Jan’s Pack Trip into the Blue Wilderness Area – New Mexico / Arizona

by Hidden Trails 03/26/2008

Explore the Blue Mountains on Horseback

This spring I decided to take a pack trip somewhere in New Mexico. I looked in my equestrian magazine and saw a trip in the Southwest of New Mexico. They promptly answered my email and allowed me to bring my own horse. Since I had no experience with a professional outfitter, I didn’t have any idea what to expect. The contact suggested several times that I should ride one of their horses, however I had visions of dude ranch horses that would only stay head to tail and were dull and lifeless. I also didn’t trust that the horse would come away from the string if necessary, so I insisted on bringing my own horse. I chose my most broke, most calm & experienced trail horse, my 13 year old, Missouri Foxtrotter mare Easter. I could trust her in any situation.
The trip was over 900 miles from my home in Kansas. I made reservations to stay at Tucumcari, New Mexico at the Empty Saddle RV Park. Tucumcari was the half way point for me. The Empty Saddle was a nice safe place to stay with a horse. They had electric and water hookup and a large pen for the horse. It was close to a Kmart, Conoco and a motel and had easy access on and off two major highways (54 and 40). The owners live there on the premises so you are not left alone if there aren’t other campers.

I chose late April/early May because the days were warm (mid 70s to low 80s) and the nights were cool (mid 40s) and not much chance for rain. Jim will take people to different elevations depending on the time of the year. This trip we camped at around 6000 feet but rode up over 9000 feet. We actually got to ride two states in one week. We rode New Mexico and Arizona.

When I arrived, Jim, my guide for the trip, provided a nice pen to put my horse complete with hay and fresh water and fixed me a hamburger since I only stopped for gas and didn’t take time to eat. The place is on top of a mesa with beautiful mountain views all the way around as far as a person can see. That part of New Mexico is very desolate and cell phones do not work. You have to have satellite phones. Also, when traveling across New Mexico there can be 80 miles of NOTHING between towns, so it is a good idea to get gas every chance you can.

Monday, we loaded up in Jim’s trailer and headed for the trail head. All I had to bring was my sleeping bag, air mattress, clothes and personal items. They provided food for me and feed for my horse and a tent. Everything was packed on Jim’s stock. Since we were packing into the wilderness area, everything gets fed sweet feed and alfalfa pellets so it would be a good idea to get the horse accustomed to that type of feed before the trip. Easter didn’t have any problems luckily because I didn’t do anything to get her accustomed to it.

The trail to the base camp was beautiful with huge juniper trees and pinion pines everywhere and awesome mountain views as we dropped down in the canyon where we were to set up camp. Camp was shaded and had a nice creek running alongside it. Jim had some things already set up like the canopy over the dining area and the tent where he stored the horse feed and human food. He had picket lines run through the trees where we tied the horses and mules.

 As we dropped into the base camp, we came from relatively flat terrain around the side of a mountain where we could look out over a valley that went down so far I couldn’t see the bottom of it. It was just kind of hazy with tops of trees WAAAY down in the valley. We were on a trail as wide as the horse which was no time or place for the horses to act up. My flatland horse did fine following the pack string. My heart skipped a couple of beats when I saw the outside foot of Jim’s horse kicking off the edge of the trail….

The most amazing thing about being in this wilderness area is you cannot see a radio tower, cell phone tower or anything civilized forever! It is just purely wilderness. There is no motorized vehicle access and we never saw other trail riders. This is why it is so important to hook up with a reliable guide service to experience this wilderness. Water is scarce so it’s important to be with someone who knows where water for human and animals is, as well as someone who is knowledgeable in surviving in a place like this.

After setting up base camp we rode out from there to several different places. There is so much varied terrain and the neatest rock formations that there is no way a person can get tired of any one trail. Every ride we took resulted in some kind of surprise for the day. We rode a canyon for miles until we came out on top of a mountain. The canyon was so narrow in places that my knees were inches away from the sides of the rocks on both sides. I prayed Easter wouldn’t shift from one side or another or stumble. The canyon was very rocky with boulders and narrow trails we had to negotiate. One day we met up with a mother cow that had just had a calf in the canyon. These cows are free ranged and they are not gentle. Jim had a heck of a time getting the cow to head up out of the canyon away from us but he got the job done after we got hold of his dogs to keep them back. They were trying to help but were making the cow mad and she was trying to charge Jim on his horse.

On one ride we found a marking on a tree. Jim and I are still trying to determine the meaning of the marking. He thinks it might be an old trail marking of some kind and wants to do concentric circles out from it to see if there is another one. I thought it might be an apache marking but someone else more knowledgeable of apache markings said the apache never carved on trees. One trail ran alongside some hoodoos. These are tall spirals of rocks. It was really neat looking up to see how high they went. At one point we were on a very narrow trail, with one side dropping into the canyon with boulders and the other side was at the base of these hoodoos. I was behind Jim and something snorted way above my head. Easter’s head came up and her ears were back and she got very tense, she tried to step sideways to look up toward the hoodoos. There was nowhere to step and I just took hold of her reins and asked her to stay going forward. She snorted back and got a little jiggy but otherwise stayed controllable. Jim thought it might have been a bull elk snorting. I figured it was a ravenous mountain lion!!!

We stopped in shady places to rest the horses (especially since mine hadn’t ever ridden in the mountains before) and I went looking for elk sheds and deer antlers. I found several. One of the wranglers named Paul had analyzed where the elk would spend their spring days and he felt that was where we’d find their sheds. One place we stopped, I went hiking around and before I knew it I lost sight of the guys and horses. I found out really quick how insignificantly small I am in comparison to that country. Every rise I’d walk up would not look familiar. I just knew I needed to go in a certain direction (or so I thought) but when I’d get to where I could see, it wouldn’t be where I needed to be. I whistled really loud hoping Easter would hear and whinny back but nothing. I started to get panicky because the last thing Jim told me and the wranglers when we headed out, was “DON’T MAKE ME GO INTO RESCUE MODE…” I was getting really nervous. I found a huge pinion pine that had fallen and stood up on it trying to see where I was. I tried to get still and quiet and try to “feel” where my horse was. I felt like I needed to go to my left up this hill. I made my mind up that if I got to the top of the hill and they weren’t there, then I’d go back to the pine tree and stay there until they came looking for me. I walked to the hill and THERE WAS EASTER AND THE GUYS. Whew!!! What a relief….I decided to walk in like I knew where I was the whole time, not a problem, piece of cake…until I got to Jim…then I blurted out I ALMOST GOT LOST!!! It was funny. He said well, you were out over an hour and I was wondering when you were coming back but the guys said she’s got her GPS…..NOT I’d left it in my saddle bag that time….I made sure that didn’t happen again!

On the last day of riding, we rode to a place Jim had found in the early spring while clearing trail that he called Mystery Lake. There wasn’t any water in the lake this time but it was an amazing place. It was more wooded as we were over 9000 feet. The aspen trees were larger around than any I had ever seen and there were huge Douglas firs everywhere. Jim said it was an old-growth forest and had never been logged. The Mystery Lake hadn’t been seen in 100s of years. The old-timers knew there had to be a lake or some water source up there because the animals would go up in that area and stay for days before coming back down but no-one had ever found the lake. We found parts of an old wagon up there and I carved my initials in an aspen tree to be forever immortalized in that special place. The only way into this place is by horseback.

The day we were packed out of our canyon headed home, Paul, one of the wranglers saw some fresh bear sign not far from where we were camping. The night before we heard turkey gobbling late into the night which we thought was unusual. We wondered if the turkey knew the bear was there and kept gobbling. Here is a picture of the bear poop on the trail…

I will definitely ride with Doug again and can’t wait until I get enough vacation built up to make another trip back. The next time I go out I will probably not haul one of my horses because I did not realize the risk I took in taking a flat land horse out in that wilderness (not to mention the horse was 4 days in the trailer getting there and back). My horse did great but Jim told me that usually flatland gaited horses don’t do as well as mine. He said most of them get too high strung having to walk slow on the trails, they’re not used to the altitude and not in good enough shape to handle the tough terrain. It is imperative to have a horse that doesn’t get upset when other horses leave it, that stands still and quiet if you have to get on or off the horse on a narrow trail, it has to be sure footed and be able to pick its way through rough terrain without getting anxious. The horse also can’t be a spooky type horse, and if it does spook, it should spook in place, not bolt, run backwards or whirl to the side as a lot of the trails do not have room to allow this kind of behavior without dire consequences. The wilderness is not a place you want to come off of your horse and get hurt, there is no way to get out quickly, or to get help to come to you. You have to trust and rely on the guide who is experienced in surviving in these conditions. I spent 3 months getting my horse in shape for this trip and I took my most broke horse because I knew she’d be able to go slow if necessary and that I could depend on her surefootedness and level headedness. Jim’s horses are all used to this terrain as he uses all of them every day and they’re good mannered horses in good shape. They are not your typical dude ranch horses. Outfitter horses are a different deal and I would recommend riding one of his rather than taking your own. Jim will plan the pack trip to accommodate the persons riding experience and ability. If he sees you are an experienced rider, he’ll take you on a more challenging so you don’t get bored. If you are inexperienced or would rather ride a less challenging ride, Jim will make that possible. In the 15 years Utrail has been in business, there had never been a guest sustain major injuries on a pack trip. My trip to the Blue Wilderness Area was a once in a lifetime magical experience. I actually felt as if I left a part of my soul out there and that just means I’ll have to go back again and again to find it!!

Author    Jan Stalcup, Benton, Kansas

For more information on this trip and reservations, please contact Hidden Trails  1-888-9-TRAILS


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