Culture / Out West

High-Country Trail Ride

I was loping up a beautiful high mountain valley on my sturdy Quarter Horse, Scarlet Mark, with a swiftly running river off to my right and majestic snowcapped mountains surrounding me on three sides.

My ride of a lifetime began several months earlier when I signed up for the 44th annual Chuck Wagon Trail Riders of New Mexico ride, held just over the state line in Colorado, about 10 miles north of Chama, N.M.

The 2001 Chuck Wagon Trail Ride had 105 riders from 13 states. The ride is rotated among a half dozen New Mexico locations each year. Great management, along with fabulous catered food and camaraderie of the riders make for an enjoyable ride.

Ninety percent of the ride’s participants bring their own horses. My horse, Mark, is very well built and handles rough terrain like a mountain goat. He and I have been together five years and covered thousands of miles.

Although the ride didn’t officially begin until Tuesday, riders started arriving as early as Saturday. There were several informal groups in which individuals camped and cooked meals together until the official start of the ride. As a member of the “Santa Fe” camp, I set up next to other early arrivers. Starting Monday evening, our meals were provided by Chuck Wagons West Caterers from Wickenburg, who have catered this ride for many years.

Our first unofficial outing, which started out Sunday morning, was approximately 12 miles long, following a loop around the upper portion of the Chama Basin at elevations up to 10,000 feet. Since this was my first opportunity to see this magnificent country, I shot plenty of photos and took in the fresh air and scenery. On a portion of the trail, we had to detour around a large snow bank left over from last winter’s storms. I arrived back at camp in time for an afternoon nap before supper.

By Sunday evening, most of the riders from the Santa Fe camp had arrived and set up their camps with the rest of us. After sitting around the campfire and renewing old friendships, I headed for my warm cowboy bedroll since the early morning temperatures were dropping below freezing.

On Monday morning I joined a small group of riders from New Mexico that planned to ride to one of the numerous waterfalls in the Chama Basin. Since only four of us went on this five-hour ride, we had plenty of time to explore various trails to get the best view of the largest waterfall.

On Tuesday morning the riders received information about the two ride options for the day – the “fast” ride and the “slow” ride. About 15 riders normally opt for the fast ride, allowing them to enjoy their faster-moving gaited horses, but the majority of us prefer a more normal walking pace. The slow ride, numbering 75 riders, left camp at 9 a.m.

We headed up the Archuleta Creek trail and climbed almost 1,000 feet before leaving the creek and heading along some high ridges that gave us fantastic views of the Chama Basin. We kept climbing until we reached our lunch stop. An altimeter watch worn by one of the riders indicated we were at 10,400 feet. We’d climbed over 1,500 feet since leaving camp. At this elevation it was cool and a bit windy. After our lunch break, we all headed down steep ridges toward the upper end of the valley that runs beside the Rio Chama and rode several miles along the river on our way back to camp.

I’d been looking forward to Wednesday’s ride ever since we arrived at Chama Basin. We would be heading out at 9 a.m. for the largest waterfall, located toward the end of the basin.

As we reached the end of the valley, we had some steep, difficult ridges to climb. At one point, the trail boss requested that only three riders at a time tackle a long rocky slope to minimize any potential for an accident. After the steep slope we had a challenging river crossing. The water was almost up to our horses’ bellies and running very swiftly. We all made it across without incident. We stopped for lunch at an old hunting cabin that had seen better days; however, it was a beautiful spot and we had a good view of the large waterfall as we entered and exited the cabin site. After lunch we started back to camp using part of the same trail that we came in on. However after the river crossing during which one rider “got wet”; we took a different trail toward camp to avoid the steep rocky slope we had climbed earlier that morning. We used a trail with a series of switchbacks to work our way back down toward the valley and alongside the Chama River until we reached camp.

I’d originally planned one more ride before heading home but after the week of riding in Chama Basin, nothing I planned could top this. I got up Friday morning, broke camp and made the 12-hour trip back to Wickenburg.

Byron Duckworth is a retired aerospace executive living in Wickenburg, Ariz.

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