Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Back in the Saddle

A Texan rides at all state parks with equestrian trails and finds healing along the way.

I didn’t want to go alone, but here I am, leaning against the sidewall of the truck pumping gas in Quitaque, on the downhill side of the Caprock Escarpment. There’s a dog in the passenger seat, a horse in the trailer and a thick layer of dust on it all. I slide the pump handle back in its cradle and turn and walk into the tiny gas station, insecure and out of place.

For two years I carried a Texas State Parks brochure tucked snugly in the dashboard of my truck like a good-luck charm. I highlighted the parks allowing horses and allowed myself to dream. I wanted to leave hoofprints across them all. I wanted to see the plains bison in their home. I just didn’t expect to be doing it on my own.

My time in the saddle is short compared to some riders — a brief 20 years — and for much of that time I struggled with where to ride and with whom. Choices seemed limited. Then, in 2020, life as I knew it changed: the rampage of COVID and the turmoil of divorce left me in need of a reset. That’s when I decided to ride all 20 state parks allowing horses. Until that time I’d ridden three: Lake Somerville, Brazos Bend and Hill Country. Over the course of the next two years, I ended up riding 22: those listed online, plus the up-and-coming Palo Pinto Mountains State Park and Franklin Mountains State Park (not listed but allowing horses). These are a few of my favorites.  


AT CAPROCK CANYONS, a herd of bison lounge their way across an open field just beyond the visitors center. I drive past, along the shore of a small lake and down into the canyon, sinking into a dream of red, orange and white.

An old windmill, pens and water troughs mark my camp where I pull in, park and unload for the night. The wind takes on a life of its own, stirring the ground into small wisps of dirt. The bison weigh on my mind. In the morning I toss hay to the horse and sit with coffee steaming, watching the sun gently chase the gray from the skies and warm the clouds one at a time until there is only blue.

The trail from camp leads northwest into a deeply cut path fringed with roots and dry mesquites, walls the color of an old rusty nail. Around the next bend I look toward the canyon floor, pull back gently to slow the horse and sit leaning on the saddle horn, taking in the valley below as a herd of bison make their way across — an impenetrable shag carpet of short black horns and broad shoulders powered by a hump full of muscle. One rogue giant heads up the trail in our direction, and, like a jackrabbit on the run, my horse climbs to a high spot. The bison startles and turns, moving back to the herd just as surprised to see us as we are to see it.



I know it’s not for everyone, this camping thing — the bugs, the dark nights, at times the heat, the general dirtiness of it all. But I am alive when the wind lightly scratches my face and the fire crackles, watching the colors fade at dusk and listening to the coyotes yammering in the night. I know that I’ll wake in the morning and seeing nothing but earth, and if I stay up late enough I’m bound to see a shooting star.    

AT SAN ANGELO STATE PARK, the spring has brought the wildflowers, and fields of red and yellow burst forth from green stems unable to hold themselves back — the force of nature pushing unabashedly into the light. But it’s cold for May, and the cold runs up my feet, along my spine and into my heart. My marriage has ended, and the world is cloaked in pandemic.

I walk the horse, tipping my head in the wind and lifting it toward the sun. A thin gauze of clouds stretches across the horizon, ribbon of blue sky beneath. Yellow prairie grass waves like thick hair gently brushed, and a jackrabbit darts for cover. The trail slowly transforms from dust to rock as we climb the ridgeline, and we turn to overlook a small pond. In the distance, longhorn cattle browse their way across the prairie, reaching down to crop the grass every few steps. Time slows on the horse, and by day’s end my boots are the color of the trail, and my jeans are wet with sweat and dirt from the horse.

In the evening, the moon competes with the fire for light, each trying to outshine the other. I lean back and stretch with feet forward and glance up to catch a shooting star. The dog sits curled at my side, then suddenly bolts upright, seeing something I do not, nose twitching at a random scent. And somewhere between moon and sun, blue and overcast, warm and cold, I yearn for more — to lean into this beautiful glistening web of nature, and soak.    



TRAVELING ALONE can change you, and over time it did. There’s no one to tell you where to park or what to bring, no one to catch you when you fall, no one to prop you up. After a month on the road and 14 state parks, I am different. I trust myself now, and, more importantly, I love myself. 

The season of alternating sunshine and clouds is over, and a salty breeze wafts across the ocean, waking my senses and gracing me with a smile.

Legs long in the stirrups, I sit watching rivets and washboards form on the beach below. Sun glistens off the wet sand, and with each step there is the crunch of broken shells underneath. I glance down at the shadow of the horse, dog trailing neatly inside, remove my hat and run a hand through my hair. The horse sidesteps, tossing his head at each wave.

At Sea Rim State Park, I camp with my door to the surf and the dunes at my back. Outside the trailer, the horse circles, dropping to a roll, and the beach absorbs any last remaining drop of sweat from our ride. I follow his lead and, with hair twisted up, lie in the sand, not caring about the trail of dirt down my back. I dig my toes in the sand, wiggling them as the water creeps around and through, filling the void I created. I let the dog play, and she returns to me wet and ragged yet smiling.

I have come to thirst for this — living not only in the mind, but in the body. I need it. I had lost myself in the changing narrative of life, in divorce, empty-nesting and pandemic. But in that loss, there was a ground, and from there I started over again.    



FRANKLIN MOUNTAINS is the last park on my list, and it’s been months since I saddled up. There’s a certain magic about getting on the road after a long absence — nothing but sun on an empty highway. It’s like suddenly feeling well only to realize just how sick you’ve been. I drive past scrub brush pastures where shade trees mark an old homestead. A raven perches on a yucca bloom, and a flash of shimmering red catches my eye as a red racer winds his way across the road.

The craggy peaks of the Franklin Mountains rise above us as I tie the horse, saddle up and stretch to reach the stirrup. Hikers stand aside watching. I rein the horse around and squeeze him forward into a walk.

Slowly, we ease our way into desert wilderness through prickly pear, ocotillo and the sharp, brittle stalks of lechuguilla.

The trail switchbacks down into the foothills and through a dry creek where I stop to let the horse rest, then onward through another small arroyo where we trot up the other side — slowing only as the rock becomes slick. There I tie the reins around his neck and he follows me across, finding his own footing as I search for mine. Remounting, I turn my face to the sun, guessing at the time of day.

We ride through pockets of sunshine, and the horse stops to watch traffic along the distant TransMountain Highway. I dismount and meander alongside him. I love myself better here, in the natural world — the desert, the rivers, the arroyos, the scattered rock along the ridgeline. Back on the horse, I sway side to side, letting my mind run unhindered in the wind.

And I say to my past, to the one I was before, “I don’t think your idea of life was the right way. THIS is the way.” This right way is with desert silhouettes against the sunset, the flip of the horse’s tail, the grass bending and swaying with the wind.

There are no more state parks to ride, and in the completion of this goal I found my bridge, a bridge to the strength and perseverance I always had and never knew. I look down at dirt under jagged fingernails, calluses from leather reins, and I know I’m alive. I know this trail goes up and down, through thick brush, slick rock and cactus, and at the top there’s a view not to be missed. In this I complete myself, something I could not have accomplished by any other means.  

Horseback Riding in Texas State Parks

Many parks offer horse-friendly camp­grounds and miles of trails. You will need to provide your own horse at most parks along with proof of a current Coggins test. Featured parks: 

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Franklin Mountains

At the western edge of Texas, Franklin Mountains State Park contains an entire desert mountain range. The park allows horseback riding even though it does not promote it. While there are no designated horse campsites, small trailers may utilize the RV camping area when available. The mountains boast miles of trails, both in and around the camping area and in the more remote sections. Terrain varies as does trail difficulty. Shoes or boots are recommended for horses. 


Caprock Canyons

Nestled in the Caprock Escarpment of the Panhandle, Caprock Canyons offers riding reminiscent of the Old West. Equestrian camping is available at the Wild Horse Camping Area. Each site includes two individual horse pens and water access; group pens are also available. Wild Horse offers fire rings, grills and picnic tables. Wild Horse Trail leaves directly from the campsite, allowing access to miles of multiuse trails ranging from easy to challenging. Water is occasionally available on trails naturally or along park roads in troughs. The Caprock trailway provides another 60-plus miles of riding.


San Angelo

Only 20-30 minutes from San Angelo, this park features grasslands, lakefront trails, interesting rock formations, hardwood river bottoms and amazing wildlife. Equestrian camping is available at the North Concho Camping Area, with pens, pole tethers, electric hookups and water in addition to picnic tables and fire rings. The park boasts 50 miles of multiuse trails, most open to horseback riders. 


Sea Rim

Marshland meets the Gulf at this park at the southeast corner of Texas. There is nothing quite like camping on the beach, and adding horses to the mix only makes it better. These primitive sites provide no water or facilities. Find yourself some packed ground, stay abreast of the weather and tide charts, and enjoy. Recommended for smaller trailers due to beach access and turning clearance. Horseback ride on more than 3 miles of shoreline along the Texas coast. 

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