. You should be more prepared than you think necessary. Riding horses in the mountains is usually pleasant, but if a storm comes in the temperature can drop thirty degrees, and trails can get slick.
- Take weed-free hay or pellets for feed. Most wilderness areas required certified weed-free hay. Pellets or hay cubes are easy to pack and meet the requirements. If your horse has supplement needs, use Formula 707 Daily Fresh Packs. You can toss in however many packs you need without taking up precious space in your truck or trailer, and the wrappers crunch down easily in a garbage bag. If your horse gets anxious when in new locations, have a tube of Formula 707 Calming Paste on hand.
- Bring a waterproof body sheet for your horse. Mountain nights are typically very cold, and freezing rains can chill your horse to the point he begins to shiver.
- Be prepared with your own portable panels or electric pen. Even if permanent pens are available, they may be muddy or in use by others.
- Leave a clean camp. Always pick up every bit of garbage you create. Don’t leave extra hay around when you depart. It will rot and make an unpleasant camp for the next person.
- Always bring your own drinking water and at least 25 gallons of horse water.
- Bring easy to prepare foods, a tea/coffee pot to heat water, at least one pan and a camp stove. If you can heat water, you can make hot drinks and a long list of satisfying foods.
Tips for Riding Horses in the Mountains:
Comfort, warmth, and safety cannot be compromised during long days in the saddle while riding horses in the mountains. To ensure the most fun and enjoyment for your ride, be prepared to carry the following items on your person or on your horse:
- Electrolytes: Horses that are not in shape or come from out of state may get stressed and need metabolic support. Carry a tube of Formula 707 Restore Paste electrolyte paste or Formula 707 Performance Paste in your bags. If your horse ingests a good amount of water, you can give half a tube at a time.
- Oral syringe: An oral dosing syringe can be used to give a horse small amounts of water. It can also be used to administer a crushed bute tab or powdered antibiotics in the case of injury.
- Weather smart clothing: When going into the mountains avoid wearing 100% cotton. It absorbs water and does not dry out quickly. Be sure to take a fleece or wool coat/vest, gloves, and a waterproof slicker that covers your legs (or rain pants).
- Head Coverage: Whether you wear a hat or helmet, take some sort of plastic cover. I find a plastic grocery bag works well and can be tied around my headgear when the rain comes.
- Proper footwear: Wear boots that you can comfortably walk in. Be sure to oil them well. Rainstorms can be cold and last for hours.
- Sustenance: Always have more food and water for yourself than you think you might need. Jerky, nuts, meat sticks, protein bars, and apples travel well.
- First aid: Include items for you and your horse such as a topical antibiotic, bute, acetaminophen/ibuprofen, antacids, vet wrap, a small bottle of betadine, fly repellent ointment and a bandana or tourniquet.
Riding horses in the mountains is an extraordinary experience that is sure to provide exceptional scenery. Colorado has areas designated as wilderness in the western two-thirds of the state. The term “wilderness” has special meaning in comparison to other public lands. Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964. With wilderness designation come rules about use. There are no motorized vehicles or bicycles allowed, and there are leash laws for dogs in most wilderness areas. These rules help limit excessive trail wear, keep the wildlife from being harassed and make for true “peace and quiet.”
For more information on riding Colorado’s wilderness areas, one good website is http://www.coloradowilderness.com/index.htm. Remember, when going into the wilderness practice Leave No Trace guidelines. If you still have questions, you can reach out to us. Happy Trails!
About the Author
I currently reside in Durango Colorado. Durango is in the Four Corners area of southwest Colorado. Living in this corner of Colorado allows me access to riding in three states within an hour drive. Horses have been a passion in my life for 35 years. I currently have seven equines in my care, including a five-year-old mustang in for training, a feisty grade mare I bought eight months ago, a talented Arab/Mustang mare and a blue dun Icelandic pony. —Phoebe Bechtolt