Discover Your State Parks

State parks, often overlooked, offer scenic riding trails and horse-friendly campgrounds. Here, we take you to gems in the mountains of Montana and Idaho.
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State parks, often overlooked, offer scenic riding trails and horse-friendly campgrounds. Here, we take you to gems in the mountains of Montana and Idaho.

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State parks tend to be overshadowed by our country’s flashier national parks, but don’t overlook these gems. State parks offer equal beauty, serenity, equestrian trails, and horse-friendly campgrounds.

Check out the state parks in your area — you might be surprised by what you learn. Here, we’ll tell you about four of our favorite state parks — two near our Montana ranch (Lone Pine and Bannack) and two near our former home in Idaho (Farragut and Heyburn).

Montana’s Wild Days

When we moved from Idaho to Montana, we called Lone Pine State Park, located near the town of Kalispell, to see what the park offered. Sure enough, this park has an equestrian trail.

The trail at Lone Pine is only 7½ miles long, but it’s spectacular! It meanders through evergreen forests, and offers views of Flathead Valley, Flathead Lake, Big Mountain, Jewel Basin, and Glacier National Park.

Our curiosity whetted, we then checked out Bannack State Park, the cradle of Montana history. The town of Bannack was born when Montana hit its first big gold strike in 1862. In 1864, Bannack was named as the first Territorial Capital of Montana.

Bannack was plagued with lawlessness and violence. A band of outlaws regularly robbed hardworking citizens and waylaid the stagecoach when it traveled to the nearby town of Virginia City. Bannock’s sheriff, Henry Plummer, was ineffective in stopping the outlaws.

Finally, a group of vigilantes decided to take action. Twenty-two people were accused, informally tried, and executed by the vigilante committee. One explosive revelation — the outlaws’ leader was none other than Bannack’s sheriff, Henry Plummer!

On a nearby hillside are the gallows on which Sheriff Plummer was hung. Legend has it Plummer stashed his stolen gold in the outlying area, which is as good a reason as any to go cross-country riding around Bannack.

Today, the ghost town of Bannack is managed as a state park. Sixty buildings stand as silent witnesses to a bygone era. Before hitting the trails, walk the dirt streets of Bannack, and look inside the weathered buildings.

The Meade Hotel, with its winding staircase, was undoubtedly Bannock’s cultural centerpiece. In 1877, town citizens took refuge here when Chief Joseph’s band passed by during the Nez Perce Indian War.

To ride in the park, turn right before entering town. You can park your rig on the far side of town in the large parking lot.

From this staging area, we went on two rides. Our first ride took us south of town and cross-country. We traveled over open hills, enjoying vast vistas of valleys and mountain ranges.

Along the way, we came upon a solitary line shack, a crude, permanent shelter for early-day cowboys. It was fun to imagine a cowboy roughing it there.

Continuing along, we discovered a twotiered forest. The lower portion consisted of a sea of tree stumps. The upper portion consisted new tree growth, probably less than 150 years old. All the old-growth trees had been logged for building materials, wood heat, and to feed the boilers of gold dredges.

On our second ride, we followed a map the park manager gave us. Accompanying us on this ride were our friends Pat and Maniya Thompson from Georgia, and Jake Raap from Idaho.

We rode through the east edge of town and up to the gallows. From this eerie spot we had a wonderful view of the town below. We continued north on the trail while keeping an eye out for Sheriff Plummer’s hidden box of gold. Some of the trail followed the old stagecoach route from Bannack to Virginia City.

A few miles later, we arrived at Robber’s Roost, a rock formation marked by an old sign. Plummer’s gang would “roost” here, waiting for the stagecoach to pass by. You can still see ruts created by the stagecoach wheels.

From here, you may continue following the trail or explore cross-country the ridges and valleys of this mostly open country. We rode cross-country, keeping our eyes open for wildlife and old mining ruins.

Before heading back, we rode up a ridge and soaked in the view of the Pioneer Mountains that rise 10,000 feet in their attempt to pierce the sky — an appropriate ending for a ride in Big Sky Country!

Idaho’s Charms

We really enjoy riding Farragut State Park and Heyburn State Park in north Idaho. Farragut holds special meaning for us, as two generations of Kent’s family were involved in the park.

Farragut State Park, located in northern Idaho, comprises 4,000 acres. The equestrian campground has six sites, plus corrals, an arena, and a day-use area. There are no hookups, but water is available.

Make campground reservations in advance, especially if you plan to stay over a weekend.

The area north of Idaho State Highway 54 is open to trail riding. There’s a perimeter trail with interconnecting trails and a popular buggy trail.

Trails loop over grassy plains, dense ponderosa forests, and gentle hills. Bear, deer, elk, and moose frequent the area. One morning, we saw a cow moose with her gangly baby.

On our last ride, we rode over to Friendship Circle, a circle of tall pine poles to signify friendship. The poles were installed during the World Scout Jamboree that was held in the park in 1967.

South of Farragut is Heyburn State Park, the oldest park in the Pacific Northwest and one of the largest state parks in Idaho.

Heyburn is a superlative example of how one equestrian-minded park ranger can create a first-class riding destination. This standout ranger is Don West.

Some background: About one-third of the park’s 7,838 acres consists of water. These bodies of water are Benewah Lake, Hidden Lake, Chatcolet Lake, and a portion of the St. Joe River.

Previous rangers were primarily concerned with dock facilities, recreational campgrounds, and picnic areas. Little attention was given to trail riders’ needs.

The park’s western portion had one main horse trail that was periodically maintained by local Back Country Horsemen of America (www.bcha.org) groups. The park’s eastern portion didn’t have any equestrian trails or horse camps.

Our friends Jerry and Murielle Johnson invited us to see the changes in the park. They spoke highly of Don’s work. We wanted to ride with Don and hear his story. How did one man with a passionate focus make a huge contribution to the equestrian community?

When Don became park ranger five years ago, the park became horse-friendly. On the west side, roomy log corrals sprung up. And there were lots of new riding trails!

Don grew up around horses along the Salmon River where his dad outfitted for more than 30 years. Don learned about horses by working with his father.

Today, Don conducts packing clinics and teaches natural horsemanship. He and his wife, Kim, own Rocking Horse Paint Ranch (www.rockinghorsepaints.com), which borders Heyburn State Park.

As a ranger, Don soon met local horse enthusiast Arlo Slack. The two began riding together. Arlo, a farmer, says he planted seeds in Don’s mind that the park needed more horse trails and equestrian-friendly campgrounds.

“Those seeds took off like they were on nitrogen!” Arlo told us, grinning.

Don has spent countless hours planning and creating new trails, as well as improving old ones. He’s done substantial work on the west equestrian campground and is presently working on the east equestrian campground, a new addition. On the park’s east side, Don also built 17½ miles of new trails.

“Build trails, and riders will come,” Don said.

In this age of cutbacks and outdoor apathy, park rangers like Don West need our support.

On our Heyburn rides, we were joined by Don, Jerry and Murielle Johnson, Arlo and Michelle Slack, Kenny Moore, and 15-yearold Michael Ebert, a straight-A student and aspiring veterinarian.

Kenny, a rugged outdoorsman and avid horseman, has helped Don by packing in picnic tables that were reassembled alongside scenic trail overlooks.

Mike was a teenage breath of fresh air! This young man enjoyed hanging out with “seasoned” horsepeople. Why? “I can learn a lot more from Kenny and his friends than from people my own age,” Mike said.

Mike was featured in the “Everyday Heroes” section of the June 2015 issue of Reader’s Digest. “When Michael was working on a ranch, he heard an older man was missing,” Reader’s Digest reports. “Michael followed the man’s bulldozer tracks up a mountain on his horse, then made his way through thick brush on foot. The man was pinned between a bulldozer and a log, but he survived thanks to Michael’s efforts.”

We rode two days. The first day, we rode the park’s east side. The new trail that Don built, a loop with cross-cuts, snakes up and down tree-covered ridges. Western red cedars formed cool, shady canopies and perfumed the air with a piney fragrance. It was a good trail for a hot day.

At our lunch spot, we looked out on two bright-blue lakes, the St. Joe River running through them. Jerry and Murielle pointed out the unusual phenomenon of a river within a lake, which was once featured in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not franchise.

Near the ride’s end, we encountered yellow jackets. The first rider over the ground nest stirred them up; the following riders and horses got stung. Three of our horses jumped around, but we all stayed on and made a “beeline” down the trail!

The next day, we all rode the park’s west side.

We began at park headquarters and headed toward Indian Cliffs, a special place that beckons riders to stop and “sit a spell.” We ate lunch here, tying our horses to the hitching rails that Don installed.

Trees are an important part of Heyburn State Park. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted so many trees here they were called the Tree Army.

Some of the trees flourish in moist shade; others prefer dry, sunny slopes. You’ll find that trees that grow in valleys are absent from ridge tops.

Consider doing your own state park research. Get acquainted with your local park rangers. Plant seeds, and help them grow. To find a state park in your area, go to America’s State Parks (www.americasstateparks.org).

A helpful printed resource is National Geographic Guide to the State Parks of the United States, 4th edition, 2012 (available through www.national geographic.com).

Have fun on the trails — in your state parks!

 Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “supplier:1314” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at kentandcharlene@gmail.com.