Last November, we journeyed across the western half of Texas. During our trip of discovery, we found incredible places to ride our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate.
West Texas has a grandeur all its own. Terrain ranges from high-altitude mountains to cactus-studded deserts. Here, we’ll take you on a riding and camping tour of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Davis Mountains State Park, and San Angelo State Park.
A Diverse Landscape
The Guadalupe Mountains provide some of the most diverse landscape in all of Texas. As you ride, you’ll experience amazing differences in plant and animal life, with elevations in the park ranging from 3,689 feet at the gypsum dunes to 8,749 feet on Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas.
The Guadalupe Mountains are part of an ancient marine fossil reef that was under a vast ocean around 265 million years ago. International geologists come here to study these mountains, regarded as one of the world’s best examples of Middle Permian geology.
If you’ll be staying overnight, get a free backcountry use permit at the visitor center. Corrals and camping are available near the visitor center by Frijole Ranch and at the more remote Dog Canyon.
We stayed at the Frijole Ranch corrals. This camp includes four corrals, water, picnic tables, two hitching rails, bathrooms, two tent spots, and trailer parking. Its proximity to the Foothills, Frijole, and El Capitan Trails makes it an ideal location.
Wind can be a real problem in the Guadalupe area. Spring is the windiest time, with speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Late fall and early winter are the least windy times of year. As it turned out, our rides were limited, due to wind.
The Frijole and Foothills Trails form a loop and provide a good introduction to the region. These are easy trails through gullies and flats to the base of Frijole Ridge. Trails wind through agave, prickly pear cacti, chollas, yucca, and sotol.
The El Capitan and Salt Basin Trails are moderately difficult. These trails take off from the visitor center and travel around the southern end of El Capitan Peak. You’ll enjoy southern views that stretch for 100 miles or more, because of the crystal clear air.
Keep an eye out for javelina, lizards, snakes, coyotes, and mule deer. Even the calmest horse might spook when a chunky, bristly javelina comes zooming from the brush and across the trail!
You may also see elk, although they tend to inhabit higher elevations. The area’s original elk herd was hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. Present-day elk are descended from elk brought in from Wyoming and South Dakota during the 1920s.
Before leaving the park, we visited the Frijole Ranch, located less than a mile from the corrals. This historic site contains several buildings; the first one was built in 1876. A number of ranchers lived here until the park service bought the site in 1966.
These folks were tough! We were in awe of the enormous amount of challenges these early ranchers faced on a daily basis to survive in a semi-desert zone.
We loaded up the horses and drove southeast toward the town of Fort Davis under a cobalt Texas sky. The Davis Mountains, a delightful mountain range, is home to Fort Davis and Davis Mountains State Park, our next destination.
Our approach led Cowboy and Nate to think they might be heading home to Montana! This is the most extensive mountain range in Texas, formed through volcanic activity 65 million years ago.
This region can receive snowfall in the winter and has hot, simmering summer days. Fall and spring are the best times to ride and camp here.
On one side of the highway, Davis Mountains State Park has camping, lodging, restaurants, and a swimming pool. A quiet, peaceful primitive horse camp is on the other side of the highway with six equestrian sites.
When we were there, a small creek flowed through the campground; we don’t know if it flows year-round.
From this camp, you can take a one-day ride with side trips that lead into the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area. Our horses worked steadily uphill through rocky terrain on a good trail that snaked its way up the hillside.
After 2.6 miles, we came to a junction. From here, you can ride 1.5 miles in one direction, return, and ride 1.3 miles in the other direction.
As we rode along, the terrain became increasingly interspersed with a pinon, juniper, and oak woodland. Our horses noticed (but thankfully ignored) a band of wild javelina skirting through brush, seemingly following us on our journey.
At the end of the last trail, you’ll find a grand overlook. Views are endless and sublime.
This is a wonderful place to stop and soak in the scenery with your equine partner. The Davis Mountains will unfold below you like an accordion. Look for the Chinati Mountains 50 miles to the southwest.
Just north of the equestrian camp, at the intersection of Highways 17 and 118, a horse concession once operated. From here, we rode our horses across the highway and south, following the canyon along Limpia Creek.
On this ride, we discovered a treasure in the form of enormous, old cottonwood trees. Some were six feet in diameter at the base. Gigantic arms, festooned with golden bangles, reached outward and made an arch under which we could ride. Restless leaves wove an Amarillo gown; this mighty queen was decked for the autumn ball.
If you go to this region, be wary of ear ticks. We noticed Cowboy was drooping his ears and shaking his head. A local veterinarian told us Cowboy was infested with 16 ear ticks! We learned the best defense is to spray tick repellent around the horses’ ears before riding.
For Western-history buffs, you can’t beat nearby Fort Davis National Historic Site. This fort, in operation from 1854 to 1891, was a key post in the defense system of west Texas and played a major role in the history of the Southwest.
‘Space and Quiet’
San Angelo State Park, located adjacent to the City of San Angelo, is a West Texas treasure. Its richness lies in its diversity of natural and cultural features.
Sprawling across almost 8,000 acres, the park features rolling plains, a plateau, an aquatic habitat, a variety of birds and animals, Permian fossil tracks, and early Native American petroglyphs and pictographs.
We arrived on a sunny November afternoon. The temperature hovered at a comfortable 80 degrees. Cowboy and Nate both had a negative Coggins test (for equine infectious anemia) within the last 12 months, a park requirement.
North Concho Campground is a lovely equestrian camp with all the amenities, including shade trees and one or two corrals per camping unit. (Our boys thought the pens should’ve been bigger.)
“The trails and people here are wonderful,” related Sharon Olson, our enthusiastic volunteer park host. “I see deer, turkeys, javelinas, and armadillos. There’s lots of space and quiet, and every ride is different.”
The park offers more than 50 miles of trails divided into multiuse, hiker-biker, and hiker-equestrian trails. At the park entrance, you can buy a color-coded trail map designed by the nonprofit, volunteer organization, Friends of San Angelo State Park. This map also shows where water troughs, restrooms, and picnic areas are located.
Our first ride was along the aptly named Shady Trail. Pecan, cottonwood, and hackberry trees hugged the trail. Our ride was relaxing — no noise, no other people, just us and our equine friends.
Shady Trail intersects numerous times with the Direct Route Trail that connects Bell’s Trail to Burkett Trailhead. Trail spurs led us to Ghost Camp (an abandoned camp that had seen better days) and over to Javelina Trail.
Finally, we reached Cougar Outlook, a high point that offered an expansive view of the river and former reservoir. Here, we found sheltered picnic tables and hitching rails. We enjoyed lunch while watching birds swooping and gliding below.
Once again, we were struck by the silent peacefulness; the only sounds were the birds’ chirps and calls.
After leaving Cougar Outlook, our next stop was the fanciful creation of Flintstone Village Trail. Although Fred and Wilma weren’t at home, their rock table and chairs were there, ready for use.
Our next ride was the Dinosaur Trail, edged with luxurious foliage, dancing butterflies, and cooing doves. Time sped by way too quickly on this easy loop ride.
At the outer end of the loop, look for the water trough and hitching rail. Tie your horse, go over the fence, and hike to the old creek bed. There, you’ll find rare, 250-million-year-old fossil tracks made by a pre-dinosaur animal called a synapsid.
On this ride, we had the pleasure of meeting Linda Ashton, a friend of our park host and a member of the Friends of San Angelo State Park. Members help promote the park and work tirelessly to protect its uniqueness.
We had time to ride only in the park’s north side. If we’re ever in West Texas again, we’ll explore the southern portion. We enjoyed every moment riding in West Texas!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.