State parks tend to be overshadowed by our country’s flashier national parks, but don’t overlook these gems. Many state parks offer equal beauty, serenity, equestrian trails, and horse-friendly campgrounds.
Check out the state parks in your area — you might be surprised by what you learn.
Here, we’ll tell you about three of our favorite state parks — one near our Montana ranch (Bannack) and two near our former home in Idaho (Farragut and Heyburn).
Bannack State Park
The town of Bannack was born when Montana hit its first big gold strike in 1862. In 1864, Bannack was named as the first Territorial Capital of Montana.
Today, the ghost town of Bannack is managed as Bannack State Park. Sixty buildings stand as silent witnesses to a bygone era. Before hitting the trails, walk the dirt streets of Bannack, and look inside the weathered buildings.
To ride in the park, turn right before entering town. You can park your rig on the far side of town in the large parking lot.
From this staging area, we went on two rides. Our first ride took us south of town and cross-country. We traveled over open hills, enjoying vistas of valleys and mountain ranges.
On our second ride, we followed a map the park manager gave us. Accompanying us on this ride were our friends Pat and Maniya Thompson from Georgia, and Jake Raap from Idaho.
Some of the trail followed the old stagecoach route from Bannack to Virginia City. You can follow the trail or go cross-country to explore ridges and valleys. We rode cross-country, keeping our eyes open for wildlife and old mining ruins.
Farragut State Park
Farragut State Park, located in northern Idaho, comprises 4,000 acres. The equestrian campground has six sites, plus corrals, an arena, and a day-use area. There are no hookups, but water is available.
Make campground reservations in advance, especially if you plan to stay over a weekend.
The area north of Idaho State Highway 54 is open to trail riding. There’s a perimeter trail with interconnecting trails and a popular buggy trail.
Trails loop over grassy plains, dense ponderosa forests, and gentle hills. Bear, deer, elk, and moose frequent the area.
On our last ride, we rode over to Friendship Circle, a circle of tall pine poles. The poles were installed during the World Scout Jamboree that was held in the park in 1967.
Heyburn State Park
South of Farragut is Heyburn State Park, the oldest park in the Pacific Northwest and one of the largest state parks in Idaho.
About one-third of the park’s 7,838 acres consists of water: Benewah Lake, Hidden Lake, Chatcolet Lake, and a portion of the St. Joe River. Traditionally, park rangers were primarily concerned with dock facilities, recreational campgrounds, and picnic areas. Little attention was given to trail riders’ needs.
Then along came Don West, a ranger who’s creating a first-class riding destination. Don also conducts packing clinics and teaches natural horsemanship. He and his wife, Kim, own Rocking Horse Paint Ranch, which borders Heyburn State Park.
Don has spent countless hours planning and creating new trails, as well as improving old ones. He’s done substantial work on the west equestrian campground and is presently working on the east equestrian campground, a new addition. On the park’s east side, Don also built 17½ miles of new trails.
On our Heyburn rides, we were joined by Don, Jerry and Murielle Johnson, Arlo and Michelle Slack, Kenny Moore, and 15-year-old Mike Ebert.
We rode two days. The first day, we rode the park’s east side. The new trail that Don built (a loop with cross-cuts) snakes up and down tree-covered ridges. Western red cedars formed cool, shady canopies and perfumed the air with a piney fragrance.
At our lunch spot, we looked out on two blue lakes, with the St. Joe River running through them.
The next day, we all rode the park’s west side. We began at park headquarters and headed toward Indian Cliffs. We ate lunch here, tying our horses to the hitching rails that Don installed.
Trees are an important part of Heyburn State Park. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian planted so many trees here, they were called the Tree Army. Some of the trees flourish in moist shade; others prefer dry, sunny slopes.
Consider doing your own state park research. Get acquainted with your local park rangers. Plant seeds, and help them grow.
To find a state park in your area, go to America’s State Parks.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “supplier:1314” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at [email protected].