The morning air is crisp and clear. We’re experiencing our own private heaven here at Transfer Horse Camp located near Mancos, Colorado.
This horse camp, in Mancos, Colorado offers everything an avid horseman needs for their private horse heaven: large, roomy corrals, water, camping spaces, and multiple riding trails straight from camp.
Transfer Horse Camp is located approximately nine miles north of the town of Mancos, Colorado on Forest Rd. 561. This is a graveled road in fairly good condition. Look for signs for Transfer Campground. The horse camp is across the road on the left, where you will be transported to horse heaven.
There are three spacious wooden corrals that were built by the nearby Lake Mancos Ranch, in partnership with the San Juan National Forest. These corrals are used by the Mancos Ranch, as well as anyone camping with horses.
This is a primitive campground, no electricity or potable water. Water for horses is available from a nearby creek; potable water is available from a pump across the road in the regular campground. We found that bucketing water from the creek into our 65-gallon water container in our pickup bed worked just fine.
We put our young Missouri Fox Trotters, Nate and Cowboy, in one large corral (the “penthouse”) and parked our living-quarters trailer next to it.
Chicken Creek Trail
With high fuel prices, it’s great to have a place where you can do a number of day rides from one camp. There are five major rides here, and we did four of them.
Because of its location at 9,000 feet elevation in the San Juan Mountains, the trails here offer riders a great deal of variety in terrain and wildlife viewing, as well as a delightful mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees.
Our first trail ride was on the Chicken Creek Trail No. 615. It begins a little north of camp, merging with the Morrison Trail for the first half mile. You’ll come to a well-marked junction. Turn left, and head south for the Chicken Creek Trail, or turn right for the Morrison Trail.
Chicken Creek Trail is an extremely pleasant, fun trail to ride. There are curves, twists, and occasional easy stream crossings. Even though it was nearing the end of September, there were still flowers that had escaped the wrath of Jack Frost. Yellow, white, and deep purple flowers added a festive note to the backdrop of brilliant gold aspen contrasting with somber evergreens.
A soft dirt trail with few rocks works its way up onto a ridge. There, we could see the Mesa Verde Plateau to the southwest and the La Plata Mountains to the east.
After almost eight miles, we found ourselves by the bank of Jackson Gulch Reservoir at Mancos State Park, a perfect spot for a picnic and a relaxing stretch. We did both, then returned the same way we came.
The next day, we started out on the same trail, but at the junction, we turned right and headed north on the Morrison Trail. This wasn’t as scenic as the Chicken Trail, because parts of it had been used by all-terrain vehicles, and there were numerous road crossings.
About seven miles later, the trail climbs to Haycamp Mesa (elevation 9,785 feet). This is where we stopped. If you wanted to, you could continue on down into Lost Canyon.
After Lost Canyon, the trail descends into the Dolores River valley and merges with the Bear Creek Trail, eventually terminating at the Morrison trail head at Wallace Ranch. The one-way riding distance is about 9 to 10 miles and is rated as moderately difficult.
Aspen Loop Trail
Our third ride was on part of the 39-mile ATV Aspen Loop Trail. To reach the Aspen Loop trail head, ride a half-mile mile due east on the road that passes by the main “non-horse” campground.
The road ends at a large turn-around and gated trail. This is the Aspen Loop trailhead. Although ATVs and motorcycles are allowed on this loop, we didn’t see a single one during our mid-week fall ride.
After heading down the Aspen Loop Trail for three miles or so, we turned right on a small two track trail that branched from the main road.
This road/trail followed a ridge overlooking the Mancos River Valley with views of Mount Hesperus (13,232-foot elevation) looming in the distance. Mount Hesperus is a sacred mountain to the Navajo people and is mentioned in their legends.
Our trail was up high and heading in the direction of Mount Hesperus. We could look down and across the valley, and see mountains on the other side. An immense tapestry of gold and green swirled throughout the valley.Our thirsty eyes drank in the view, trying hard to imprint this image on our brains, knowing that photos can’t capture that special essence.
We were getting closer to Mount Hesperus, but reluctantly had to head back. Shadows were growing long, and daylight was growing short. We wished we had more time to ride.
West Mancos Trail
When it comes to trail riding, our mottos are “expect the unexpected,” and “be flexible.” Trails can erode, or become overgrown or blocked by slides or falling trees. This was our experience with the West Mancos Trail.
On the east side of the campground, the West Mancos Trail begins its descent into the West River Mancos Valley. Within three-quarters of a mile, it divides; to the right (west) is the Box Canyon Trail and to the left (east) is the West Mancos Trail. We turned left for our fourth trail ride.
The trail descends steeply in a series of switchbacks until it reaches the valley floor. A couple of the switchbacks were a little tricky.
The valley floor trail was very overgrown with brush. It didn’t take Nate long to figure out he’d better keep his distance to avoid getting whacked in the face by branches that snapped back from Cowboy bulldozing his way through the brush.
The West Mancos Trail is noted for meandering through some of the world’s largest aspen trees. Fall is the premier time to see these giant aspen.
Like an elaborate cathedral, the towering aspens supported a golden canopy against an azure sky. As the wind blew, bits of gold fluttered and danced before landing on the forest floor.
We sat on a big log, soaked in the views, and ate lunch. This aspen grove, about four miles in, is a beautiful, worthwhile destination.
We didn’t have time to ride the Box Canyon Trail No. 617, but folks told us it was a good one. To ride this trail, begin as before with the West Mancos Trail. But, turn right (west) at the first intersection. This trail descends down to the river.
After crossing the river, the trail heads downstream to Box Canyon Creek and continues to Bay Seal Springs. The trail then becomes an old Jeep road that crosses a mesa, passes a reservoir, and drops into Deer Lick Creek.
The Jeep trail heads down to the West Mancos River, crosses it, and heads upstream to the right. Follow it until you reach a gate. Beyond the gate are remains of Golconda. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Golconda served local miners with its post office and general store.
As we reined our horse trailer toward our home in the Northern Rockies, we reflected on our time in the San Juan Mountains during a glorious fall season filled with color.
William Cullen Bryant once wrote, “Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.” The San Juan Mountains beam, bearing testimony to Bryant’s words. After an autumn ride here, you’ll be smiling too!
Enjoy this bonus photo album from our trip! (For more on the region, see “Ride the Rockies,” Postcard From … Colorado, The Trail Rider, September/October ’11.) Photos by Kent and Charlene Krone.
For more information on the San Juan National Forest, call (970) 247-4874, or visit www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan.
Seasoned trail riders and equine photojournalists Kent and Charlene Krone enjoy sharing their riding adventures in the United States and Canada. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.