Trail Ride in Southern Utah

Winter is the perfect time to ride in the desert solitude of Southern Utah. One of our favorite areas is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which has scenic deserts and spectacular canyons.
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Winter is a great time to go trail riding or on a pack trip, if you know where to go. One good winter destination is Southern Utah. My wife, Nancy, and I actually look forward to winter since discovering this area.

You’ll avoid deep snow; in fact, you might not find any snow at all. You’ll also avoid the summer crowds.

We like to go between January and March. In January, we’re usually stir-crazy, and ready to get out of the house. February is usually is a bit warmer than January.

March is very nice, because it is warmer and the days are getting longer. However, beginning mid-March, the crowds start coming, and the solitude starts disappearing. 

Trip Planning

The general area we like to go to is the region south of Interstate 70 and east of Interstate 15. This is high-desert country with an elevation of approximately 5,000 feet above sea level. 

One of our favorite areas is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which has scenic deserts and spectacular canyons.

We also enjoy riding in the upper Pirea River area, Grand Gulch, and other Cedar Mesa canyons. There, you’ll find Anasazi ruins, pictographs, and petroglyphs.

Other canyons hold historic pioneer and cowboy sites. Arches, waterfalls, springs, cliffs, plants, and wildlife abound. You could spend a lifetime and not see everything. Decide on your specific destination, then call the appropriate land manager (such as the Bureau of Land Management or the United States Forest Service) for rules, regulations, and any required permits for trail riding and horse camping.

Many of the areas restrict the size of your party and number of livestock, and don’t allow fires. Some areas prohibit grazing and require that you pack in certified weed-free feed.

It’s important to obey the rules to help protect the wilderness environment and to help keep out the welcome mat for horses. Always practice “leave no trace” camping when in the backcountry or wilderness. 

Winter Rewards

Riding is just one of the many rewards for braving a little cool weather. Another is the breathtaking scenery Southern Utah has to offer and experiencing the solitude of the desert environment.

Food is another thing we really enjoy. Some of our favorite meals are Dutch oven pizza, beef roasted underground in a Dutch oven, and barbecued ribs with baked potatoes and campfire corn.

Long slumbers are another favorite activity. In wintertime, the sun goes down early and comes up late. A nap in a warm sleeping bag from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. isn’t uncommon.

These trips are also a photographer’s paradise. We usually come home with a few hundred pictures so we can relive the adventure.

Do you love a good book? Dave, my longtime packing partner, always has a Louis L’Amour novel in his saddlebag and loves to just sit and read in the afternoon sun.

Another enjoyable aspect is spending quality time with your horse — brushing, feeding, watering, and generally keeping an eye on him.

We ride Missouri Fox Trotters, because they’re comfortable and have that extra-smooth fast gear when we have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

My horse, Powerstroke, is a 13-year-old gelding. My wife’s horse, Lucky, is an 18-year-old gelding. We like to ride the Fox Trotters and pack mules. If you don’t have mules, horses are also great for packing. 

A Four-Day Trip

There are two ways to enjoy a trip. You can simply set up camp at a trailhead and just do day rides. Or, you can take pack stock and ride into the backcountry. We prefer to pack in. Following is typical of our favored four-day trip.

Day 1: We pack up at home the day before, hit the road early, and drive to the trailhead. We usually enjoy lunch at a local cafe in a small town somewhere along the way.

We like to get to the trailhead by noon. We then saddle up the horses, load up the pack stock, and head down the trail. We choose campsites that are usually a two- to five-hour ride, so we can get to camp and pitch tents before dark. This becomes our base camp for the trip. Moving camp every day is too much work.

We choose base camps that offer areas to explore and interesting places to ride.

Day 2: No need to get up too early. I like getting up after I can smell the bacon somebody else is cooking. We take turns cooking a hot breakfast and a hot dinner in camp with propane stoves or over a campfire. Lunch is packed in a saddlebag and eaten cold on the trail.

This is an exploring day. We usually hit the trail by noon, which allows us to ride for several hours.

Day 3: This is another exploring day and is pretty much a repeat of Day 2. I really enjoy getting up in the wilderness and going to bed in the wilderness.

Day 4: This is pack up, pack out, and drive home day. We traditionally end our trips with a hot meal at one of the local cafes in a small town on the way home. We enjoy meeting the locals and giving them a little business.

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