Heaven in the Saddle
The warm summer heat radiates throughout the valley, not a cloud in sight. The smell of leather and horses, mixed with flora and fauna, drifts in the air.
The slow jingle-jangle of bridles and saddles clanks in the background as one group of six riders meanders up a mountain pass off Squaw Creek Road in Edwards, barely seven miles away from the east-west thoroughfare of Interstate 70.
Backcountry riding at Indian Summer Outfitters at Bearcat Stables in Edwards is not for the faint of heart, though some of the trail rides on offer are designed for equestrians with little experience. The longer backcountry rides may require more experienced hands, but not aren’t necessarily.
Bearcat isn’t one of those nose-to-tail, bumper-to-bumper, walk-only trail-ride stables. From June through September, the Bearcat’s rides journey into Rocky Mountain terrain, ascending to high mountain meadows with multiple creek crossings.
“Usually we get people who know how to ride on the longer trails,” says wrangler Stephanie Hodges. “It gives us all a chance to really get out there (in the backcountry) and ride.”
At about 9 a.m., seven riders prepare for a three-hour backcountry trail through the dark timber of Squaw Creek past Elk Park, first driving up through Cordillera to the trail head at Squaw Creek. Riders stall for a few moments to adjust to the horses, the saddles and the other riders along the way before hitting the hills.
“Have you all ridden before?” Hodges asks.
All chime “yes.”
And the journey begins.
After traversing through a wooded area, the mountain opens to aspen-rimmed meadows filled with native Colorado wildflowers, lush colors of blue, yellow, red and purple sprinkled throughout the entire valley ahead.
The Gore and New York ranges surround the horses and riders alike.
“Would you look at this?” says Joy Choy of Wheaton, Ill., on the ride with her 16-year-old daughter, Christine.
On some trails, riders might spot a deer or elk nestled in the woods or in the meadows.
About an hour into the three-hour tour, the seven riders cross through a gate and into an open field. There, the riders are allowed to move around, shift into a different position and navigate the horses away from the trail path, leaving at a comfortable yet quick speed.
Because the riders have experience, Hodges says, they are allowed to “free-ride,” letting the cool breeze waft across their faces as they entered into a steady gallop.
An hour and a half into the ride, the horseman and horsewoman stop to break for lunch. The riders are able to step off their steed, relax their legs and rejuvenate for the journey home.
Adventurous guests on “all-day rides,” “overnight rides” and the “Vail-to-Aspen” rides might get a bit saddle sore, Hodges says.
The all-day ride takes equestrians through Big Park’s mountain meadows with the view of the Vail Valley from above. The return trip takes riders to the Squaw Creek valley through a historic lumber mill.
Feeling tender in the rear? Hodges asks.
The overnight rides take people to the High Country, staying at a 10th Mountain Division hut secluded in the wilderness. The trips are custom designed with experienced guides, or wranglers, as well as cooks to prepare the meals.
The Vail-to-Aspen ride might be a one-of-a-kind experience for many guests and riders.
The four-day, three-night trip swivels over creek beds, crosses rivers and climbs mountain passes between the two ski areas.
The 55-mile, four-day trail ride usually is offered during late-July, August and early-September. And the wranglers recommend those venturing on the four-day trek ride before the journey, “if only to prepare the old seat bones for the journey,” they say. The first day of the ride stands at about eight hours on the trail. The final day lasts about six hours.
All the horses are handled by the wranglers for these trips. But, guests always are welcome to care of the horses, as well, the wranglers say.
Nightly accommodations are the 10th Mountain Division huts, but guests are asked to bring a sleeping bag. One night will be spent at a guest ranch near the Fryingpan River Valley.
At the end of the journey, guests arrive at the Hunter Creek Trail head, say “goodbye” as the horses are loaded into a trailer and return back home.
Those units are all deed-restricted, meaning that only people who work an annual average of 30 hours per week can live there. That keeps the apartments out of the short-term rental pool and available to local residents.