Horseshoe Meadows, trails to Cottonwood Lakes
WRITTEN BY Elaine Macdonald
My husband, Bob, and I are always looking for exciting new trail adventures by horseback. In August we revisited one of California’s premier horse camping areas located in the Eastern High Sierra and spent a week exploring challenging high county trails.
The Horseshoe Meadows horse camp is located at 10,000 feet in elevation above sea level. The camp is surrounded by fresh-smelling lodge pole pine trees. There are 10 equestrian sites that include a level cement pad, picnic table, fire pit, bear box and nearby vault toilet.
There is a four-horse limit at each site, which also includes a pipe corral and hitching post. Over the years, the Backcountry Horsemen of the Antelope Valley has helped to improve and maintain this equestrian camp.
There are no reservations needed to camp at Horseshoe Meadows. The Inyo National Forest has a first-come, first-serve policy, with equestrians having priority to use the equestrian campground.
With a three-horse trailer that we pull with our motor home, getting to Horseshoe Meadows is an adventure in itself. The road to Horseshoe Meadows climbs more than 6,000 feet as it winds its way up from the town of Lone Pine.
Hauling horses to the top of the mountain is no easy task. The tow vehicle must be in top working condition to pull heavy loads up the mountain. The trip is definitely worth the drive.
Besides the horse camp there are two campgrounds for hikers. Adjacent to the horse camp is a hiker campground with 18 walk-in sites. The sites include tent pads, shared tables, fire grates, piped water, and toilet facilities. There is a second hiker campground a short distance from the main parking lot.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight trips. We had planned for day rides on our horses and did not need a wilderness permit.
Competition for equestrian sites
Because of the no-reservation policy, we arrived at the equestrian camp early in the week. We were hosting the ride for our High Desert Trail Rider Club and needed to save four equestrian spaces. Hikers choose to stay in the horse camp because of its spaciousness and large parking areas.
We outlined four horse camping spaces with colorful ribbon and the number of horses that would be staying at that particular site. We found that even though the hiker campsites were plentiful, many hikers chose to stay in the horse facility.
Besides the five sites needed by our group, by the end of the week, the other five sites were occupied by hikers. The horse camp was full!
On the Saturday after we had arrived, three more large rigs pulled into the horse campground. All of the sites were taken. I informed the new equestrians that they have priority to use the horse sites. The newly arrived equestrians then moved their horses into the corrals and shared three sites occupied by hikers.
Over the years, the competition for camping at the equestrian sites at Horseshoe Meadows has become a problem for equestrians. Most California forest horse camps are not as desirable or as popular as Horseshoe Meadows. To enjoy the overall horse camping experience, it is important to stay at a good horse camp adjacent to great trails. Most of all, when planning to stay at Horseshoe Meadows, arrive early in the week.
High country trails
The trails in Horseshoe Meadows provide access to Muir and Cottonwood lakes, the John Muir and Golden Trout Wilderness areas, and Sequoia National Park.
The only way to explore this area is by horseback or by foot. Our group consisted of nine equestrians on eight gaited horses and one fast-walking mule. Our group arrived a day early before the first day’s ride to get acclimated to the high altitude before tackling the high country trails.
All of our rides were outstanding, but some were unforgettable. The ride to beautiful Muir and Cottonwood lakes via the Cottonwood Trail was exceptional. We rode nearly 14 miles over five hours and 15 minutes with an average speed of 3.2 mph.
The first couple of miles of trail were gradual and had great trail tread. Then the trail started to ascend. We climbed white bleached boulders that were stair-stepped on single-track, switch-back trails. It was slowgoing, but all the horses did well.
The views were outstanding, and there was plenty of water along the trail. In the subalpine meadows, ancient trees were weirdly twisted and seemed to reach out to touch us. The fat brown marmots would chatter and scatter as we rode by the various lakes.
The temperatures averaged about 70 degrees. In the evenings our group played cards, enjoyed potluck dinners and huddled around the campfire telling stories. Evenings got cool quickly in the high elevation, and everyone turned in early.
Each day’s ride would bring a new adventure. We often would pass hikers along the trail and exchange pleasantries.
Few hikers know that they should move off to the downhill side of the trail when encountering horses. A little conversation while passing large animals may reduce the chances of horses being spooked. Hikers should accept directions from riders to help the horses to pass safely. Riders should allow hikers time to find good footing and a safe place to stand before passing. Trail etiquette is safe practice for both trail user groups.
Another great ride was to Chicken Springs Lake, returning via the Pacific Crest Trail and Trail Pass. The views provided from the Pacific Crest Trail were exceptional. In the panorama of mountains that surrounded us, we could see Mount Langley and Mount Whitney.
This trip was 13.5 miles, with five hours’ saddle time and an average speed of 3.3 mph. Getting to Chicken Springs Lake was a climb for the horses. At 11,266 feet at the crest of Cottonwood Pass, the view went on forever.
The equestrian camp is located at the end of Horseshoe Meadow Road, 24 miles southwest of the town of Lone Pine. From the center of Lone Pine, turn west at the stoplight and follow Whitney Portal Road for three miles. Turn south onto Horseshoe Meadow Road about 18 miles from Lone Pine.
For more information about camping with your horses in the Inyo National Forest, call 760/873-2400.CaptionElaine and Bob Macdonald stop with their horses, George and Tyler, at Muir Lake.