Night Time Trail Ride in the Sonora Desert

Riding through the Sonoran desert is best done in the cool of the night and by the light of the moon. Jule Drown and friends ride through the desert as dusk turns into night and she is able to trust her horse as visibility diminishes.

Our Sonoran desert is downright beautiful with adequate moisture, which it usually gets every winter and summer. But Arizona has had a succession of years with well below average rainfall.?

It’s not so pretty to ride on trails lined by parched, wrinkled prickly pear cactus and native trees that have dropped their leaves and lost branches in response to the continuing drought. By fall 2009, the lack of rain had caused numerous trees, bushes, and cacti to completely die.

Winter Rain
You can imagine, then, how we rejoiced to receive abundant rains last winter. The cacti plumped up, and the seeds of desert wildflowers sprouted. The desert in March was a virtual wonderland of plant life, with low-lying flowers erupting liberally along washes, hillsides, and riding trails.

It seemed like the perfect time for a night ride: not too cold for the riders, but not so warm as to lure the rattlesnakes beginning to come out of hibernation. My friends Lauren and Elaine were game for the experience. We chose a Sunday, two nights before a full moon.

I’ve discovered the moon is higher in the sky at dusk a few days prior to the actual full moon. Once before, a friend and I had planned a night ride on a full moon only to find ourselves riding for an hour or two in the pitch black during the summer rattlesnake season; the moon didn’t start to rise until we almost had returned home.

Dusk to Night
Aboard my Paso Finos, Clementino, Alegro, and Porcelana, we headed out on the trail about 4:30 in the afternoon. I’d planned a route that would take us deep into Saguaro National Park, away from the lights of roads and houses.

Early in the ride, with the sun still out, we marveled at the beauty of the desert wildflowers, from those that looked like miniature, yellow-centered white daisies to carpets of orange poppies. The desert looked green and lush, a rider’s paradise.

Jule Drown’s friend, Lauren, rode Drown’s Paso Fino, Porcelana. Here, they take a break on the desert trail.

Slowly, the sunlit sky faded to dusk. Clementino, whom I was riding, quickened his pace as if to say, “Hurry guys, it’s getting dark and we’re late for dinner!”

We stopped our horses to admire the bright, round moon when it rose from the horizon, reveling in the beauty of the darkening sky against the silhouettes of the saguaro cacti along the hills.

Finally, the sky was dark except for the bright moon and a twinkling of stars. In the lead, a familiar narrow trail that twisted up a long hillside among sharp spiny cactus was obscured from my sight.

A Matter of Trust
I knew that Clementino had been over this trail many times and horses see better than humans in the dark. Trusting the horse, I loosened the reins and let him pick his way as the other horses and riders followed. It was humbling to be unable to see the path, to rely totally on my horse for direction.

Once over the hill, we entered a wide, sandy wash. The moon was so bright that it cast us as dark shadows against the light color of the sand and rock. I prompted 19-year-old Lauren to take the lead with Porcelana. Thrilled, Lauren guided us back home from our 3?-hour adventure ride.

A few days later, Lauren asked me if I might give lessons to one of her girlfriends. Brianna had heard about the ride in the dark and hoped to join in by the time the next moonlight trail ride comes around.

In song, Buffalo Gal was invited to dance by the light of the moon; we modern-day cowgirls would just as soon ride by the light of the moon.

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