SUMMER 2020: Running wild

Pat Woodard

How could my hands feel sweaty on the steering wheel when it wasn’t yet 7:30 in the morning, and a cold ribbon of fog snaked along the Yampa River? I looked again at the sign greeting me at the entrance to the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area: ROADS MAY BE IMPASSABLE WHEN WET. That was it, all right.

Not only had it rained a little overnight, but I was in one of Colorado’s most remote corners. Steamboat Springs is 87 miles to the east. Craig is a little closer, at nearly 50 miles away. The roads in the Herd Management Area (HMA) are not paved, and a rainstorm can turn them into a slippery and muddy morass. Glancing in vain for a solid signal on my cell phone, I knew that if I got stuck, I was probably on my own for a while. Easing forward, I wondered if I would get a chance to see even one of the estimated 700 wild horses roaming the nearly 160,000 acres of the HMA.

Five minutes later, a solitary white figure stood like a sentry under a blue Colorado sky. I stopped the car and fumbled with the zoom lens I hoped to swing into action before the mustang bolted. I squeezed off a few shots and wondered whether this was the one called Beau, or if it was Bobby, or possibly Centauro. Pretty much every wild horse in Sand Wash Basin has a name. If you don’t believe me, check out their Facebook page. Really, they have one. You’ll see stunning images of Picasso, Sundance, Yahtzee, Van Gogh, and many more, along with likes and comments from their devoted followers. The page is great, but it’s the internet. The white mustang in front of me was the real deal.

Close encounter

Copper Springs is one of the best places to see horses drinking their fill at one of the reliable water holes in Sand Wash Basin. © Pat Woodard

Sand Wash Basin takes some effort to reach, but I came here to be inspired by wild symbols of the West in some of its wildest country. I was drawn by its reputation as perhaps the best place in Colorado to see a lot of wild horses up close, without having to park at a trailhead and hike.

The term “wild horse” is a bit of a misnomer. A more precise, but less romantic label would be “feral horse.” Mustangs are descended from domesticated horses brought to mainland North America by the Spanish early in the 16th century. Whatever you call them, there are free-roaming herds scattered across the western United States, some in federally designated areas, like the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area.

Despite its rugged landscape, a trip to Sand Wash Basin is an accommodating adventure when the weather cooperates. Even with the previous night’s rainfall, the “Wild Horse Loop” road was in good condition, winding through hills covered by sagebrush, and dotted with pronghorn antelope. On the loop’s eastern side, most of my views of wild horses were long distance vistas; five on the hill across a ravine, three in the shadow of some buttes, a few others scattered far enough away that I was glad I brought my binoculars. Knowing that wild animals don’t show up on cue, I wasn’t too surprised. Still, as I rounded the northern tip at Sheepherder Spring, I had to wonder if my wild horse chase could be more of a wild goose chase.

Suddenly, five horses crossed the road in front of me, taking no notice of my presence as they settled in for a leisurely breakfast. I parked the car, and cautiously got out, watching them for any reaction telling me to back away. I kept the zoom lens on my camera so I could get close-ups without getting up close. They occasionally glanced my way without concern. It was a treat to watch their relaxed interactions, affectionately nuzzling and grooming each other, enjoying a roll in the dirt, and then deciding they were curious about me. Slowly, they came closer, displaying an attitude I’d characterize as cautious confidence. They quickly determined I wasn’t that interesting and went back to grazing before gradually moving along.

I figured a “can’t miss” place to see horses would be a water hole, but I didn’t expect the horses to race me to it. As I approached the parking lot at Copper Springs, there was a flash of movement to my left. Just off the road, heading the same direction as me, seven galloping mustangs kicked up a cloud of dust. They seemed determined to reach the water hole before I did. I let them, figuring they’d be too busy drinking their fill to care about me tramping around. That turned out to be the case, so I didn’t feel too bad about my mechanical horsepower being defeated by wild horsepower.

Making a connection

Cindy Harrison and her granddaughter, Gabriella Morales, set up for a wild horse photo session. © Pat Woodard

I love meeting new people when I explore new places, but on this trip, I hadn’t seen anyone else on the Wild Horse Loop. That is until Cindy Harrison pulled into Copper Springs.

Like many others, Cindy follows these horses on the internet, and even posts her own photos to the Wild Horses of Sand Wash Basin page on Facebook.

“I can come out here and take 5,000 pictures and get maybe three that I really like,” she says. Cindy showed me some of her photos, and there were more than three good shots, but she may not be far off on the volume of shutter snaps. Once you find a band of mustangs in camera range, check the charge on your battery and have an extra data card handy. But, for Cindy, this isn’t just about getting an image. It’s about sharing a spirit.

“I love this place because I can see these horses living their free life. They live and die in freedom, and it makes me feel free when I’m around them,” says Cindy.

She and her 11-year-old granddaughter, Gabriella, had just come up empty searching for mustangs on Lookout Mountain—a road that branches off the Wild Horse Loop Road. Any high point is good for scanning long distances, and the HMA is a place you don’t have to worry about the wildlife hiding in the trees. There are none. Anything that rises more than a couple feet off the ground immediately catches your eye, especially if it’s white, black, spotted, and moving. Still, the corrugated landscape of ravines and washes is an ideal hideout for animals that don’t want to be seen. Today, that wasn’t a problem.

Cindy, Gabriella, and I left the loop road on foot, walking through knee-high sagebrush. Maybe 50 yards ahead, about a dozen mustangs, including some of this year’s colts, shook off the chill as the late morning sun climbed higher. We weren’t particularly stealthy with our approach and stopped short of the band’s comfort zone. We were close enough to get good pictures with a phone camera, but Cindy set up her tripod and attached a camera with a long lens. She wanted to capture the personalities of horses she knew by name.

“When you know their names, there’s a real connection,” Cindy says, pointing out a striking brown mare with white markings she called Indian Girl.

The colts were feeling frisky, running to nowhere in particular for what seemed to be the sheer joy of feeling the wind in their faces. Other members of the band grazed idly, took a load off their feet by plopping to the ground, or generally just hung out with each other. Social dynamics of mustang bands are complex. In the spring, stallions engage in fierce battles for herd dominance. Typically, the contest ends when one stallion backs down.

Iconic images

Several bands of wild horses roam across 160,000 acres of almost treeless hills in Sand Wash Basin. © Dreamstime.com/Twildlife

Sand Wash Basin’s epic sweep puts any big screen Hollywood western to shame. I watched a band of mustangs moving single file along a ridgeline, their silhouettes black against white clouds looming over brown hills. As they descended into better light, colors started to emerge; a roan, a pinto, a bay. The horses were alternately walking, trotting and cantering as gaps between the lead horse and the stragglers opened and closed. Where they were going was a mystery, and that was fine with me.

Rounding up

In late spring and early summer, Sand Wash Basin comes alive with colts that are often easily spotted from the Loop Road. © Dreamstime.com/Vagnophotos

On this day, I figure that I saw about 50 wild horses by early afternoon, including three groups that each numbered about a dozen. I would have been content spending the whole day with just one of the bands I felt privileged to observe at such close range.

I thought about Cindy Harrison’s comment that being around wild horses made her feel free. I looked for the solitary white stallion where I’d seen him on the way in. He was gone, presumably enjoying his freedom in the vast spaces of Sand Wash Basin. I determined to celebrate mine with a return to paved roads, reliable cell service, and a good Mexican restaurant in Craig.

Getting here

Sand Wash Basin’s location in extreme northwestern Colorado makes it a good idea to stay in Craig, the closest town with multiple options for lodging and food. I enjoyed the Mexican food at Vallarta’s, with a beer served in a frosted glass with a salted rim. From Craig, take U.S. Highway 40 for 30 miles through the village of Maybell, then turn northwest on Colorado Highway 318 for 17 miles to the entrance to the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area.

Pat Woodard is a freelance writer based in Parker, and frequent contributor to EnCompass. He’s a longtime Denver radio and television broadcaster, high-country hiker, avid fly fisher, and losing contestant on Jeopardy.