Perhaps you've seen those T-shirts, the ones that say, "The horse is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy"? I know a group of women who take those words as a universal truth and set out several times a year to prove it.
Dedicated readers of The Trail Rider, our group of friends never runs out of ideas on where to ride. Last year's choice was Fort Robinson State Park in the northwestern corner of Nebraska. A closer study of the map revealed its close proximity to both Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. So the plan was made.
June was chosen in hopes of avoiding the summer heat. Trails were measured and mapped, lists of equipment and supplies typed, printed, and distributed. Past issues of The Trail Rider provided good lists of daily supplies and emergency equipment to be packed. There was also a good article on trailer safety that I memorized before the trip.
Riders and horses - including a Morgan, a mule, an Arabian, a Missouri Fox Trotter, a Paint Horse, and assorted Quarter Horses, ages 4 to 21 - began conditioning in February. There was no way to duplicate the altitude we would experience, but our leisurely drive and two-day layover in Nebraska seemed to be enough time to acclimate before we reached the higher altitudes.
Sharing Local History
While on the road, we used walkie-talkies to keep in touch with other vehicles in our caravan. This arrangement was practical and fun. We spent the first night of our 620-mile journey at the fairgrounds in Ogallala, Nebraska. Jeanie Borgraden met us and showed us the horse accommodations: small indoor stalls and rodeo pens, with plenty of room, plus water nearby. We were able to lock the area for the night. The ladies spent the night in the local hotel.
By the next afternoon, we pulled into beautiful, historic Fort Robinson, Nebraska, elevation 3,380 feet. What a welcoming sight! Well-kept grounds and beautifully restored military buildings greeted us. There's a museum at the fort well worth a visit. Nearby Crawford is home to The Ranch House Restaurant that serves very good drinks and meals.
The Fort Robinson stables were clean and beautiful. We had reserved stalls for our group and were asked to clean our own, just like home! The restored brick floors and interiors were quite comfortable, and water spigots were centrally located.
A big yard provided plenty of room to turn around and park the trailers. There was also plenty of room for us to park by our cabin, about one-third of a mile away. The women all stayed in the very roomy, restored officers' quarters. There were not, however, enough mirrors for 10 women!
Our first ride at Fort Robinson was made much more interesting by a group of riders familiar with the area who graciously invited us to ride with them. They shared local history and pointed out the "ladies club" the officers kept.
Our guides also warned us of a local varmint known as "nose flies" that like to fly up the horses' nostrils and sting them. At first, we were skeptical and jokingly accused them of getting out-of-towners to tie bandanas on their horses' noses. But the next day, riders turned back after just a half hour because of nose flies.
The terrain was moderately steep, a little rocky, and very open with sensational vistas, due to past forest fires.
The next morning, we again rode along the bluff overlooking the fort, then packed and drove on toward South Dakota. We felt honored to see Native American riders along the highway, an annual ride in memory of Chief Crazy Horse, who was killed at Fort Robinson.
Rocky Ride to Rushmore
Heading to our next stop - Mount Rushmore KOA campground and the Palmer Gulch Lodge, we drove through Custer State Park, where buffalo grazed along the road's edge. Palmer Gulch is nestled in the pines near the Peter Norbeck Wildlife Preserve on Highway 244, between Hill City and Mount Rushmore.
The moment we pulled in, we were greeted by very friendly hosts. The horses had small pipe corrals which proved inadequately drained, but the manager kindly refunded part of our money. We stayed in a large cabin. There was a fire ring where we spent most nights recounting our adventures.
Our first ride started at a trailhead from the campground leading to Harney Peak, elevation 7,242 feet, the highest point between the East Coast and the Rocky Mountains. This was a tough ride, steep and rocky. Horses would normally be shod for this ride. My horse, Clue, wore Old Mac boots on his front feet, which worked out very well. The other horses slipped some on the rocks. The breathtaking views of the surrounding forests and hills were incredible.
The second day, we rode from our campground to Mount Rushmore! I can't begin to describe the thrill of rounding a mountain trail and having those magnificent sculptures pop into view. This ride was long, challenging, and absolutely worth all the hours spent conditioning my horses. We left our horses tied to sturdy hitching rails in the shade with our guides, while we took lots of photographs.
The next day we were blessed…rain! We went shopping in nearby Hill City and loaded up on cowgirl bling. We also did some laundry in the camp wash and shower house.
Steel Magnolia Adventures
The next day, we trailered to nearby Custer State Park to ride French Creek. What a beautiful spot - a valley with a crisp, rocky-bottomed creek running through it and an abundance of flora and fauna. We thoroughly enjoyed crossing French Creek 32 times.
This was our third and last day with our guides, Dave and Harold, both retired local gentlemen who spend many of their days trail riding. They saved us valuable time by knowing the roads and trails. After three days of riding with our group, the Steel Magnolias, I think they were ready to retire again!
Our last ride was at Deerfield Lake. We were threatened by stormy weather, but enjoyed the beautiful lake just the same. The trails were very well-marked and groomed.
This was a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime ride. I recommend it unconditionally. We were exhausted and happy all the way home.