As my husband, Paul, and I left our Southwest Mississippi home for a chance to ride our horses in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, we never imagined just how spectacular it would be.
This was our first trip West with our horses. Paul's horse is Red, an 8-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse gelding; my mount is Molly, a sassy 10-year-old Spotted Saddle Horse mare.
Our goal was to spend the summer in Colorado's cool climate and ride in the Rockies. To make this possible, we volunteered as campground hosts with the United States Forest Service.
There are several places the Forest Service welcomes volunteers for the summer. We were lucky to be placed at Seedhouse Campground in Routt National Forest (part of the Medicine-Bow-Routt National Forests that extend from north-central Colorado to central Wyoming). We were looking forward to riding in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area, which runs along the Continental Divide for 36 miles.
Seedhouse Campground is located nine miles northeast of the quaint town of Clark, elevation 8,040 feet. Livestock isn't allowed in the campground, but there are places nearby where you can tether or hobble your horses. We put up a solar-powered electric fence across the road from the campground and eased them into the lush grass of Colorado.
If you need to supplement feed, note that Certified Weed-Free Hay is required. You can water your horses right by the Elk River.
Months before we left, we went to www.horsemotel.com to plan where we'd stay while on the road. We took three days to travel 1,500 miles to our destination north of Steamboat Springs.
Using a book called Next Exit
, we stopped only at places that were recreational-vehicle accessible, as we were pulling our 30-foot fifth-wheel camper with a two-horse, bumper-pull trailer behind that. Yes, we checked, it's legal. Along the way, we were lucky. We didn't even have a flat tire, and we had 14 tires on the ground.
Riding the Rockies
Red and Molly are both experienced trail horses. However, at first, we were careful to ride just three to four hours a day so they could adjust to the elevation. We soon found that the trails were all well-marked and easy to follow.
One trail book we found helpful was Hiking the 'Boat II: 108 Hikes Out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado
(Aspen Tree Press), by Diane White-Crane. You can buy it online and in the U.S. Forest Service office in Steamboat Springs.
When we arrived in early June, many of the creeks and rivers were too swift to cross. There were also snowdrifts covering the trails at 10,000 feet elevation in places. It was mid-July before we could reach the high country, but there was still plenty of riding. We found the best time to ride is July and August.
Not long after arriving, we needed a farrier to put a shoe back on Red. The locals recommended a gentleman named Orval Bedell, whom the locals call Junior. He's not only a farrier, but also a guide, saddlemaker, and horse trainer. We ended up becoming good friends with Orval. Spending time with him was one of the highlights of our summer.
With Junior as our guide, the three of us would hit the trail around 8 a.m. and make our way through the beautiful aspens with ferns underneath. We saw mule deer, grouse, and even a porcupine. Hikers told us of a black bear sighting we just missed. There were elk, pine martins, marmots, and other animals new to us.
The Gilpin Trail
One memorable ride was the 11-mile Gilpin-Gold Creek Loop. The Slavonia trailhead takes you along the lovely Gilpin Creek to the majestic Gilpin Lake and over the pass down to Gold Creek Lake, which did appear gold in color.
The Gilpin Trail is easy for the most part, but does have a few challenging climbs, with uneven rock, boulders, and steep grades. Avalanches had left eerie stands of dead trees in their wake.
Gilpin Lake appears to be held by the Sawtooth Range, Big Agnes, and Little Agnes mountains all surrounding it. Breathtaking! Looking down the lake from a distance, it looks like a tiny bowl, but it's 29 acres in size and 60 feet in maximum depth. The water is the bluest of blues. Gilpin is a great lunch spot!
As we climbed to Gilpin Lake's 11,180-foot elevation, we rode on many switchbacks. Although numerous lodgepole pines were dead from the beetle kill, there are still many lush green trees that tower above you, such as Engelmann spruce, sub-alpine fir, and Douglas fir.
The wildflowers are of every color in the rainbow. It looks like a gardener had come in and sprinkled wildflower seeds in every meadow and all along the mountainsides. The wildflowers were fabulous all summer long!
Colorado's state flower, the lavender-and-white columbine, looks like an orchid. There were bright-red Indian paintbrushes, purple lupine, yellow mule's ear, wild roses, and yarrow.
Red Dirt Pass
Our last ride took us way up to Red Dirt Pass and near the top of Mt. Zirkel on the Continental Divide. Make this ride early in the day to avoid lightning storms. This ride took us by Slavonia Mining Camp some seven miles from our trailhead.
The climb to Mt. Zirkel would be another 2.5 miles above timberline at 12,180 feet in elevation. There, you reach the glorious Mt. Zirkel, the namesake of this whole wilderness area.
As we approached the pass, we saw five black bear?two large adults and three smaller cubs. They were in no hurry, and we didn't crowd them.
We made the ride back down without the threat of lightning until we neared the mining camp. There, it began to rain and hail, and continued all the way back to our rig. We sure were glad we had our rain gear and that our horses didn't mind getting hit with marble-size hail.
More than anything, we were glad we'd gotten down off Mt. Zirkel when the lightning started.
For more on the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area, visit www.coloradowilderness.com/wildpages/mtzirkel.html. For more on Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, visit www.fs.fed.us/r2/mbr/.