Hey There, All you Buckaroos: Wilderness Horsepack Trips in the Northern Rockies

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Hey There, All you Buckaroos: Wilderness Horsepack Trips in the Northern Rockies
By Nancy Debevoise

On the first morning of my first wilderness horsepack trip, I awoke to the murmur of voices and the crackle of the campfire outside my tent. As I unzipped the flap to peer at the world, a gloved paw reached around the side of the tent and tucked a mug of hot coffee into my hand. With that one gesture, all my trepidation about saddle sores, snow squalls, and short rations vanished. Clearly, one can find comfort--even luxury--on a wilderness pack trip, not to mention the thrill of exploring pristine Rockies backcountry in a time-honored fashion--a cowboy fantasy come to life.

Guided horsepack trips are ideal for families who love the idea of exploring wild country but cringe at the thought of shouldering a heavy pack, eating freeze-dried glop, and relying on topo maps to get them in and out of unfamiliar territory. It's easier to ride up and down steep trails than it is to hike them, especially for children, and packing gear on horses provides luxuries that backpackers can only dream about: fresh food, roomy tents, camp chairs, and wood stoves. Best of all, you're in the company of cowboys who know the turf intimately and can share hours of campfire stories about the terrain, the critters, and the local legends.

Most outfitters will book families with children as young as six, but kids who are a little older and stronger will probably have a better time--as will their parents. Teenagers discover they can survive quite easily sans telephones and TVs, while adults find that the camaraderie of the trail can smooth over a surprising variety of parent-child rifts.
Backcountry horsepack trips aren't for everyone. The vast mountain preserves of the Rockies are wild and remote; it takes some long days in the saddle to earn access to their farther reaches. But if you're in reasonable shape and willing to learn some new moves, horsepacking can be a memorable family adventure. The following outfitters all provide kid-friendly guides, mountain-wise horses, and comfortable camps.

Allen's Diamond Four Ranch Wilderness Outfitting
Lander, Wyoming

The Diamond Four's pack trips roam 100,000 acres of high country in Wyoming's storied Wind River Range, home to the largest active glaciers in the Lower 48.

Outfitter Jim Allen schedules a variety of specialty trips each summer, ranging from custom family outings to "Long Rider" adventures that teach adults and teenagers basic horsepacking and low-impact camping skills. Trips vary from four to 14 days in length, take as few as four guests, and are tailored to the group's riding abilities and interests.

Most trips head into the Popo Agie Wilderness along the Continental Divide, site of some of the Rockies's most remote high country. One popular destination is the Cirque of the Towers, a semicircle of 12,000-foot granite spires that soar into the sky around Lonesome Lake.

Campsites are near streams for fishing and bathing, and offer a number of choices for hikes, picnics, and day rides. In addition to two-person domed tents with large rain flies, camps are equipped with a canvas wall tent and small wood stove.

The Diamond Four's season runs from June through September. Standard group pack-trip rates are $160 per day for adults and $120 per day for kids under 18. The outfitter recommends that children be at least seven years old. Call 307-332-2995 for information and reservations.

Lass and Ron Mills Outfitting
Augusta, Montana

These guides teach conservation ethics on their five- to eight-day wilderness pack trips-ideal for families who like to learn as well as play on their vacations. Most trips include a variety of hands-on nature activities, and some are accompanied by a geologist, botanist, historian, or fly-fishing expert.

The classroom is Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness, which sprawls over more than a million acres of roadless high country that includes the Rocky Mountain Front and the Continental Divide. The trips visit dramatic sites like the Chinese Wall, an immense limestone reef that rises above the landscape like a giant tidal wave. "The Bob" is home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bald and golden eagles, black bears, elk, and moose - and more-elusive creatures like wolves, wolverines, cougars, and grizzly bears. Longer trips include as many as five days in camp; most families spend these layover days fishing in nearby streams, hiking to fossil sites and old homesteads, or heading off on sunset rides to scenic lookouts.

Nine trips are scheduled between June 10 and September 2; children as young as six are welcome. Rates are $185 per day for adults and $150 per day for each child under 18 accompanied by two adults. Call 406-562-3335 for information and reservations.

A. J. Brink Outfitters
Gypsum, Colorado

This 30-year veteran guides eight-day pack trips into pristine alpine terrain that ranges from 10,000 to 13,000 feet in altitude. One of the favorites is the Maroon Bells area of Colorado's Snowmass Wilderness, with seven peaks over 14,000 feet, impressive big-game herds, and spectacular Schofield Basin, "the flower garden of the Rockies."

On moving days, riders spend an average of five hours in the saddle. Still, it's not an endurance contest; plenty of stops are scheduled for short hikes and picnics to break up the ride. And most trips include three layover days, giving parents and kids a chance to ride or hike to nearby peaks and lakes, stalk wild trout in area streams, and explore abandoned mining towns. Camps are cushy by wilderness packers' standards, with roomy canvas sleeping tents and a large wall tent that keeps cooks, wranglers, and guests warm, dry, and out of the weather.

Three trips depart for Maroon Bells between July 22 and August 16; rates are $880 per person for eight days. While it is recommended that kids be at least ten years old, children as young as seven are welcome if they have at least some riding experience. Call 970-435-5707 for additional information and reservations.

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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