Murray Canyon Horsewomen to the Pacific Crest Trail

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 02 March 2012

Horse Story

Sharing the trail with our four-legged friends

I once watched two horse ladies ride up the very steepest section of the difficult trail up to the PCT via Murray Canyon from Falls Meadow. They were like athletes on their horses. Their horses were straining, bellies close to the ground, their upper front legs stretched out parallel with the terrain, and their lower legs digging in, clawing and pulling themselves up the steep terrain. The muscles on the horses legs were bulging out. They were churning up the mountainside like four-legged tractors.

The girls were moving on those horses like gymnasts on monkey bars, first hanging off one side, then the other, leaning far forward then far back, working in physical unison with their fine mounts as they clawed their way up the steep trail and around the obstacles. And they were big girls, moving so nimbly I can only call them horse ballerinas. It was a fine piece of riding. I was surprised as hell to see them up there.

I had seen them camping in Falls Meadow the evening before when I hiked in. We mutually waved, and did the polite hand signals across the width of the meadow. They were in the big site overlooking the East Carson just North of where Murray Creek joins the East Carson River. I could tell they did not want visitors or neighbors, so I headed up to the sites under Murray Falls, which gave us all privacy.

I departed up Murray Canyon long before they woke, and was at the top of the steepest part of the trail when I heard the straining, snorting, and cracking leather of their mounts climbing up the steep trail below me. I was amazed they were taking this route. Bad-assed. Not only was the trail very steep, but it was really suffering from the Spring Thaw, both from the saturation level of the soil, as well as the heavy degradation the thaw had done to the trail itself. I was climbing over and around boulders strewn along the narrow trail section that were not washed out. I was constantly having to climb around these washed out sections, which was hard for me. But my ears do not lie, and I knew that mounted riders would soon be upon me, so I had to act immediately.

First, I never want to scare a mount, so I've got to properly position myself before the horse sees me. That's the key to all trail encounters: Observe the situation before it happens. Old-school trail horses are as stable as tractors and rarely freak out, but young mounts are incredibly skittish, and I'm determined not to spook a young mount, especially on dangerous trail. I once watched a Mexican Cowboy ride a young mount that executed a 360 degree panic spin, the horse ass-up and bucking, its front legs locking down and popping out with each buck, describing a very tight circle from buck to buck, in the high Emigrant Basin.

But the crazy bastard was not just bucking, but was also spinning sideways hard and fast with each buck. It was incredible.

A 40 mph howling wind and the trail's winding route between and around the huge granite boulders and formations rising out of the lush green meadow grasses just to the East-Northeast of Emigrant Meadow Lake in the High Emigrant Basin made it impossible for me or the horseman to see or hear each other before me and the young horse were about eye-to-eye. That horse freaked out and took the cowboy for a spin. Literally.

The cowboy instantly hand-upped, raising one arm high above his head to balance himself in the spin as he stood straight up in the stirrups, heels locked in, reigns in the other hand, and rode that bucking horse all the way around, reigning it's terror first into a tight circle, and then into submission. He laughed and said "howdy, sorry about my horse, she's young," while the horse danced and snorted below him. It was a great piece of riding, and good thing it happened on the flat high-elevation meadow in the Emigrant Basin. I hated to have triggered that horse's panic, though as a result I was privileged to see that fine piece of horsemanship.

I pride myself on not freaking out man or beast, if at all possible. If I freaked out the ladies' horses on this steep trail, things could go way wrong way fast. A wreck here would be disastrous.

Hearing the girls climbing up below, I climbed about ten feet up the steep terrain above the trail, hid my pack so it would not bug the horses, took a low profile position, and started a bit of gentle clicking to reveal my position to both horse and rider just before they could see me. This way both the horse and rider were looking for me, rather than either being surprised to see me. Don't surprise horses on the trail.

The ears of the horses and the eyes of the horsewomen snapped towards me as they came into view up the mountain. The horses lost a little focus as they took me in, but my soft clicking and the reassurances of the riders kept them from losing their pace. I enjoyed watching a great piece of High Sierra riding as these women navigated their mounts up the harsh terrain. Wow.

Always observe the demeanor of the approaching horse, even when you've stashed yourself off trail as they approach. If the horse is skittish, don't even move. Make gentle noises and clicks, but don't move. If you are not sure, talk to the rider. If the horse and rider are chill, the horse may end up laying its head against your shoulder as you chat up the cowboy. I've met some pretty fine horses on the trail, and some tolerable cowboys too... he he. I've eaten filet mignon and drank cold beer and old scotch up and down the Sierra Crest, thanks to the fine cowboys I've met on the trail over the years.

The "rules" of trail culture demand that the hiker give way to the horseman, and take a lower position on the trail as horses pass, as a lower position is less threatening to a horse than a high position. I modify this rule slightly. I always give way to horsemen, but I take the safest off-trail position when I let them pass by, which may or may not be the low position. You will rarely find me near the hooves of a horse, and never find me between a cliff and a horse. I generally go high to let horses pass by.

The incredibly difficult terrain that an experienced trail horse with an experienced trail rider can negotiate never ceases to amaze me. These animals and the people that ride them can be quite amazing.  

More Information

East Carson River and Pacific Crest Trail Horse Experience

Trail Guide Page: Murray Canyon

Topo Hiking Map: Ebbetts Pass to Sonora Pass

High Emigrant Meadow Horse Experience

Trail Guide Page: Brown Bear Pass to Bond Pass

Scroll down the trail guide page to the picture of the upcoming boulder field. That's where I met the Mexican Cowboy. He still works at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station.

Topo Hiking Map: Brown Bear Pass to Bond Pass Hiking & Riding Map

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