Look beyond Nevada’s parched deserts and gambling glitter and you’ll find a treasure trove of delights for adventurous trail riders. The state has 150 named mountain ranges, more than any other state. Peaks soar more than 10,000 feet above sea level. The highest point, Boundary Peak, reaches 13,140 feet.
The Silver State also offers riders scenic canyons and hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to explore.
We recently loaded up our 8-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Nate and Cowboy, and headed to southern Nevada to check out top riding locations within an easy drive of Las Vegas.
Our first stop was the town of Alamo, 95 miles north of Las Vegas on Highway 93. We stayed with Ken Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Feed Inc., a major hay supplier in the region.
Ken welcomes overnight guests with horses. He told us about a couple of rides. One, on his property, follows up a canyon inhabited by Desert bighorn sheep. He also told us about a ride to petroglyphs(ancient Native American carvings).
We had time for the petroglyph ride, which was right out of Ken’s corral and across the highway going east. Our geldings set a good pace, heading east up a wash toward the distant mountains.
We kept watch for desert tortoises that inhabit half-moon-shaped holes in the sides of the wash. Holes without cobwebs may be inhabited. We didn’t see any tortoises, but we did see one tortoise shell.
After several miles, we reached a large bench(a long, narrow stretch of land that’s level or gently sloped) before the mountains and turned south, toward a massive pile of boulders. On these boulders — which appeared to have been thrown by huge hands into a haphazard pattern on the landscape — were hundreds of petroglyphs. There were carvings of sheep, deer, snakes, lines, and other forms.
From our vantage point, we could see across the boulders to the valley below,
This was the same view Native Americans had when they carved these figures eons ago. We felt touched by time.
Elegant Western Inn
For a romantic break from trailering and horseback riding, we stayed at A Cowboy’s Dream Bed & Breakfast in Alamo.
One would never expect such opulent elegance in the tiny town of Alamo. A Cowboy’s Dream is a 19,000-square-foot structure combining wood and stone in a twist of European-chalet style and Old West charm.
There are eight themed suites with custom bedding, antique furniture, and private patios.
Relax in the great room or on a frontier porch and reflect on your day’s adventure.
Phyllis Frias built the A Cowboy’s Dream in honor of her late husband, Charlie. She worked with a designer to create a one-of-a-kind look. The extra effort paid off: The inn was the first B&B in Nevada to earn membership in the Select Registry of Distinguished Inns of North America.
Valley of Fire State Park
After resting up, we moseyed down to the Valley of Fire State Park, 56 miles northeast of Las Vegas. This 42,000-acre park contains sandstone formations, washes, and several cacti species.
The park’s name comes from the area’s red sandstone formations that were made by shifting sands 150 million years ago. These shifting sands, followed by extensive erosion, created the fantastic landscape one sees today.
There are no overnight-stabling facilities in the park, but it’s a good location for day rides. Many folks ride cross-country, blazing their own trails.
One popular ride is the Prospect Trail, a scenic 12-mile day trip. Much of the trail is silt and sand, which is easy to navigate over. As you ride, look for ancient petroglyphs on rock walls.
Red Rock Canyon
The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is located just 20 miles from the famous Las Vegas strip. It’s hard to believe such a beautiful 200,000-acre wilderness area could be so close to the glitter of Vegas.
Colorful mountain ranges, composed of gray limestone and red sandstone, serve as a Western backdrop to trail riders. Folks ride on dirt roads, washes, and designated trails.
The best riding in this region occurs fall through spring. Summer can have punishing 100-degree-plus temperatures. Be careful of cacti in the area, especially the cholla cactus, which has nasty balls of spines that can attach to you or your equine partner.
On one ride, Charlene’s horse, Nate, bumped into a cholla. Ten balls of spines detached and stuck into his side. Luckily, Nate was calm and waited for help as we removed the spines with a wide comb and Leatherman tool.
If you don’t have your horse with you and want a quick fix, go to Cowboy Trail Rides. These folks are located in the heart of Red Rock Canyon and offer rides suitable for every riding level, from novice to experienced.
The Canyon Rim ride takes riders up Fossil Ridge, which offers views of the Red Escarpment and Springs Mountains. The five-hour Wow Ride takes you to the best the desert has to offer and includes lunch to boot!
A special ride is the Sunset Dinner Ride. Guests depart two hours before
sunset and return to camp for a Western barbecue under the stars, complete with s’mores cooked over an open fire.
Bonnie Springs Ranch
At the south end of Red Rock Canyon country is Bonnie Springs Ranch. You can board your horses at the ranch and ride right out the gate.
Bonnie Springs Ranch was founded in 1952 by Bonnie McGaugh. Bonnie was a professional ice skater, and Las Vegas dancer and showgirl; her father was a Hollywood stuntman. Hollywood movie stars, such as Gregory Peck and Shirley Temple, were family friends. Maurice Chevalier visited the ranch in the 1960s.
Thanks to Bonnie’s efforts, the ranch features an Old West town, an awesome restaurant, a motel, riding stables, boarding facilities, a full-size arena, and a petting zoo. Some of the buildings are thought to be haunted and were featured on the television show Ghost Adventures.
We like staying here with our horses, because we can board them in large, roomy corrals by the arena and park our living-quarters trailer nearby. There are convenient water faucets, but there’s no electrical service. Regular stables are also available.
Nate and Cowboy enjoyed the large, sandy pens, but weren’t happy when wild burros got into their hay supply. We quickly learned not to leave anything outside that could be eaten. It’s against the law to feed wild burros, because food independence is necessary for their survival.
Kris Kessel is the vivacious head wrangler at the riding stable where visitors can sign up for guided rides. Business was brisk, but Kessel and crew were friendly and helpful in answering our questions.
“I love it out here! I never get tired of it!” Kessel exclaimed, smiling.
Kris Kessel is aptly assisted by father-son team Robby and Cade Franks. These two came right out of the West and live by the Cowboy Code of Honor.
Robby’s experience handling 1,000 horses at a Colorado ranch is evident in the manner he cares for horses and riders.
Fate smiled on us when we met avid horseman Mary Sue Kunz at Bonnie Springs. Mary Sue is one of the founders of the Bristle Cone Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Nevada.
Mary Sue offered to guide us on some rides in Red Rock Canyon. She’s lived and ridden here for more than 30 years, and was delighted to share her deep knowledge of the area with us.
On our first ride behind Bonnie Springs Ranch, Mary Sue rode her 9-year-old mustang, Kodak, whose mother had been a wild mustang in Red Rock Canyon. For many years, Mary Sue observed and documented the wild mustangs. She then used this information
to advise the Bureau of Land Management on the mustangs’ status.
While riding along, she shared her favorite viewing points and pointed out a mysterious rock carving from 1916. We rode past cottonwood, scrub oak, and various species of cacti.
We discovered that Mary Sue has a rich and varied background, not unlike her beloved Red Rock Canyon. As a young woman, she represented her native state of Georgia as a Kodak model. This, in turn, led to meeting her husband, George Kunz, a well-known National Football League player.
Since we rode on unmarked trails, would be difficult to recreate the figureeight loop we took. However, it’s easy to create your own ride. There are animal trails, hiking trails, and, of course, horse trails.
The next day, we ventured into Oak Creek Canyon in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The trailhead is only a short trailer haul from Bonnie Springs Ranch on Highway 159. We did an easy 5-mile loop, taking time to enjoy the fiery red cliffs and varied terrain.
While seated by a small tree, we heard a dry, rustling sound. A hairy tarantula, about the size of a hand, was moving alongside us, minding his own business. We don’t see many of those in our home state of Montana!
Before leaving Red Rock Canyon, we went on two more rides: the Landmine Trail loop and the Badger Pass Trail loop. To begin the 9.4 mile Landmine Trail loop, head through the gate on the south side of Bonnie Springs Ranch, and work your way toward the mountain. When you see the main trail at the base of the mountain, veer to your left.
At first, this landscape seems dry and bland. But as we rode along, we made some
interesting discoveries. Hidden in shadowy folds below the mountain was a small burro
family. Later, we saw the corpse of a bulletridden vehicle that had been languishing
there since the 1930s.
The Landmine Trail enters the little town of Blue Diamond at the west end of Cottonwood St. Follow this street east to the other end of town. When it branches left, take the first street to the right. Look for a multiuse trail sign.
This trail lends itself to easy gaiting as it flows around the mountain. Soon, you’ll see an Old Spanish Trail marker (1829-1848). Almost 200 years ago, this arduous trade route connected Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Los Angeles, California, via southern Nevada. The
Landmine Trail continues around it the mountain, gently climbing a low pass, and gradually heading toward the highway. This side of the loop is more scenic in terms of distant background scenery and cacti. Because the landscape is wide open, it’s easy to spot mountain bikers. The three we met were friendly and courteous. After circling the mountain, you’ll be back where you started.
Our last ride in this area was the Badger Pass Trail loop. Take Highway 159 to Highway 160, and turn right. The trailhead will be in approximately 5 miles.
We rode .7 miles along a dirt road that paralleled Highway 159 before turning left onto the Badger Pass Trail loop. This 8-mile loop seemed more remote than the Landmine Trail, but it’s gentle and easy, with mostly sandy terrain and welldesigned switchbacks.
End of the Trail
We ended our visit at Bonnie Springs Ranch by having dinner at the lodge. The meal was beautifully garnished and well prepared. We had a wonderful time, with a delicious dinner, rustic ambience, and a view of the turtle pond outside.
We felt fortunate that 63 years ago, a wise woman with a strong love of the West had the foresight to establish such a place for equestrians, animal lovers, and historians of Western lore.
Suddenly, we both noticed an elderly woman being helped out of her wheelchair and onto a barstool. A drink was placed in front of her. This well-groomed lady had a special aura. We wondered aloud, “Could it be…?”
Yes, it was! Bonnie McGaugh, 93 years old, was still alive and having her evening toddy. We happily visited with her for a while, basking in the warmth of her brightblue eyes and listening to her stories.
Life is good. Sometimes, it gets even better.
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 [email protected]