Take a ride on America’s wild side
by Matthew Beattie
The West was won on horseback, and riding skills have been central to the culture of Wyoming since before the first ranchers began settling the region in the mid-nineteenth century. A horseback riding tour is still one of the most enjoyable – and rewarding – ways of getting off the beaten track to explore the stunning natural landscapes of this unique and wild part of America.
Wyoming is the ninth largest US state, yet it is the least populous after Alaska with just 6.03 residents per square mile (in contrast, neighboring Colorado has 52). It is home to two national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton – and eight national forests. As a result, Wyoming boasts some of the most pristine landscapes in the United States and a dizzying array of wildlife, including black bear, gray wolf, bobcat, mountain lion, bison, elk and big horn sheep. It is this natural beauty and solitude that makes the region such a special place to visit.
A female Grizzly bear with her cubs.
The price of popularity
By far the best known of Wyoming’s natural wonders are the hissing geysers, bubbling mud pots and geothermal lakes at the heart of Yellowstone National Park. Covering 2.2 million acres of wilderness, Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the world’s very first national park. It has been captivating visitors ever since and its popularity is growing. According to the US National Park Service, Yellowstone recorded 4.1 million visitors in 2018, making it the sixth most visited national park in America. Yet stray beyond the scenic highways, campsites and popular tourist attractions and it is still easy to enjoy splendid isolation and scenery that has remained unchanged for millennia.
A glimpse into the past
Yellowstone National Park and a significant portion of Wyoming form the heart of what is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems left on Earth. Spanning three states and comprising around 20 million acres of national parks, forests and government land, the ecosystem is one of the last remainders of the temperate forests that covered vast swaths of North America and Europe before humans transformed the landscape forever. It is therefore hugely significant and one of the world’s most important areas for researching landscape ecology.
One of many breathtaking waterfalls in the Yellowstone National Park.
A lesser-known gem
Bighorn National Forest is one of the forests that make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is situated in north-central Wyoming, some four hours’ drive east of Yellowstone National Park. Among its 189,000 acres of wilderness perfection, you will find alpine meadows, glacial valleys, mountain cliffs and verdant grasslands – as well as some 1,200 miles of scenic trails that just beg to be explored. It is a paradise for fans of mountain biking and long-distance hiking. However, there is another – rather more traditional – transport option that is well worth considering.
Wyoming has a long and proud tradition of horsemanship that began with the early pioneers and continues to this day in the official state sport of rodeo. Wyoming is sometimes known as “The Cowboy State” and even its vehicle license plates feature a bucking bronco. It is safe to say that horses are celebrated more here than almost anywhere else in America, so what better way to explore this wilderness state than on horseback?
Boom and bust
Wyoming’s association with cowboys began with the start of the cattle boom in the late 1860s. Cattle ranchers – and the cowboys they employed to look after their herds – were drawn to the region in significant numbers through a combination of affordable government land, rich year-round grazing on the range and access to distant beef markets courtesy of a new railroad. Ranchers made vast fortunes, in turn attracting more ranchers and cowboys to the area in what became a bubble of speculation. Ultimately, the boom lasted for less than twenty years, before an unusually harsh winter and collapsing beef prices saw Wyoming’s status as a major beef producer plummet. Many ranches disappeared or were absorbed into others, while some diversified to become “dude ranches” that offered an authentic western experience to well heeled tourists from the city (who were known as “dudes” in early western parlance).
A horseback riding paradise
Visitors follow the wrangler into the sunset of Wyoming.
One of the most famous of these dude ranches is the historic Eatons’ Ranch at Wolf Creek, on the edge of the Bighorn National Forest. Unlike many of its counterparts, Eatons’ Ranch began taking paying guests at the height of the cattle boom in 1879. It has remained under the ownership of the Eaton family ever since and is now in the hands of the fourth and fifth generations. It offers a blend of modern comfort and traditional western hospitality, while the family also continues to raise cattle and horses on its 7,000 acres. Guests to the ranch are encouraged to ride often and can choose their steeds from a herd of 220 horses. All equipment is provided and there are wranglers on hand to offer expert training and guidance, should you be a novice or a bit rusty on riding technique.
European visitors might notice some differences between riding here and back home. Early cowboys and ranchers developed a unique – western – style of riding that better suited the difficult terrain and long hours that came with herding cattle on the range, and it remains the standard in this part of the world to this day. Saddles are notably larger than their European counterparts, to help spread the weight of the rider over the horse’s back and make it more comfortable for longer distances, while reins are traditionally held in the left hand. This leaves the rider’s right hand free for other tasks, such as lassoing a steer (or taking a photo of some of that stunning Wyoming scenery).
A wealth of places to explore
With 7,000 acres of ranch land to explore, there is plenty to see right on your doorstep. Ride unaccompanied or let one of the wranglers share their extensive knowledge of the area with a guided tour. You can ride mornings, afternoons and evenings most days, with more limited options at weekends to allow the horses a rest on Sunday afternoons.
Your hosts will also be happy to organize a longer riding tour, if you wish. Guided full-day horseback tours of the Bighorn National Forest are very popular with guests, but for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, why not consider a packhorse tour over several days?
Unleash your inner pioneer
With your living essentials loaded onto packhorses, you and your guide will set out on horseback to explore deep into the wilderness. Meander past trickling mountain streams or along bosky forest trails, stopping along the way to enjoy a picnic lunch with a view that feels like it is all yours. Then, as the sun sinks toward the horizon, set up camp for the night and enjoy a drink, while your wrangler cooks a delicious dinner over the open campfire. Over the course of your adventure, modern life will slip ever further away as you discover a more natural pace – and experience the timeless bond of humans and horses living and working together in perfect harmony.
At one with nature
Winston Churchill put it best when he said, “When you are on a great horse, you have the best seat you will ever have.” Go riding in Wyoming and you will have the best seat in the house for some of the most spectacular scenery on earth.