We are two women from Wisconsin who are crazy about trail riding. My friend, Phyllis Anderson, grew up in the cornfields of Nebraska riding ponies. Unfortunately, Phyllis got married and took 46 years off from riding with the exception of an annual trek to visit her brother near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and to ride the Grand Tetons.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and raise Morgans and "Mor-Asses" (Morgan-bred mules). The herd had grown large, so three years ago, a mutual friend suggested that Phyllis might find a horse to ride.
Phyllis fell in love with Charlie, nicknamed "the couch" for his smooth gaits. He's now 19 years old. His half-brother, Higgins, turned 3 years old just one month prior to this trip. He has exceptional physical and mental strength, which convinced me that he'd handle the mountains.
I first rode in the Rocky Mountains in August 2001. Every summer thereafter, I returned to ride the Rockies: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Montana. It was time to return to South Dakota and Wyoming. Phyllis had the time available.
Black Hills Trails
Broken Arrow Campground is a new horse camp near Custer, South Dakota; it's surrounded by the Black Hills National Forest. It offers covered pens, full hookups, trail access from camp, plus a rental trailer to get to other trailheads.
The Black Hills area has miles of marked, fairly easy trails. We rode three hours from the campground to the Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park for lunch.
Another day, we hauled 24 miles to the Willow Creek Trailhead on Highway 244. From there, we rode Trail #9 to Harney Peak (elevation 7,242 feet), which took 2½ hours. Harney Peak is a historic fire lookout that offers spectacular views.
The final mile has numerous switchbacks and rocks, but isn't dangerous. Near the top are rope tie rails to secure horses. We hiked the rest of the way on stone and then metal stairs. It was worth the ride!
We took another day ride from the Iron Creek Trailhead on the north side of Custer State Park heading north on the Centennial Trail #89 and then to Blackberry Trail to Mount Rushmore, which took two hours. The last half-mile is steep and requires climbing over and around large rocks, but it's doable!
At Mount Rushmore (www.mtrushmore.net), there are pipe rails to tie horses located in a secluded area at the far edge of the gravel parking lot. I'd advise driving rather than riding to fully tour the monument and museum. We continued from Mount Rushmore north on the Centennial Trail to Big Pine Trailhead on Highway 244, which took 2½ hours.
We spent Phyllis' 68th birthday in a helicopter touring the Black Hills sites: Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, Horse Thief Lake, Cathedral Spires, Harney Peak, and a herd of buffalo. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to explore in Custer and Hill City.
On To Wyoming
After a week in the Black Hills, we hauled to the Bighorn National Forest west of Buffalo, Wyoming. Our horses had no problem adjusting to the high altitude (7,000 to 10,600 feet).
Our day rides consisted of long loops through the mountains. We rode south about a half-mile on Forest Rd. #24 from Battle Park Trailhead to the first all-terrain-vehicle trailhead going east toward Misty Moon Lake. Near Misty Moon Lake, we connected with the Solitude Lake Trail to loop back to Battle Park Trailhead (a nine-hour loop). We saw glacial lakes, stunning waterfalls, and patches of snow on the mountaintops. Wildlife included elk, deer, moose, and an owl.
Our longest day started at 6:20 a.m. from Hunter Trailhead. We headed up the trail to Florence Pass at 11:00 a.m. Our easy trail became dangerous, with 10-inch talus (broken rock) and big boulders. Time constraints made us backtrack towards camp. We took an hour-long side trip up Trail #24 to view Seven Brothers (a chain of seven glacial lakes) and returned to camp at 4:45 p.m., just ahead of the outfitter strings.
This is magnificent country, but plan ahead. Call ranger districts and camps for more information. Know your and your horse's abilities and needs. Higgins wore front shoes only. Charlie wore four shoes, but nearly wore out his front ones. Next time, I'll take a spare pair of front shoes with borium for each animal. Carry emergency supplies, and get contact information in advance for area veterinarians and farriers.
On the way back to Wisconsin, I turned 50 years old. On my mind were more riding adventures. Seize the opportunity to live life to the fullest!
For more information on Broken Arrow Campground, call (605) 673-4471, or visit www.brokenarrowcampground.com. For more on the Black Hills National Forest, call (605) 673-9200, or visit www.fs.fed.us/r2/blackhills. For more on the Bighorn Mountains, call (307) 674-2600, or visit www.fs.fed.us/r2/bighorn.