Sherli Leonard

Sherli Leonard

It seems like the long, hot summer gets longer and hotter every year. Didn’t it start in May this year? I have a prescription for searing-temperature-liability relief: Get thee, and thy horse, to the mountains!

Southern California boasts absolutely amazing mountain regions. One is the San Gorgonio Wilderness, which is a very early wilderness area in the United States. This 145,000-acre area was once in the grips of a developer who wanted to plaster a ski resort on the slopes of old Grayback. Today, it allows only the soft beats of hoofs and hiking boots on its trails.

Within two hours, most equestrians in Southern California can escape to the pines, the meadows, and the clear blue skies of the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Here, a day ride, while better than nothing, simply will not do. Pack your camping gear, load up a bale of hay, and plan on spending at least a few nights in the mountains far away from the chaos of civilization.

Without a doubt, the best accommodation for equestrian campers is the Wild Horse Equestrian Camp at Heart Bar. Camping spaces can be reserved for individuals and their families from May through September 30. The camp features only 11 spaces, but has 30 single-horse 12-foot square pipe corrals.

Showers, good toilets, fire rings, and a horse-shoe play area make the facility even more inviting. Reservations are essential, and must be made at least four days in advance.

On your way up Highway 38, stop at the Mill Creek Ranger station just past Bryant Road near Yucaipa to pick up a map of the wilderness trails and a wilderness permit. If you aren’t carrying the permit with you in the wilderness and you get stopped by the Forest Service volunteers you will be directed to leave the wilderness immediately.

Once you and your horse are settled into camp, saddle up. Start with the one-hour loop ride that includes pieces of the Santa Ana River Trail as it meanders through the Big Meadows and along Highway 38.

Leave the camp via the entrance road, turn left, and watch for a clearly-marked trail just past the entrance to the Heart Bar Group Camp. This will take you to the Santa Ana River Trail. Go right, stay on the trail until it reaches a jeep road, and turn left. Follow this past a pump house, and watch for more trail signs.

Another segment of the Santa Ana River Trail will come in from the left. If you take this, you will go east toward the Pacific Crest Trail, several miles away. For this ride, ignore it and stay on the Santa Ana River Trail going downstream.

No matter what trail signs you come to, continue to bear right and work your way along the south side of the Big Meadow. The neat, sweet trail makes horses negotiate some twisty and rocky spots, which is just enough to make them concentrate but not so much that they can’t cope. At some point, look back and soak up the spectacular mountain scene, and try to remember you’re only an hour or so from home.

This trail will carry you to Highway 38, the main road up the mountain, and the one you drove in on. Turn right and up the hill to head back to the camp. The trail–still single-track, very neat, and well-traveled–will move alongside the highway for a mile before it connects with the main dirt road into the Heart Bar camps. Be alert: the trail takes quick jogs left and right, and it has some way-too-rocky portions.

You can follow the main dirt road back to camp, or you can cross the road and take the small trail left-ish. It will take you back to the camp, too, and it’s much prettier.

The meadow loop takes about an hour at a leisurely pace. It’s a particularly nice ride for the start of your stay in the mountains as it gives your horse a little time to acclimate before you make big climbs. Besides, it’s unbelievably beautiful. And, so close to home.

Take a look at your map, and you will see several days’ worth of rides, including the Coon Creek Jump Off trail, Fish Creek Meadow Trail, Mission Creek Trail, Dry Lake Trail, South Fork Trail, on and on. The map will tell you the mileage, so you can know how to plan your rides.

Do you have a week or more? Don’t forget to give your horse a day off if you’re staying for a long trip. Negotiating the rocky trails takes its toll on hoofs and legs.

Most of all, savor the beautiful mountains, while riding a good horse on a good trail with good company. It doesn’t get better than that.


Terrain: High mountains (elevation 7,000+), single-track trails and excellent to modest jeep roads; lots of rocks!

Difficulty: Rider: Intermediate and beyond; Horse: intermediate and beyond.

Facilities: Excellent family and group camps with corrals, water, restrooms, showers, fire rings, camp host.

Cost: To camp at Wild Horse Equestrian Camp, contact Reserve America at 1/877/444-6777, or visit the Web site at The Wild Horse camp costs $25 per site per day and $50 for each of the two double sites, with slightly higher holiday rates.

Operating times: Open usually May 1 through September 30.

Directions: From I-10 in Redlands, exit at Yucaipa Blvd and go east; turn left at Oak Glen Road to Bryant; Turn left to Highway 38; turn right, and travel past Forest Falls turnoff, Angeles Oaks, and Barton Flats. Several miles past Barton Flats, watch for the small wooden sign on the right that directs you to Heart Bar Camps; turn right, and go about a mile to Wild Horse Equestrian Camp.

About the author
As a life-long resident of inland Southern California, Sherli Leonard has lived in the fun company of horses and horse people for more than 40 years. She has ridden her horses in drill teams, parades, horse shows, and on trails from the desert to the sea to the mountains. As a freelance writer, she handles assignments about horses, art, music, history, education, and families for newspapers and journals. Sherli can be reached by e-mail at