10 Top National Parks for Trail Riders
Our national parks are America’s jewels. Each park contains its own unique natural beauty not found anywhere else in the world.
To preserve this beauty, access to national parks is carefully controlled, unlike national forests, which permit multiuse, such as hunting, foresting, and off-roading.
Fortunately for equestrians, trail riding is allowed in most national parks. In fact, some of the most stunning parks welcome horses.
Here’s a look at 10 top national parks for trail riding. For each park, we’ll give you the location, area history, what to explore, equine amenities, and contact information. All allow you to bring your own horse. Or, if you prefer, you can rent a seasoned trail mount from a park concessionaire.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Location: Northeast California. The park borders Shasta, Lassen, Plumas, and Tehama counties.
Area history: Before European settlers arrived in the area during the 1800s, the Lassen Peak area was inhabited by several Native American tribes who summered here. They gave the volcanic peak such names as Fire Mountain, Water Mountain, Little Shasta, and The Long High Mountain That Was Broken.
Mid-19th century immigrants used Lassen Peak as a landmark en route to the Sacramento Valley. Peter Lassen, a Danish blacksmith, helped guide settlers through the region; the peak was named in his honor.
Lassen Peak, Cinder Cone, and the surrounding vicinity were declared a national park in 1916. Geologists and volcanologists agree that the last major eruption of Lassen Peak took place in 1666. From 1914 through 1921, eruptive activity released lava and large amounts of ash. This activity not only contributed to the area’s stark volcanic beauty, but also formed a new crater.
What to explore: The park’s hydrothermal features include boiling pools, steaming ground, steam and volcanic-gas vents, and bubbling mud pots. Bumpass Hell is a three-mile round trip along a boardwalk that culminates with access to the super-hot Big Boiler. Terminal Geyser, located in the middle of a creek, provides a spectacular show as visitors watch spurting steam emitted from a gigantic steam vent. Trails along the base of the peak provide beautiful views of forests, creeks, and meadows.
Equine amenities: More than 100 miles of trails are open to stock use (horses, mules, burros, ponies, and llamas). Horsecamping facilities are available. Several stables in the immediate area also offer guided horseback tours.
Contact: Lassen Volcanic National Park, (530) 595-4480; www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm.
Yosemite National Park
Location: Central California. The park encompasses parts of Tuolumne, Mariposa, and Madera counties.
Area history: Yosemite Valley was first inhabited by humans 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Paiute and Sierra Miwok tribes lived in this lush California region for many years, and their ancestors before them.
In the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush brought a great influx of settlers to the Sierra Nevada region, prompting such naturalists as John Muir to move to protect the park’s resources. By 1890, Yosemite had been officially designated a national park.
Yosemite attracts more than three million visitors per year. The 1,200-squaremile park is known for its majestic waterfalls, deep meadows, vast wilderness, and giant sequoias.
What to explore: More than 95 percent of Yosemite is designated as wilderness. The glaciated landscape provides visitors with views of rounded granite domes, waterfalls, jagged peaks, and U-shaped canyons.
Trails are abundant. Explore the Mist T rail in Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa Inner Grove Loop, Gaylor Lakes, and Glacier Point. The large Mariposa Grove allows visitors to see massive Giant Sequoia trees close up, while Glacier Point and Badger Pass offer outstanding views of the valley. Wawona Hotel, a historic hotel and stables, is accessible year-round. Crane Flat features excellent trails.
Equine amenities: Overnight-boarding facilities and horse campsites are available for riders bringing their own horses. Horses and mules are also available for guided day rides through park concessions.
Contact: Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN REGION
Bryce Canyon National Park
Location: Southwest Utah. The park borders Garfield and Kane counties.
Area history: In the 1850s, Mormon pioneers settled the area now occupied by Bryce Canyon National Park. The park was later named for Mormon homesteader Ebenezer Bryce, who settled nearby.
Formally designated a national park in 1928, Bryce Canyon sits at a higher elevation than its national park neighbors, Zion and Grand Canyon.
Made up of a collection of gigantic natural amphitheaters known as hoodoos, Bryce Canyon was formed by frost and stream erosion of river and sedimentary rocks. The dramatic red, orange, and white colorations offer visitors spectacular views both from the canyon rim and within the amphitheater.
What to explore: Bryce Point is one of the highest overlooks along the rim of the canyon amphitheater. Sunrise and sunset are the best times for taking in the beautiful shades that color the hoodoos. You’ll see unusual formations along the park’s loops and trails. Great photo opportunities are available at Inspiration Point, Navajo Loop Trail, and the Queen’s Garden Trail. The famous gorge, Wall Street, puts you at the center of the canyon, surrounding you with towering cliffs dotted with Douglas fir.
Equine amenities: You may bring your own horse or mule to ride, but no overnight horse camping is allowed inside the park. Camp on nearby national forest land. Canyon Trail Rides wranglers and other outfitters offer guided rides along a dedicated horse trail and on the Peek-a-boo Trail.
Contact: Bryce Canyon National Park, (435) 834-5322; www.nps.gov/brca/index.htm.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Location: Colorado’s Front Range region. The park borders Larimer, Boulder, and Grand Counties.
Area history: Experts believe humans first came to this region more than 10,000 years ago. Native Americans were the first to explore and hunt the area.
In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase included the area that now comprises Rocky Mountain National Park. Throughout the 19th century, the land attracted explorers, miners, fur trappers, ranchers, and homesteaders.
In 1915, Congress officially created Rocky Mountain National Park. However, it wasn’t until 1932 — and the construction of Trail Ridge Rd. between the east and west entrances — that the park was opened to vehicular visitors. Up to that time, the park was a destination only of explorers, hikers, and horseback riders.
What to explore: The park consists of high-mountain peaks, vast forests, and alpine lakes and rivers. Elevation ranges from 4,000 feet to more than 12,000 feet. The alpine park setting is rich with wildflowers, bighorn sheep, and elk, and is home to hundreds of bird species.
Trail Ridge Rd. provides seasonal access across a 48-mile stretch, from natural Rocky Mountain landscapes to the western entrance at Grand Lake. The Alluvial Trail provides overlooks and photography opportunities via its wooden bridge. Bear Lake provides some of the best winter views of any national park.
Equine amenities: Approximately 260 miles of trails are open to stock use (horses, mules, burros, ponies, and llamas). You can bring your own mount and camp in established backcountry campsites designated for stock. Several guest stables in the immediate area offer guided horseback tours, including Glacier Stables and Moraine Park Stables, which are located directly inside the park.
Contact: Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206; www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm.
Yellowstone National Park
Location: Northwest Wyoming, with sections in eastern Idaho and southern Montana.
Area history: Human beings have occupied the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Before European settlers arrived, several Native American cultures called this area home. They used Yellowstone lands as hunting grounds and transportation routes.
In 1872, Yellowstone was designated the world’s first national park. In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh barnstormed over Yellowstone Park, several months after his historic transatlantic flight. Conservation efforts throughout the park’s history have reintroduced wolves and bison to the area.
What to explore: The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a 24-mile long chasm etched out by the Yellowstone River. Oxidized, deep-red rock viewpoints provide views of waterfalls. Old Faithful provides the most frequent geyser eruptions in the park, ranging between two to five minutes in length. Observation Point gives visitors a spectacular viewpoint from a safe distance.
The wilds of Yellowstone delight spectators with herds of bison and elk in rust-colored hilly brush. Beautiful and abundant fall colors and summer wildflowers round out the area’s spectacular seasons.
Equine amenities: You can bring your own horse to ride in Yellowstone during spring, fall, and early summer months. Stock outfitters also provide trail-riding options during the summer and fall. Overnight use isn’t allowed in front country campsites, but horse accommodations are available in backcountry campgrounds.
Contact: Yellowstone National Park, (307) 344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm.
Grand Canyon National Park
Location: Northern Arizona. The park encompasses parts of Coconino and Mohave counties.
Area history: More than 270 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep, the Grand Canyon has been used and occupied by humans for thousands of years. The canyon’s rock layers reveal the Earth’s timeline. Historical ruins and artifacts have been traced to its inhabitants, dating back nearly 12,000 years.
In the early 1800s, government trappers and expeditions initiated exploration and mapping of the canyon. The area was first afforded federal protection in 1893 as a Forest Reserve and later as a National Monument. The Grand Canyon achieved National Park status in 1919.
What to explore: You can enjoy spectacular views of the canyon from both the South and North Rims. The South Rim is the more developed, featuring lodges, restaurants, and gift shops. The less-visited North Rim is known for its cooler weather and lush pine forests.
The canyon is beautiful year-round, as light from the sun throws different colors and patterns across the layered rock walls.
Nearly 400 bird, 47 reptile, and 17 fish species reside in the park. The rare Kaibab Squirrel is found only in the pine forests of the North Rim.
Equine amenities: Bring your own mount to ride along either the South or North Rim. Riding isn’t allowed inside the canyon except by special permit. (Guided mule rides are a popular way to see the canyon’s interior.)
The Mather Campground at the South Rim Horse Camp features corrals, water troughs, and feeders. The North Rim Horse Camp has similar accommodations, with seasonal restrictions.
Contact: Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888; www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Location: Northeastern Ohio. The park borders Summit, Cuyahoga, and Geauga counties.
Area history: Human occupation dates back 12,000 years in the Cuyahoga Valley. Prehistoric people occupied the valley for centuries until Europeans settled the area in the 1700s. The word “cuyahoga” comes from the language of the Mohawk people, who once lived in the area, and translates to “crooked river.”
Located in between the cities of Akron and Cincinnati, the area became at risk for overdevelopment in the 1960s. Historic villages, quiet byways, and forests were being encroached upon by commercial development. A congressional bill passed in 1974 initiated the acquisition of private land and cooperative agreements that led to the area being designated as a national park in 2000.
What to explore: The park encompasses 33,000 acres of diverse trails, a scenic railroad, and an array of flora and fauna. Spectacular waterfalls, wooded groves, historic caves, massive boulders, winding hills, clear rivers, and rich farmland are all part of the scenery.
Butler’s Trail, Wetmore Trail, and Tabletop Trail provide easy to moderate rides for equestrians. Valley Trail and the Riding Run Trail are challenging and recommended for experienced riders.
Equine amenities: Horses are a big part of the Cuyahoga Valley region. In the past, they pulled carts and plows. Today, they provide visitors with scenic carriage rides. You can bring your own horse for trail riding; horse-camping accommodations are available.
Contact: Cuyahoga Valley National Park, (330) 657-2752; www.nps.gov/cuva/index.html.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: Eastern Tennessee; western North Carolina.
Area history: The region that now comprises Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once the homeland of the Cherokee Nation. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 displaced many Native Americans and opened the area to European settlers. Some of the Cherokee who resisted the removal still have descendants living in an area, at the south end of the park known as the Qualia Boundary.
After European settlers made the region their home, logging became a chief industry. Decades later, a movement began to establish the area as the first national park in the Eastern United States. Takeover of the land was funded by the U.S. government, John D. Rockefeller, and private citizens of Tennessee and North Carolina. Mountain homesteaders, miners, and loggers were slowly evicted.
The park was formally established in 1934. What to explore: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to ancient peaks, diverse plant and animal life, and wondrous waterfalls. The region is rich with old-growth forests, historic log structures, and a variety of wildlife. Popular attractions are Mount LeConte, Clingmans Domes, Alum Cave Trail, and the Ramsey Cascades.
Equine amenities: Approximately 550 miles of trails are open to horses in the park. Horse owners can stage out of one of the park’s five drive-in backcountry horse camps. Additionally, several rental stables provide mounts, guides, and carriage rides.
Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200; www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Location: Northwest Virginia, 75 miles from Washington, D.C. The park encompasses parts of Warren, Page, Rockingham, Augusta, Rappahannock, Madison, Greene, and Albemarle counties.
Area history: The Shenandoah Valley was inhabited by settlers for more than a century before first becoming a state park. Nearly 1,100 privately owned tracks and donated land made up the initial park lands.
In the 1920s, President Herbert Hoover, along with his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, established their Summer White House in the area, and helped foster a movement for national parks in the East.
Shenandoah National Park was authorized by Congress in 1926, and became fully established in 1935. Additional wilderness areas were added to the park in 1976 and 1978.
What to explore: Saddle up, and enjoy cascading waterfalls, majestic vistas, and wooded hollows. The Appalachian Trail features pastoral and wooded riding opportunities. Scenic vistas of Skyline Dr. provide magnificent views. Tours of President Hoover’s rustic retreat, Rapidan Camp, are available.
Equine amenities: More than 180 miles of trails are available for horseback riding. Trails range from smooth, wide gravel paths to rocky, mountainous trails. You can bring your own horse, or take a guided horseback tour from stables in the area. Download the Horse Use Guide from the park website for rules and regulations pertaining to riding in the park.
Contact: Shenandoah National Park, (540) 999-3500; www.nps.gov/shen/index.htm.
Acadia National Park
Location: Maine’s central coast. The park borders Hancock and Knox counties.
Area history: Originally named Lafayette National Park and renamed in 1919, Acadia is the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. The first inhabitants were the Native American Wabananki people. They were followed by French and English settlers in the late 1800s, who established fishing, shipbuilding, farming, and lumbering industries in the area.
Landscape artist Charles Eliot, regarded as the father of Acadia Park, helped it attain federal status. In 1947, fires consumed much of the area; 10,000 acres burned in the park. Massive efforts by the United States Coast Guard, United States Army, United States Navy, National Park Service employees, and local residents saved the park.
After the devastation, the John D. Rockefeller family supported the park’s restoration; the park has since flourished. More than two million people visit Acadia each year.
What to explore: Acadia National Park features mountains, a majestic ocean shoreline, woodlands, and lakes. You can drive or hike up to Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the East Coast. The park has more than 125 miles of historic hiking trails.
Equine amenities: Carriage roads designed for horse-and-carriage rides throughout the park make up 45 miles of rustic trail terrain. You can bring your own horse to ride or drive on these trails, or take advantage of several stables in the area that offer a variety of riding options. Wildwood Stables provides a fully equipped horse camp for day or overnight riders.
Contact: Acadia National Park, (207) 288-3338; www.nps.gov/acad/index.htm.