For several decades, I have seen photos and heard stories about trail riding through Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah. Ever since I visited the park as a child on a family vacation, I have wanted to return. As an equestrian adult I have wanted to visit the area with horses. However, while my husband, Matt, and I often trail ride, we are not at the caliber of backcountry riders or packers, so I didn’t know if we could do a Bryce Canyon ride.
But in recent years, we have ended up with a pair of nice mustangs that are great on trails with a fair number of miles and experiences under their respective saddles.
When COVID struck this spring, we canceled travel plans for the year, intending to just hunker down. About the time late August rolled around, we realized that camping and visiting the outdoors still offered a safe option—and if we wanted to do anything, we’d better get busy and make it happen. So, we carved out four days in late September, just a few weeks away, and planned a camping trip to Bryce Canyon National Park with our mustangs, Mesa and Stellar.
History of the Park
Bryce Canyon was named for Ebenezer Bryce, who homesteaded the area in the late 1800s. President Harding designated it a national monument in 1923, and Congress redesignated it a national park in 1928.
The park’s geology is like no other: The forces of wind, rain, erosion, and time have worked magic on the clay and sandstone deposits left from prehistoric times, when the area was once the bottom of a lake. Iron and mineral deposits in the rocks give the cliffs their vivid palette of colors in shades of red, orange, and pink that glow in the nuances of light.
Planning Our Trip
Our first step was to figure out equestrian trail options in Bryce Canyon. We called the park to learn about the process, check rules and regulations, and make ride reservations.
Next, we needed to figure out accommodations for our horses and ourselves. The forest service does provide equestrian campgrounds, but these do not allow advanced reservations. Several equestrian campgrounds and horse motels are listed online and, in the end, The 12-by-14-foot panel pens each have stock tanks for water and a long hose from the spigot to fill them. The area also has full hookups for those with living quarter horse trailers.
We also booked a nearby campsite for ourselves at Ruby’s Inn RV Park & Campground, also in Bryce Canyon City and just half a mile from where our horses stayed. Ruby’s Inn offers a variety of choices, including RV camping, tent camping, cabin or teepee rental, and hotels. There are lodging, camping, and restaurants in the national park, as well, plus camping outside the park in Dixie National Forest. Because Bryce Canyon is one of the busiest national parks, reservations are recommended. On a couple of nights during our stay, we noticed signs that said “no vacancies” everywhere.
Barely 10 days prior to our adventure, we scheduled a trip to the veterinarian for the required health certificates and Coggins tests. We also bought certified weed-free hay and began transitioning it into our two horses’ diets to switch them over from their normal hay for the trip. (Weed-free hay is important so weed seeds don’t get carried into a pristine environment.)
As we neared the start of our trip, we began organizing and packing our camping and personal gear, meals and snacks, and items we would need to keep the horses safe and comfortable. We were especially grateful for waterproof, midweight blankets for the horses, as the elevation gain meant cold nights (down to the mid-30s!) and inclement weather. Many horse motels, including the one we booked, simply offer outdoor panel pens, so turnout blankets can help keep horses warm and dry. We also stored extra water in our trailer and brought hay bags for the horses to eat from so they wouldn’t have to eat off the dirt at the horse motel.
At that point, we only had a 10-hour trailer ride through Idaho down to Utah’s southern border. We found our horse motel, got our horses settled in, checked in at our campsite, and got ready for our big trail ride the next day.
Riding Through Bryce Canyon
At our designated departure time of 12:30 p.m., with dark rain clouds overhead and low rumbles off in the distance, we cautiously set out from the staging area and headed through a pine forest to the trailhead at the canyon rim. Tree branches rustled as the wind picked up, whipping our rain gear around and stirring up a couple of deer, which bounded across our path. Fortunately, our seasoned mustangs remained nonplussed, which was reassuring.
As we approached the canyon rim, we were met by tourists of all types. Some walked the path and peered over the rim railing. Kids raced around while their parents pushed strollers. Hikers carried backpacks and cameras. But all of them parted way when they saw us crest the rim.
Before us was the scene now etched in my mind: an amazing canyon stretched out below our feet and far beyond. Decorated in themes of red, orange, and pink, giant rock hoodoos stood like an army of timeless warriors keeping watch along canyon walls, silently guarding the valley floor below. The beauty and strangeness of the spectacle, along with the wind howling and raindrops starting to fall, were almost too much. Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite” played in my head as we took our first tentative steps down the steep trail. Our steady mustangs willingly put one hoof in front of another, and we descended into this beautiful, awe-inspiring world.
The ride was so intoxicatingly beautiful that we quickly ran out of words to describe the wonder of it all. We joked that around every corner every bend was another “wow” moment. Riding through it on our good mustangs felt like an immense privilege. I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such a unique landscape. What a gift to experience it up close and personally, examining brightly hued rocks, seeing unusual native plants, following shadows, and feeling the sun play on our faces. Our horses seemed to share in our joy as they walked along steadily, ears pricked and surveying everything.
The funny thing is that having had this experience did not satisfy me, it just made me hungry to do more! Now we want to head back to the Bryce Canyon area to ride in more of the spectacular landscapes that surround the park—and perhaps try other wild areas of our beautiful American West, with our trustworthy mustangs Mesa and Stellar in tow.
Tips for Planning a Trip to Bryce Canyon National Park
If you would you like to horse camp and ride Bryce Canyon National Park, here is a step-by-step guide for planning your trip:
- Decide what time of year you want to ride, and pick a date. The best time of year for riding is June through September. Online advice recommends avoiding weekend crowds, but this park attracts more than 2.6 million visitors per year, so expect to deal with a lot of people no matter when you visit. We rode on a Tuesday, and that seemed fine, crowdwise. We did notice more traffic on Wednesday and Thursday. Crowds are said to thin out after Labor Day. More information is available here.
- Make your trail ride reservations at least 72 hours in advance by calling 435/834-4761 (email and other contact information, along with all Bryce Canyon National Park horseback riding rules, are available here). Be patient when you call, as this is a popular destination. Call back if you receive no answer, and prepare to wait on hold.
- Make horse motel or horse camping reservations. Mesa and Stellar stayed at Ruby’s Horse Motel in Bryce Canyon City, but you can find many other options in the area, including national forest equestrian campsites. Try searching “horse motel and camping Bryce Canyon.”
- Decide on human housing or camping arrangements. We camped about five minutes from the horses at Ruby’s Inn RV Park & Campground, also in Bryce Canyon City, but there are many other options. Follow the same links above for options.
- Schedule health certificate exams and Coggins tests with your vet. You will need about a week to get results back on the Coggins, but the test is valid for six months. Health certificates only last for 30 days. The park rangers will accept paper or digital (cellphone, iPad, tablet) versions, but know that the staging area has no internet signal. Consider either bringing copies of your paperwork or saving them to your cellphone so you can pull them up even without a signal.
- Locate a source of certified weed-free hay, and start gradually working it into your horse’s diet. The national park requires that horses be fed weed-free hay exclusively for at least 48 hours prior to your trip into the park.
- Pack your tack. Include saddle bags for snacks and water, and make sure your saddle is secure and will not slide either forward or backward on slopes. Consider a rear cinch, breast collar, or crouper. We used rear cinches and breast collars. Consult an expert if you need assistance with fitting tack. Note: Only use tack and equipment you are familiar with to avoid a sore horse—or rider!
- Check the weather, and bring appropriate gear for both you and your horse. Higher elevation means cooler evenings once the sun sets, but the sun’s rays are also more intense during the day. Sunscreen, layered clothing, and light rain gear are must-haves for riders. Rainclouds often drift through (as they did for us!), and it’s hard to turn back once you’re on the trail. Coolers will help your horses dry out after the strenuous ride while keeping their muscles warm, and turnout blankets will protect them on cold, possibly wet nights. We had mid-70s during the days and low 40s at night, including rain after our canyon ride that lasted most of that evening.
- Obtain a map of the trails. The Bryce Canyon National Park Horse Trail Route Map is not to scale but does provide landmarks and an idea of where you are on the trail. We each carried a copy. Trails are all well-marked with signage. They’re also one-way, so watch for that. From the staging area, the horse trail is approximately 10 miles long and takes 3-3.5 hours to complete.
- Arrive with your horses at least 30 minutes early to the staging area (called the “Mixing Circle” in park directions) to meet park rangers. Riders and horses (referred to as “private stock”) are only allowed entrance at 7:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 4:30 p.m. each day, with a maximum of 10 riders per party. This extra half an hour gives the ranger time to go through all paperwork while still allowing you an on-time departure. The Mixing Circle is closed to the public and is near the facility where the park concessions outfitter houses its trail horses. If you don’t have the proper paperwork, the park will deny you access.
- Be respectful of other users. The park outfitters offer trail rides on the same horse trails you will be traveling, and many hikers use the trails, as well. Private riders are encouraged to be respectful of outfitters and their dude strings. Whenever possible, move off the trail and let dude string riders pass by safely. We found all the wranglers to be extremely helpful, courteous, and friendly, and their stock looked well-cared for. (We talked with one wrangler who said he loves his job so much that he has been working there for 48 years!)
- Store drinking water for your horses in your trailer. There is no water for horses along the trail, which could make it difficult for some horses in the summer when daytime temperatures are high. Consult park staff for more information. We had water for the horses in our trailer, so as soon as we returned from a ride our horses could drink. Stellar dove into her 5-gallon bucket and nearly drank it all.
- Clean up all manure, shavings, and hay from around your trailer at the staging area.
- Answer the call of nature before you set out. There is a vault toilet about halfway through the ride, but otherwise very few trees or bushes to hide behind. The toilet is closed during the winter.
- Stay hydrated to avoid altitude sickness. The rim at Bryce Canyon National Park is between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. If you are coming from a much lower elevation, avoid altitude sickness by staying well-hydrated and getting plenty of rest. Matt and I live at 2,300 feet, and we took a day to drive there, but even so, I had a mild headache the first day. Riders should be prepared to drink plenty of water the whole time.
- Other riding is available nearby in the Dixie National Forest (435/676-9300) and is reported to be exceptional, too. We did drive around to check out other trailheads for future reference. One thing we noted was that outside the national park, many other user groups also enjoy the trails, specifically hikers, mountain bikers, and off-road vehicles.
- Consider your horses’ feet. The trails were hard-packed sand and loose rock and could have been challenging footing for horses with softer feet or thin soles. Our mustangs were barefoot, and mustangs are noted for having big, strong feet, but even so I noticed that Stellar seemed a little foot sore the next day.
- Have fun, stay safe, and enjoy the ride of a lifetime!