As published in the December 2012 issue of Trail Blazer Magazine
Fresh snow on the mountain tops of Washington’s Cascade Range can be seen from my window as I’m writing. Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year with crisp temperatures, family gatherings, and of course, the seasonal decorations that have been out since the day after Thanksgiving. Here in western Washington, where I do most of my winter riding I often come across holly growing wild in the forests. Every time I see the shiny dark green leaves framing the bright red berries I’m reminded of family gatherings around the fireplace and Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle.
With that in mind let’s find three great riding areas that have some relation to Christmas plants. We’ll visit sunny southern California where the poinsettia on your table most likely was grown, and then venture to Massachusetts where holly can be found growing wild, and wrap up with an unconventional mistletoe ride in Arizona.
Trailhead Coordinates: 33.08662, -117.14527
This nearly 800 acre oasis of tranquility sits within the bustling suburb cities surrounding San Diego and features about 17 miles of horse friendly trails that are open to equestrian day use 364 days of the year (ironic for this article, the Reserve is closed on Christmas Day). The Elfin Forest is a joint project of the Olivenhain Water District and the Bureau of Land Management that provides emergency water sources for San Diego County from the eight billion gallon Olivenhain Reservoir that the trails wrap around.
The main parking area is plenty large enough to hold several truck-trailer rigs and even boasts picnic facilities in addition to water and restrooms. Once you’re away from the parking area and on the trail, viewpoints and rest stops are abundant; many of them include picnic tables and toilet facilities (including trash cans for recycling road apples!). The sights from these viewpoints include the Pacific to the west and the inland mountains to the east.
The forest’s unique name comes from the miniature nature of the many of the trees and shrubs that live in the area’s Chaparral habitat. While you’re not likely to see them on the trail (they only live in the wild some 1,500 miles to the south in Mexico) the poinsettia sitting in your house or office most likely was grown less than ten miles away in nearby Encinitas, CA where some 80% of all poinsettias in the US come from.
A Poinsettia Christmas fact; despite the often repeated myth, poinsettias are not nearly as poisonous as many have been led to believe. A 1971 study at the Ohio State University proved that poinsettias are not poisonous to humans and are safe to keep in the house. However, while certainly not fatal, the plant’s milky sap can cause dermatitis so it’s still best to keep them off your salad plate.
Trailhead Coordinates: 41.57073, -71.01717
This delightful day use area is located on the Atlantic coast near the old whaling town of New Bedford, MA. Owned by the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust, Destruction Brook Woods is a 280-acre property that hosts over ten miles of multi-use and horse friendly trails. The trails breakdo
wn is approximately 8 miles of well-marked trails as well as a few more miles of unmarked trails. These multi-use trails are level and wide which make them ideal for easy going ambles through the woods while enjoying the wonderful scenery and tranquility of the area.
From the main parking area on Slade’s Corner Road riders will cross a clearing and immediately enter the mixed evergreen and deciduous woods on the Red trail. From here you’ll easily be able to connect with the remaining four named trails and explore all the areas including the Pine Glade, Russell Homestead, Happy Valley, and cross the lovely Ella’s Bridge.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “The Holly and the Ivy” and sharp eyed riders will spot beautiful examples of American Holly Trees as they ride these trails. This native evergreen with its distinctive sharp spines on dark green leaves and contrasting bright red berries grows south from Massachusetts across most of the southeastern US. Riders that return to these trails in April and May will enjoy the sweet smell in the air when the trees bloom in spring.
A Massachusetts Christmas fact: Christmas celebrations were illegal in Massachusetts. The Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts disliked Christmas as it reminded them of the Church of England and the old-world customs they were trying to escape. In 1659 the Puritan Governor of Massachusetts imposed a five schilling fine for anyone caught feasting or celebrating on Christmas day. While the ban was lifted in 1681 it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that celebrating Christmas became wide spread in the Boston region.
Trailhead Coordinates: 33.66639, -111.12389
Nestled in the Sonoran Desert along the edge of Roosevelt Lake in the Tonto National Forest is the Frazier Recreation Site. This very popular horse riding and camping area offers a tremendous number of amenities and riding opportunities. The area’s low elevation of only 2,200 feet coupled with an easy two hour drive time from both Phoenix and Tucson make this a year round destination spot for horse and mule owners.
Riders visiting the lakeside Frazier Rec site will find eight camping areas each with corrals, shelter, fire ring, and excellent lake views. The sites all have pull through parking spaces suitable for LQ trailers. Potable water spigots and vault toilet facilities are scattered throughout the camp.
Riding opportunities from the camp vary and include, in addition to the many non-official trails, access to the Cottonwood Canyon trail that runs south to the 800 mile long Arizona Trail. This is desert riding and you’ll be riding through mesquite, cat claw, desert broom, as well as cholla and saguaro cacti, as you enjoy the spectacular views of the Sierra Ancha Mountains. Another plant that you’ll see, although you may not recognize it, is the mistletoe.
Perhaps you’ve already enjoyed the holiday ritual of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe. Christmas riders at Frazier may want to make a tradition of kissing each time they see the plant rather than being under it. Of the two species of mistletoe found in North America the species you’ll find here is the desert variety; and unlike the velvety-leafed mistletoe that you may have hanging in places where your sweetheart lingers, desert mistletoe is stringy, with dense clusters of brittle, jointed stems. That being said it’s amazing how often you’ll notice mistletoe around these parts once you learn how to spot it.
A Mistletoe Christmas fact: The ancient Celts used mistletoe in a variety of rituals including welcoming the new year and warding off evil. Mistletoe was hung over a baby’s cradle to prevent theft from fairies, and it was believed that mistletoe promoted dreams that unlocked the secrets of immortality. When hung in the home, mistletoe symbolized purity and strength and promoted happiness, romance and peace. Early custom called for enemies meeting beneath the mistletoe to throw down their weapons and embrace.
As always, for more information on these and other equestrian riding destinations, please visit www.TrailMeister.com for the largest collection of confirmed trail riding and horse camping areas throughout the U.S.A.