June 30, 2007
Filed under Destinations
Thundering hooves pounding across the prairie. Untamed manes flying in
the wind. Wild Horses have always invoked romantic images of the
wide-open frontier. They are the ultimate symbol of freedom. What horse
lover has not read one of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books? Our
imagination was instantly keyed when we heard of the Pilot Butte Wild
Horse Scenic Loop Tour in Wyoming.
Horses first roamed the grasslands of North America during the
Pleistocene Epoch about 10,000 years ago. Then, for unknown reasons,
they vanished until the 1500s, when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish
Conquistadors reintroduced them. The lineage of those Spanish steeds,
however, has been greatly diluted. Today’s herds come from U.S. Calvary,
ranchers and perhaps a few from Native Americans. The potpourri of
breeds include thoroughbred, Morgan, Belgian Draft, Bashkir Curly,
Standard Breed, Arabian, Bashkir Curly, Pinto, Appaloosa, Quarter and
several workhorse breeds. There are even some Clydesdales mixed in. The
result is the classic wild horse — big, strong, beautiful and, well,
Figuring that finding a band of horses in the 392,000-acre Rock Springs
District area might take days, we contacted Richard Nobles. Nobles
happens to have the only license to guide people into the Rock Springs
District backcountry. While there is a fair chance of seeing a few
horses on the main Loop, the larger herds are more often located in
canyons and draws where water and better grass are in abundance. Side
roads to these locations are rugged two-tracks which sometimes require
4WD. There are dozens of possibilities, so having a knowledgeable guide
greatly increases your chances of spotting larger herds.
The White Mountain Horse Herd is managed by the Bureau of Land
Management, and the population can increase as much as 40 percent in a
good year. Wild horses have no natural predators other than the
occasional mountain lion. The Wyoming population of wild horses is
around 6,000 — 2,500 of which roam the Rock Springs District traversed
by the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop Tour. The BLM conducts a
periodic census and removes animals that could result in over grazing
and death from starvation, dehydration and the elements.
We climbed into Nobles’s 1975 Pinzgauer and headed across the top
of White Mountain. After several dead-ends, Rich maneuvered his 4WD
troop carrier across some deep arroyos we weren’t even sure our own 4WD
Tortuga Expedition Camper could manage gracefully. We parked and
stealthily walked up to a ridge.
There they were! More than 100 gorgeous animals in 10-to-12-strong
bands. The moment the lead stallion spotted us, the alert was sounded.
The head mare leads, and the dominant male protects the rear. As the
different pods galloped up an embankment and across the sage brush, we
stood with mouths open and shutters clicking. Two big stallions stopped
briefly to re-establish who was boss. Even Nobles was surprised at how
many we had found in one place. It was an exciting experience, and
Nobles’s knowledge of the area and the herd was invaluable.
Returning to Green River, we were anxious to do some exploring on our
own. We continued on Interstate 80 to Rock Springs, and took 191 to the
northern start of the Loop Tour. Several scenic overlooks had
informative plaques describing some of the area’s prominent features
such as Pilot Butte, Boar’s Tusk, Killpecker Sand Dunes and the Uinta,
Wind River and Wyoming mountain ranges. The Uinta Mountain Range is
unique because it is the only range in America trending east to west.
The Wind River range contains the oldest rocks in North America, pushed
up from a fault 17 miles below the surface some 3.9 billion years ago.
The Wyoming Range is the highest in the state.
As we drove along, we watched for piles of horse droppings. A
dominant stallion stud will mark his territory repeatedly in this way,
clearly advising intruders that “this is my home — and my bathroom.”
While horses are the focus here, we also kept an eye out for antelope,
desert elk, deer and coyotes. Hawks, eagles and sage grouse can also
frequently be spotted.
Turning off on one of the numerous side trails, we drove about a
mile through a sea of pungent sage and wildflowers. An occasional rabbit
dashed in front of us. Our view encompassed an area larger than
Massachusetts. Stopping on a low bluff where an existing fire ring
showed we were not the first people in these parts, we couldn’t see the
main road or any sign of anyone in any direction. We pulled out the
barbecue, set up chairs and waited for what would be a spectacular
sunset. A few antelope grazed nearby, and a small band of horses huddled
for the night on the next ridge. The silence was palpable.
The Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop Tour starts in either Rock
Springs or Green River Wyoming, just off Interstate 80; totals about 50
miles, with roughly 24 miles of gravel; and takes about 2-1/2 hours to
drive. While the Loop can be traveled in any type of vehicle, the gravel
section is maintained only from May to October, and high-clearance
vehicles are recommended. That said, we found the road to be in
excellent condition, quite passable for cars, large RVs or even trailers
— but be sure to check before you head out. There are no services on
the route, and cell-phone reception is sketchy at best.
A small herd had moved closer in the morning, perhaps out of
curiosity. We watched as we sipped hot coffee. Thanks to private land
owners who do not fence their property, horses and other wildlife are
allowed to wander freely as necessary for food, water and shelter from
As we slowly returned to the gravel main route, a stallion, mare
and her colt crossed nervously in front of us. The beauty and freedom of
the Wild West was very much still alive, indeed.