Hoofin' it! Exploring Washington state parks by horseback

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A seasoned equestrian takes her horse over a jump at Bridle Trails State Park.

June 27, 2018

Does your horse yearn for a walk on the beach or trail?

Come to think of it, do you yearn to ride your horse on the beach or trail? 

Most of Washington’s ocean beaches and several Washington state parks allow equestrian activities, including sections of State Parks’ long-distance trails. A handful of park concessionaires also rent horses and mules and offer guided rides.

So, saddle your steed, or book a guided ride and giddy-up!

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Individual parks

♦ Bridle Trails State Park, east of Seattle, gives horses the right of way on 28 miles of trails. Social rides and equestrian events take place throughout the year at the park, allowing visitors and locals to mingle over a shared passion.

Set between Kirkland and Redmond, Bridle Trails is the place for city dwellers with horses.

With three arenas and a full calendar of equestrian events, you won’t have the park to yourself, but these activities, plus festivals and concerts, will keep you and your horse busy.

♦ Battle Ground Lake State Park’s 5 miles of cool, peaceful horse trails encircle the crater of an ancient volcano that is now a deep green lake.

Bring your riding group and make a night of it. Horse camp G-2 is available (by reservation) for groups of 10 or more. The quiet campsite includes horse trailer parking, four two-stall or eight small corrals, a vault toilet, two fire rings and four picnic tables.

♦ Steamboat Rock State Park offers 10 miles of horse trails through sagebrush and under bare basalt cliffs.

As you hoof uphill through Northrup Canyon, listen for birds, look for aspens and willows and take a break at a photogenic abandoned farmhouse.

Located across the highway from the main park, Northrup Canyon offers five equestrian campsites and two corrals, available by reservation (509-633-1304).


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                      Group trail rides are common on mixed-use trails such as Northrup Canyon in Steamboat Rock State Park.

Long distance trails (including state park overnights):

Each of Washington’s five long distance trails, four of which lie on converted historic rail beds, have equestrian-friendly sections.

♦ The Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (formerly Iron Horse)  (212 miles), crosses much of the state, from the Cascade foothills to the Idaho border. The trail passes through former train tunnels and over high trestles, to the lakes, pine forests and coulees of central Washington and beyond. Until recently, the trail was called both the Iron Horse and the John Wayne Pioneer trails, which caused confusion among users. State Parks changed the trail’s name in May of this year. (Note: The eastern portion of this trail, from Vantage to the Idaho border, is more challenging due to dry conditions, inconsistent surfacing, gaps where trestles used to be and different land ownership; therefore, we recommend it for experienced riders only. Some sections also require special permitting. Visit the web page for more information.)

♦ Columbia Plateau State Park Trail (38 miles) can be taken in two sections. Starting at the north end, pass through 4-3/4 miles of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge — home to deer, elk, moose and 200 species of birds — and travel up to 23 miles. The southern  trail overlays the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad and follows the Snake River 15 miles north from Ice Harbor Dam.

♦ The Willapa Hills State Park Trail (31 miles) lies on a former spur route of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The trail winds west from Chehalis over bridges and trestles, through farmland and wetland, along rivers and creeks. The easternmost 26 miles are asphalt and compacted gravel, and the western 5 miles from South Bend to Raymond are paved. At Mile 16 from Chehalis, a short trail leads to Rainbow Falls State Park, which has two equestrian campsites. 

♦ The Riverside State Park section of the Spokane River Centennial State Park Trail is horse-friendly. The enormous park provides 25 miles of horse trails, six equestrian trailheads, 10 equestrian campsites with corrals, a 60-foot round pen and an obstacle course. Riverside is home to ponderosa pines, marshes, birds and wildlife.

♦ Local horse people recommend a particular section of the Klickitat  State Park Trail, which starts in the Columbia Gorge. The 8 miles (16 miles round trip) from Pitt to the Fisher Hill Trestle are known for scenic river views and bursts of wildflowers in spring. The southernmost access point at Lyle lies at the confluence of the Klickitat and Columbia rivers. The trail follows the Klickitat River north 13 miles.  

Though the Klickitat Trail is a day-use park, Brooks Memorial State Park, an hour from Lyle, has a first-come, first-served equestrian campsite and corral. Brooks Memorial has 9 miles of horse trails through pine and Garry oak forests to subalpine meadows above the Goldendale Plateau.

Guided rides

Concessionaires run guided trail rides at Riverside, Lake Wenatchee and Moran state parks, ideal for beginners and those seeking a gentle experience.

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   A hiker greets a horse and rider in Bridle Trails State Park. Horses often share the trail with hikers and mountain bikers.

Trail etiquette/safety

When a mountain bike, a horse and a hiker compete for a trail, things can get tricky. Though trail wisdom says downhill yields to uphill travel, horses ALWAYS have right of way on mixed-use trails. Hikers and bikers should slow down and step to the downhill side, as spooked horses generally run uphill. Dog owners, keep your pups under control. In the wild, canines prey upon equines, so an unruly dog can cause a horse or mule to spook, endangering everyone involved.

Mixed-use trails are for all designated users, and horses can be terrific trail partners to their riders. With proper communication and good manners, they can bring a smile to the weariest hiker and the most hardcore mountain biker.

Do you ride your horse or take guided rides in Washington state parks? 
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