Diamond in the Rough

Horse Ranch Park in Colorado's Gunnison National Forest is a delightful camp ground nestled between two tranquil wilderness areas.

[PHOTOGALLERY uniquename=”galleria-azur”]Horse Ranch Park, located in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest, is a diamond in the rough. This delightful United States Forest Service campground is nestled between the Raggeds and West Elk Wilderness areas. 

These wilderness areas are a source of quiet solitude and peacefulness. They’re closed to motor vehicles, helicopters, bicycles, mechanized equipment (including chain saws), and hang gliders.
However, these wilderness areas are open to livestock grazing.

Gunnison National Forest encompasses 1.7 million acres of public land in Colorado’s central Rocky Mountains. Outstanding mountain scenery is the norm. Deer and elk call the forest home.

Spacious Camp
Horse Ranch Park is located approximately 12 miles west from the quaint town of Crested Butte and 37 miles northwest of Gunnison.

To get to Horse Ranch Park from Crested Butte, take Kebler Pass Rd. (County Rd. 12) west for 12 miles. Turn right (north) into Horse Ranch Park. There’s a sign at the entrance. 

Don’t look for luxury or conveniences at this camp. However, the scenery is so inspiring, you don’t notice the lack of amenities. 

There’s one outhouse, picnic tables, and fire rings. You won’t find corrals or potable water, but there’s a small stream and pond for horse water.

You may drive into the spacious camp and set up your outfit wherever you like. Tie your horse to a hay rack, or use a highline. We brought our own camping gear, setting up our portable corral near our living-quarters trailer.

At 9,000 feet elevation, the air’s oxygen content is less than what most people (and horses) are accustomed to. Take your time doing chores. If you feel breathless, it’s probably due to the elevation, as well as the pristine surroundings! Allow time for your horse to become acclimated to the altitude before you ride him on the trails.

Lake Irwin

Our first ride was an easy, 13-mile round-trip ride to Lake Irwin. We thought it was an easy ride, although our 6-year-old Missouri Fox Trotters, Cowboy and Nate, may have felt otherwise. The trail gains about 1,000 feet elevation, but the gain is gradual.

The trailhead is located at the north end of Horse Ranch Park. After a short distance, the trail divides. Turn right. This is the Dyke Trail (#838), which heads east, then slowly works its way uphill through a Bev Doolittle maze of aspen trees.

The shady canopy of aspen trees provided glimpses of the people who had lived and worked here during the early 1920s, mostly Basque sheepherders. The white aspen bark was their canvass; a knife, their brush. 

Many aspens were decorated with simple drawings, poems, names, and dates. One poignant sentence caught our eye. Carefully carved into a very old aspen was this: “Nothing is as empty and vacant as loneliness.” We wondered about the story behind that mournful message.

The Dyke Trail has a lot of ups and downs, not much in the way of contouring. In late summer, when we were there, wildflowers were abundant. A light breeze would send them dancing while bobbing their pretty heads in rhythm to an unseen drummer. 

After 1.5 miles, the Lake Irwin Trail (#837) comes in from the east. We began following this trail uphill. Here’s where the impressive igneous rock formations, known as The Dyke, come into view. The Dyke was formed when liquid magma was forced through thin, perpendicular ridge openings. 

As we climbed higher, evergreen trees intermixed with aspen trees. Finally, we reached a high mountain meadow where we declared it was time for lunch. We hobbled both horses and settled down to the serious business of demolishing peanut-butter sandwiches.

Charlene noticed that Nate seemed to have no problem walking with hobbles. Closer scrutiny showed why. He had no hobbles! 

We learned a valuable lesson: Our hobbles need to be buckled right side up. Otherwise, the hobble easily becomes undone.

At the top of the ridge, we came to the road leading to Lake Irwin Lodge, which was closed for remodeling. Below the ridge, we could see 30 acres of crystalline-blue Lake Irwin, home to rainbow and brook trout.

This was a beautiful ride, but, as Jimmy Buffett sings, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” We’d worked up a thirst, and it was time to head home.

Dark Canyon Trail
Our next ride was the Dark Canyon Trail (#830). This is an awesome ride in the 64,997-acre Raggeds Wilderness Area. To get there, ride out as before, north of camp, but turn left instead of going right to Lake Irwin.

The first few miles are easy. We rode along grassy parks, through stands of aspen, and intermittent patches of brush. 

For us, it was a joy riding through brushy areas in Colorado and not having to worry about the grizzly bears that inhabit the northern Rockies, where we frequently ride.

The trail worked its way around beaver ponds. One pond had a beaver mansion. It was huge! As we passed by, we heard the splash of a beaver’s tail issuing an irritated warning. The ingenious architectural skills of these large water rodents are mindboggling! 

We drank in the ever-changing views of the Gunnison River Valley and majestic Ragged Mountain, which looms ahead at 12,094 feet. We picked a spot on a bench overlooking the valley and mountain for lunch. Nothing beats dining in the Rockies!

From tracks and trodden grass, we determined a shepherd had his flock somewhere near this trail. We never saw his sheep, but beware. Your horse could round a corner and come face-to-face with several hundred fluffy critters!

If you have someone with you to shuttle trailers, this ride can be done in a point-to-point fashion. It’s 13 miles from Horse Ranch Park to the other end of the trail at the Anthracite trailhead. 

This trail has a 2,200-foot drop, including a series of switchbacks called the Devil’s Stairway. You’ll drop 1,200 feet in three-quarters of a mile.

Alpine Beauty
A ride that gives a year’s worth of alpine beauty is comprised of the Cliff Creek and Three Lakes Trails. This 15-mile ride has everything: aspens; open meadows; and mountaintop riding with emerald mountain lakes.

We rode south across the road and up the Cliff Creek Trail with a gain of nearly 1,000 feet during the first 2.5 miles. This part of the ride starts in old-growth aspen, then climbs hillsides and benches stuffed with dense carpets of wildflowers. During a wet season, this part of the trail may be slippery.

The wildflowers are at their best in July and early August, filling meadows with a rainbow of colors. More than 70 species of wildflowers are found on these lush hillsides. Flowers attract insects, so spray your equine partner with repellent for a more comfortable ride.

Just 2.5 miles later, you’ll reach the junction with the Beckwith Pass Trail. It’s worthwhile to ride the half-mile spur through open meadows to the nearly 10,000-foot ridge that borders the West Elk Wilderness Area. 

Here, we paused and checked out the tree-covered, mountain-studded expanse of the 176,172-acre wilderness area.

After soaking in this dose of alpine beauty, we returned to the trail junction and headed left. For the next three miles, we rode in and out of flora-filled parks and forested canopies. 

We were delighted with views of the Ruby Range to the northeast. Some of these peaks pierce the sky at 12,600 feet. We also caught stunning glimpses of East Beckwith Mountain to the south, which juts up 12,432 feet.

Finally, we came to the Three Lakes Trail junction. The next three miles made up a fabulous high-country loop that took us past three mountain lakes. Northwest of this junction is Lost Lake Campground. We were told we could ride around the campground to Lost Lake Rd. However, we didn’t find the connecting trail and had to ride through part of the campground.

We followed Lost Lake Rd. to the left for a short distance and picked up the trail again. First, we came to Lost Lake Slough, the largest of the three lakes. We stopped there for a picnic and gazed at the views across the lake. 

For another stunning view, go just a mile farther to Lost Lake. What a grand setting, with Dollar Lake to the east, Lost Lake Slough to the north, and East Beckwith Mountain to the south.

It’s very much worth your time to ride the one-tenth-mile spur trail to Dollar Lake, the second 10,000-foot high point on this fabulous day ride. 

Afterward, continue riding north to the Three Lakes junction, and return the same way back to camp for a relaxing evening around the campfire.

Random Acts of Kindness 
Off the trail, Horse Ranch Park distinguished itself to us as a place where random acts of kindness spread like hot grease on a sizzling grill.

It began on our first day at camp. Kent noticed a woman taking photos by the creek. He visited with her and helped her enhance her photography by showing her how to do reflection shots with a neutral density filter.

Later that day, the photography lady came over to our camp, lugging a watermelon. She explained that they were leaving and wondered whether we’d want her home-grown watermelon from Missouri. We were thrilled!

That night, we had spaghetti, salad, and sugar-sweet watermelon for dessert.

Around 8 p.m., a truck with a big living-quarters trailer rumbled into camp. The driver, a tall, tired-looking man, knocked on our door. He’d driven a long way and was looking for corrals for his three horses.

We told him there were no corrals, but he could highline his horses. Kent helped him, and Charlene invited him over for spaghetti and watermelon. He enjoyed dinner, and we enjoyed his company.

The next morning, Kent discovered that our truck battery was dead. Our new friend jump-started us. 

And so it went — another link in the chain of random kindnesses. It was “pay it forward” time in the Colorado Rockies! 

Mountain Outfitters
If you don’t have a horse and would like to ride in this beautiful mountainous area, you can rely on Fantasy Ranch Outfitters in nearby Crested Butte. 

This outfitter conducts a five-hour day ride from Horse Ranch Park into the Ragged Wilderness Area. The operators suggest September riding, when the aspen leaves are a bright yellow.

For more hardy souls, this outfitter provides pack trips into the West Elk Wilderness Area. Ride through the heart of the wilderness area, and stay at the base camp on Castle Creek. 

From camp, there are incredible views of The Castles, a 12,079-foot volcanic-rock formation. All gear is included, except for your sleeping bag and pad. 

You may also contact Tenderfoot Outfitters out of Gunnison, which provide a tent camping experience in the West Elk Wilderness. 

Following a ride to base camp at 10,000 feet, you’ll be greeted with 12-by-20-foot wall tents that include spring beds with mattresses and pillows, propane lanterns, and woodburning stoves.

Enjoy the breathtaking West Elk Wilderness right from camp while eating hearty cowboy-style meals. Then sit around the campfire and watch a Colorado sunset to complete your perfect day in the wilderness. 

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 “Kent and Charlene” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at kentcharlene@gmail.com

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