Trail-Ride into Old West History

Lincoln County, New Mexico, rich in Old West history, is a trail-rider?s dream, with waving grasslands, green forests, and mountain peaks.
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Lincoln County, New Mexico, rich in Old West history, is a trail-rider?s dream, with waving grasslands, green forests, and mountain peaks.

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Lincoln County, New Mexico, is a land embedded in history. Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, Black Jack Pershing, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Apache all rode here. The Lincoln County War of 1878 secured the region's place in history. Smokey Bear was born, rescued, and buried here.

To this mix of history, add an amazing variety of terrain, from waving grasslands at 5,000 feet elevation to mountain peaks cresting out at nearly 12,000 feet.

Wrap this with pinion-juniper pines, ponderosa pines, fir, and aspen. Lace it generously with more than 100 miles of horse trails. You now have a trail rider's Western dream destination!

White Mountain Wilderness

Our first trail-riding goal was the Argentina-Bonito trailhead and horse camp that accesses the White Mountain Wilderness, a protected wilderness area in the Lincoln National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r3/lincoln). This designated wilderness has preserved its unique and pristine characteristics; 118 miles of trails await your exploration.

The trailhead hosts a beautiful camping area. There are four large corrals, each large enough for two horses. There are vault toilets, trash receptacles, and picnic tables. Before the corral area, there's also a large space for additional parking and camping.

The campground is set in a grassy bowl with gorgeous ponderosa pines scattered throughout. A seasonal stream runs along the bottom of the valley. A word of caution: The stream is sometimes bone dry. This was the case when we were there, causing us to shorten our visit.

Ride to the Top!

Prepare yourself for an exhilarating loop ride to the top of mountains that crest out over 9,000 feet in elevation with 360 degree views! That's exactly what we discovered in our loop ride up Turkey Canyon and down Argentina Canyon.

To find the trailhead, ride back down the road about a mile, and locate Turkey Canyon Trail #40. Exit on your left (the north side of the road), and let the adventure begin!

The sun peered over the trees as we rode out of camp. The earthy odor of wet grass smashed under the horses' hooves was our aromatherapy.

We were riding our 4-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate, and were armed with a lunch, binoculars, and camera. The horses were also armed. They had their hobbles and dreams of a grassy lunch spot.

To get to the top of the ridge, you'll need to ride for several miles and ascend 1,400 feet in elevation. Along the way, watch for old mines, and enjoy the pine-forest scenery.

The last part before the top is a bit steep. At the top, you'll run into Trail #25, the Crest Trail, so-called because it runs along the spine of the White Mountain Wilderness Area.

When we came to the Crest Trail, we also found Turkey Spring. This is a spring area that's fenced off to protect it from roaming cattle.

Turning left at Turkey Spring, you can enjoy the next 2.5 miles of mountaintop riding at 9,150-feet elevation. Turn right on the Crest Trail (not left on the Clear Water Trail) to catch incredible views.

The Crest Trail eventually comes to the intersection with Trail #39, the Argentina Canyon Trail, and the return route to camp.

Back on the Crest Trail

The next day, we did our second loop, which offered stunning views and more ridge-top riding. At the western end of camp, ride across the stream coming out of Argentina Canyon and ride up Trail #36 entering the wilderness.

After about 1.5 miles, you'll come to the junction with Trail #37 going to the right. Stay on Trail #37 to the top. Some portions of this were a little steep and narrow, but negotiable.

Eventually, the trail travels away from the stream and comes to a five-way intersection in a beautiful saddle. Here, you can turn right and follow the Crest Trail #25, which has a steep, rocky section as it climbs.

The Crest Trail will take you northeast to the intersection with the Argentina Canyon Trail #39 that we followed the day before. A short way down this trail will lead you to a spring that has water and then downhill to camp, as in our last ride.

Western History

Our next riding location in Lincoln County was the Fort Stanton Area of Critical Environmental Concern. On the way, we stopped at two locations prominent in our country's history and folklore: the towns of Capitan and Lincoln.

Capitan is the home of the most famous bear in the United States: Smokey Bear (www.smokeybearpark.com). Smokey was just a cub when he was found near here, clinging to a tree, and suffering burns incurred during a forest fire.

He went on to become the endearing symbol of the United States Forest Service and fire-prevention programs for more than 60 years. The Smokey Bear Museum is here, as well as his gravesite.

Just down the road from Capitan is the small town of Lincoln (www.newmexico.org/explore/monuments/lincoln.php), center of the 1878 Lincoln County War.

Today Lincoln is a National Historic Landmark, as well as a state monument. Virtually, the entire town remains intact. A walking tour through many buildings reveals extensive exhibits, including Billy the Kid's bullet hole in the stairwell of the courthouse that resulted from his daring escape.

Fort Stanton

The Fort Stanton ACEC (www.fortstanton.com) was our next riding and camping destination. Strategically located between Capitan and Lincoln, the Fort Stanton area provides superb riding and a historic theme.

Fort Stanton was established in 1855, and was at one time home to Kit Carson, Black Jack Pershing, and the Buffalo Soldiers. Billy the Kid was also imprisoned here. In 1896, the fort was closed; it later became a hospital.

For the trail rider, the 24,000-acre ACEC surrounding Fort Stanton is equestrian heaven. For your riding pleasure, there are more than 60 miles of maintained trails.

The Fort Stanton ACEC equestrian trailhead and campground is located between Capitan and Lincoln on Hwy. 380 and one mile south on Hwy. 220. The horse camp is strategically located just north of the fort and is surrounded by miles of trails with incredible opportunities for cross-country riding.

The horse campground and trailhead has everything a rider would need, except corrals. So, take your own horse-containment system.

The camp offers such amenities as human water, a horse trough, picnic tables, shelters, hitching rails, electricity, toilets, fire rings, and a recreational-vehicle dumping station.

We rode Cowboy and Nate west, out of camp and across the main road. We rode several loops using the Pershing Trail and the Mustang Trail, and riding cross-country. The views in every direction were sublime, with clouds creating a comforter across the nearby mountains.

Burnt Well Guest Ranch

For a Western experience where you can have as much saddle time as you desire, or where you can kick back and take it easy, consider the Burnt Well Guest Ranch (www.burntwellguestranch.com).

This ranch, located east of Lincoln, is the perfect setting for an authentic ranch experience or to top off your visit to Lincoln County.

This family owned ranch runs both cattle and sheep. Saddle up! Join in helping out with the livestock, or just ride out. Explore 15,000 acres of wide-open spaces around the ranch.

After long days in the saddle, you may enjoy sumptuous meals, evening entertainment, spacious living quarters, outdoor fires, and a soothing hot tub.

Enjoy this photo gallery of our ride into history! (For our full account of this riding adventure, see "Ride into History," Postcard from ? New Mexico, The Trail Rider, May '12).