For many people wilderness conjures up images of America’s western states. While it’s certainly true that the majority of wilderness areas are located in the left half of the country there are still many wilderness areas east of the Mississippi River. This month we’re going to visit two wonderful equine friendly wilderness areas in the eastern half of the nation. We’ll also stop by a more westerly destination point so no one gets left out.
Raccoon Branch Wilderness, Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area, Virginia
Trailhead Coordinates: 36.69784, -81.50398
The Mount Rogers National Recreation Area covers about two hundred thousand acres in the far southwestern tip of Virginia and is remarkably centrally located being only 5 hours away from the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and just over two hours from Charlotte NC. Nestled within the Recreation Area are not just one but four Wilderness areas, 67 miles of the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail, the highest point in Virginia, a herd of wild ponies, and several excellent horse camps. Today we’ll focus on the Raccoon Branch Wilderness and the phenomenal Fox Creek Horse Camp.
Established by an Act of Congress in 2009 the Raccoon Branch Wilderness Area is 4,223 acres of rugged, steep, and rocky ridges and valleys south of Marion VA. Through these high ridges and low streams are 6 major trails covering about 16 miles, including nearly five miles of the famed Appalachian Trail. The trail of major importance to us though is The Virginia Highland Horse Trail which stretches for over 67 miles through the Recreation Area. This wonderful trail is wide, well-marked, and well maintained, perfect for a day or a week of riding.
The Fox Creek Horse Campground is a Forest Service camp which offers over thirty camp spots in a broad open field in the valley just north of Mount Rogers. It’s not a luxurious camp by any means but it does offer what is said to be unparalleled access to some of the most scenic trail riding in the region. Indeed the Virginia Highland Trail runs right through the camp. As the name implies Fox Creek runs past the camp and that’s where riders will get their stock water. For potable water you’ll need to bring that with you. Each of the camp spots has a picnic table and a hitching rail. Portable outhouses are placed along the camp drive. Although the amenities at Fox Creek are fairly Spartan riders can use the showers, top off their drinking water and use the RV dump at the nearby Grind stone campground just down the road.
Before you head to Fox Creek, the Virginia Highland Horse Trail, and the Raccoon Branch Wilderness make sure that you bring your Coggins test paperwork for each animal that you bring. It’s the law and a ticket is lousy way to start a great riding weekend.
Trailhead Coordinates: 37.501286, -88.561966
For man trail riders the words “Let’s ride Shawnee” are filled with imagery of grand scenery and miles and miles of trails to explores. Southern Illinois has many wonderful riding locations that offer a range of riding opportunities, all of them good. For a good number of riders the Garden of the Gods wilderness is a memorable destination point, indeed something of a Mecca for people looking for glorious terrain. With its awe inspiring rocky outcroppings, this garden of stunning stone and wilderness is a glorious place to visit. Unfortunately, although equines are allowed on some of the trails this isn’t a place that you would call extremely horse friendly with one main horse trail and a modest designated equestrian campground. So why bother to even mention it? Because the Shawnee National Forest has another wilderness area (several actually) besides Garden of the Gods and it is very horse centric with a multitude of trails and stirring geologic formations to view and explore.
The Lusk Creek Wilderness consists of nearly 6,300 protected acres of broad ridge tops overlooking caves, sheer rock walls, and of course Lusk Creek, all tucked into a forest of oak, beech, hickory and maple trees. Compared to the Garden of the Gods area Lusk Creek is hands down a superior riding location.
Riders venturing into Lusk creek will find miles and miles of trails to explore that will transport you through the eons as you first ride along abandoned road beds past through long ago homesteads then past areas that were used by Native Americans over 10,000 years ago.
Several trailheads offer access to the wilderness area with the Lusk Creek and Indian Kitchen trailheads being the best suited for equine use with larger trailer backing and turn around areas.
With the fabulous scenery and abundance of horse and mule friendly trails Lusk Creek is an excellent destination point. There is however one significant issue, especially for riders that are traveling a distance to get here. There aren’t good public camping options at the trailheads. There are however numerous private equestrian campgrounds surrounding the wilderness however that offer not only ride in access to the wilderness but also the comfort and convince of showers, electrical connections, corrals, and more. Of these I have personal knowledge of the Bear Branch Horse Resort and feel comfortable recommending them.
Enjoy your adventures in the Lusk Creek Wilderness!
Trailhead Coordinates: 43.824624, -121.800284
The oldest and largest wilderness area that we’ll discuss this month is Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness located on the eastern edge of the Cascade range near the city of Bend. This vast expanse covers over 281,000 acres was established fifty years ago in 1964 and contains over 260 miles of trails.
For fans of high country riding this is one of the premier locations in the US. There’s nothing quite like the experience of riding through the Ponderosa pine forests that grow in the area below the three lovely ladies of central Oregon that tower overhead, crowned throughout the year with glistening white glaciers. Riding beneath three mountains, each rising above 10,000 feet, makes for spectacular scenery! Not only do riders here have high country mountain and glacier views, they also have the chance to ride amongst volcanic reminders the the area’s past, including obsidian fields.
As with many high country areas the time window to get into the Three Sisters area is short. July and August are the the safest bets for avoiding snow covered trails.
Of course the spectacular scenery and small windows of accessibility brings with them scores of other riders and campers all trying to get into the same area. To serve the many horse and mule riders and campers that use the wilderness area every summer there are a number of horse and mule friendly camps that dot the outer perimeter of the wilderness.
One of my favorite camps from which to access the “Sisters” is Cultus Corral on the south end of the area. Cultus is somewhat less used than other nearby equestrian camps, must notably Quinn Meadows. With 11 camp sites, corrals, and potable water, Cultus is anything but a second rate choice.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s continued adventure into three more wilderness areas. For more information on these and many more please visit www.TrailMeister.com, the largest and only fully validated horse camping and trails directory in North America.