Sunday, November 20, 2011

Riding in Rich Hole Wilderness

When Deb whom we first met last weekend mentioned that she would be using her mules in a few days and that we were welcome to ride along, you know that I jumped on the invitation!

I didn't know where we were going or whether the ride would be strenuous or easy, but I immediately said "Yes!  We'll be there!"  Who can pass up the chance to make new friends, ride new trails or see mules in action?

Friday AM dawned clear and thankfully not windy.  Though the temperature was in the high 20's it felt brisk but not uncomfortable.

We were going to the Rich Hole Wilderness about 15 miles west of town;  Deb had been asked by a group of hunters to pack in their supplies for a week in the woods (rifle season for deer opens Monday).   Named for the rich soil that is found in the coves or "holes" in the area, Rich Hole Wilderness consists of 6,450 acres set aside as wilderness area by Congress in 1988 and administered by the US Forest Service.

In the 1800's the area had an iron-producing furnace (Longdale Furnace) which employed thousands.  The mine and furnaces closed in 1911 and 20,000 acres were eventually "given" to the Federal Government after the death of the heirless owner of the Longdale Furnace area.

Between the mining and associated logging operations, only the highest and steepest parts of the mountain were untouched, but nature has since had almost 100 years to reclaim the Rich Hole Wilderness Area.

Once the four mules were loaded and the seven saddle horses mounted, we were finally ready to start.  It takes a quite a while to get so many saddles, bridles, packs and riders organized!

We crossed the road from our parking area and followed at first alongside the clear waters of Simpsons Creek before turning and beginning up the western side of Brushy Mountain.  With 11 equines crunching through the leaves and me chattering to new friends Barb and Wendy for most of the ride, we didn't see any signs of wildlife along the way!

We were surrounded by mature hardwoods, but all of the leaves were down so I couldn't tell a poplar from an oak or sugar maple.

The ferns and mosses in sheltered areas were the only bits of green to be seen.... winter has arrived on the higher elevations!

In spite of one stretch where we climbed almost 1,000 feet in just over a mile, the ascent seemed fairly gradual for the entire 4 mile trip up the mountain.

The trail was wide and well banked with no erosion, plus the well placed switchbacks kept the horses from needing to work too hard.

Despite the good footing, you never know what will go wrong when you're dealing with animals.  We were almost to the top when the mule carrying the largest load shied after his load shifted.  He stepped off the trail, immediately was caught by gravity, and went sliding down the side of the mountain!  He didn't go far before being stopped by a tree.  He lay quietly and remained steady while Deb, Forrest, Wendy and Lisa cut the packs free.

Aside from a scrape on his nose, he was fine and was able to scramble and lurch back up to the trail.  It could have been MUCH worse!

When we reached the top, we had ascended from our start of 1,500 feet to 3,500 feet.  Cloud isn't ready for the Himalayas, but it was an accomplishment for us flatlanders!

A massive canvas tent complete with wood stove had been packed in the week before, so roughing it was a relative term for these hunters.  We ate a hurried lunch from our saddlebags while sitting on a rock at the crest of the mountain and then it was time to retrace our steps before the early sunset of daylight savings caught us out after dark.

We settled our pair of tired horses in their stalls at the boarding stable, unloaded our gear, unhooked the trailer, drove back home and fell into bed (after taking some Aleve!);  it had been a long day.... but one to remember!


  1. You're already having such a rich and wonderful life here in Virginia. I caught my breath while reading about the mule slipping down the hill. So lucky to have just been a scraped nose and nothing more.

  2. wow! what an incredible experience! using pack mules to bring in supplies - just like it was done hundreds of years ago. SO glad that mule was okay and remained calm throughout!

  3. That sounds like a wonderful day! I am so glad you are enjoying your new life. The mule slipping was pretty scary! I am glad the animal is okay.

  4. Looks like a beautiful ride .. lucky the mule was ok.

  5. Glad to read the mule was OK aside from a scraped nose. It must have been frightering both for the humans and the mule. Reading your description and seeing the photos made it seem like I was along for the ride - great views.

  6. Grace if you think you can replace these old fart friends !!!!! Not but....... I am so glad you are making new friends. You go Girl :).....Happy Thanksgiving to all

  7. What a wonderful journey! The one thing I miss about not being able to ride anymore because of Neuromuscular syndrome is the meeting of new trail friends and adventures... When I traveled I sought out someone to ride a trail with. Beautiful scenery and new friends to share with are the best memories that I have... The road less traveled can be the best one for the soul as can friendship found on the unbeaten path... We miss you Grace!

  8. What a fun way to spend a day! It does sound chilly though ;-)


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