Wild Horses of Colorado, Petroglyphs, Dinosaurs and more!
Last Updated on September 15, 2021 by Carolyn
Colorado Road Trip
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One of my goals this summer is to get out and see some of Colorado. How often do we not explore what’s in our own backyard and just beyond? I’m guilty and I want to rectify that, I live in a beautiful state and rarely explore further than an hour from my home. Earlier this month I realized summer was waning and I still hadn’t gone on one of the road trips I’d put on my list to do for this summer; a trip to Sand Wash Basin to see the wild horses of Colorado. So on the calendar it went: 08/30-08/31. Turns out this was very good scheduling, the BLM is rounding up those very same mustangs, reducing the population from over 700 horses to a mere 50, with the round-up starting on September 01, just 2 days after our visit.
Sand Wash Basin
The Sand Wash Basin is approximately a 5-hour drive from my home in Bailey, and about the same from Denver. It is located in the NW corner of Colorado and is an expansive area covering over 250 square miles. We took the route that takes us over Hoosier Pass and through the famous ski town, Breckenridge, and then heads west on I70 through Vail and turning north on 13 at Rifle. With most children back in school, traffic was light and the time flew by driving and the beautiful vistas and views certainly made for a lovely drive.
We arrived at the Sand Wash Basin at about 1:00 pm and just as we were turning into the entrance I spotted my first wild horses. I was so excited, this was a childhood dream coming true! I was particularly intrigued by the Sand Wash Basin herds as from photos I’d seen on a Facebook group I follow: Sand Wash Basin Mustangs, they appeared to be beautiful mustangs. I was not disappointed, they are unbelievably gorgeous horses with great structure and a variety of colors. I didn’t see a single scrawny, ill put together horse in any of the herds we saw.
The Sand Wash Basin is remote so travelers should bring a good supply of water and make sure your vehicle is fueled up before arrival. You can fuel up at the general store in Maybell, CO as well as purchase any snacks and drinks you wish. I appreciated my swell water bottle, it was pretty hot out but I still had cold drinking water after traveling all day. Bring out anything you bring into the basin, there aren’t trash barrels, nor restrooms. There is no fee to enter Sand Wash Basin. Being remote, you won’t find crowds at the basin, most of the time it will be you, the horses, and perhaps a jackrabbit or two. You probably won’t even be disturbed by your cell phone, as chances are you won’t have much if any cellular service.
Once in the basin, you have the option of heading, north on 67 or west on 48. The literature we’d read said horses are often viewed on 67 towards the north but there is a spring on 48 so we headed to that spring.
The terrain became greener as we neared the spring area but we didn’t see any horses. We did see some fresh horse droppings, a sure sign that horses had recently been in the area. We rounded a knoll and had a view of the plains and I spotted a herd of about 20 horses. They were fairly distant so we opted to hike out on the knoll and see if we could get closer.
Hiking in the basin is pretty easy, as there are numerous horse and game trails to follow, however, you do need to be aware that rattlesnakes do inhabit the area, so watch where you step. We followed one trail to within approximately 100 feet of the horses. They saw us but didn’t flee, and we were able to snap many photos and just observe the horses going about their day.
We both realized that we’d forgotten to bring binoculars or a scope. I highly recommend you bring them for this trip. Don’t own any? They can be purchased here pretty reasonably: Tasco ES8X42 binoculars. I also should have brought a tripod for my camera, you can get a neat walking stick monopod here.
Once we left this herd, we drove to the actual spring which to our surprise was dry. We could see some horses in the distance and a Jeep kicking up dust along a wash road heading towards the horses, so we followed. We found ourselves surrounded by a herd comprised of smaller bands on the move. It was way cool to watch a stallion guide his small band across the road, circling the band in frustration when they stopped to graze while he had intentions of crossing. Horses just kept pouring into the valley, it was mesmerizing. All of them were in great shape and what a variety of colors, they were a veritable artists palette: paints, palominos, dappled greys, sorrels, grullos, etc. It’s no wonder these herds are so well photographed.
At this time it was getting pretty late in the day so we decided it would be wise to head for our hotel in Vernal which was over 100 miles away. We saw many small bands of horses as we completed the small loop across 80 and 126 back to 67 and headed out of the basin.
We had fun “catching” the setting sun as we drove west towards Vernal.
We opted to stay at the Surestay Plus Hotel by Best Western in Naples/Vernal so that we could visit the Dinosaur National Monument in the morning before heading back to Bailey. We had dinner at Plaza Mexicana which surprise surprise features Mexican food. We practiced our Spanish with the wait staff, had an enjoyable dinner, but pricey, 2 veggie enchilada plates including tax was ($15 margaritas? I passed).
The Surestay room was good value, to our surprise, it had a small kitchenette complete with a cooktop! The room was clean and the staff was helpful. Breakfast was your basic Best Western offering of bagels, fruit, cereal, yogurt, waffles, eggs, and sausage patties. The coffee was awful!
Dinosaur National Monument
The Dinosaur National Monument is actually east of Naples. We drove to the welcome center we’d seen as we drove in the night before, only to be told by a friendly ranger that the petroglyphs and quarry are located at the Utah entrance to the park, and the trail that I had wanted to hike “The Gates of Lodore” was approximately 1.5 hours away. (I learned it was only about 45 minutes from the entrance to Sand Wash Basin, and we should have hiked that trail when we were there the day before.)
We inquired about other hikes at this particular entrance and the park ranger recommended the Harpers Corner Trail so we set out for that. After driving about 20-30 minutes we still hadn’t seen signage for the trial so turned around (lesson learned: Ask how far things are, maps can be so deceiving) and drove back down to the welcome center, and then back another 30 miles to the Jensen, Utah entrance for the Dinosaur National Monument. Talk about spinning tires and getting nowhere!
AT the Dinosaur National Monument, admission was only $20 as Wally is a senior and that bought him a Senior National Park pass good for a year! What a deal! Now we need to plan some more national park adventures.
Our first stop at the Dinosaur National Monument (other than the bathrooms) was the visitors center where we heard the desk clerk tell another party that the next shuttle to the quarry was leaving in a few minutes, so we followed along. The shuttle is an open-sided mega-golf cart-type affair seating approximately 30 people. The drive to the quarry is only about 3/4 mile and the driver gave a quick narration of what we were seeing on the way.
The Dinosaur Quarry is very impressive. The building is built around the excavated mountainside which is a huge wall covered with dinosaur bones embedded in the rock. The quarry signage is good and details how Earl Douglass came to the area and discovered the dinosaurs in 1909, and photos depict many of the full-sized skeletons that are now displayed in various museums across the country including the Smithsonian.
After visiting the Quarry we took the Fossil Discovery trail back down to the visitors center and parking area. This walk is only about 1.2 miles and hiking down is easy. Along the way, you can see various fossils of prehistoric marine life and dinosaur bones, and then further down some large petroglyphs. It would be nice to have had more signage with photos of what you are looking at (or a guide) to confirm fossil sightings.
Upon completion of the Fossil Discovery trail which returned is to the visitors center and parking lot, we set off in our car to see some more petroglyphs. The petroglyphs on the Fossil Discovery Trail though large, are not in very good shape, I hoped to see some better specimens.
From the visitors center you can set out for a 9.8 mile self-guided tour drive. There is a tour guide available to purchase for $1 at the visitors center or at a self serve kiosk just as you depart the visitors center (I didn’t stop to pick one up and was wishing I had as I didn’t know what I was supposed to be seeing along the way.
Our first stop on the tour was at the Swelter Shelter. It features a short trail leading to a cave-like shelter with petroglyphs and pictographs. There were lots of petroglyphs here but again I was a little disappointed with their condition.
We headed along the road and bypassed a few stops on the tour since we were mainly interested in seeing petroglyphs.
We stopped at Cub Creek where a short trail leads you to a massive wall with some huge petroglyphs. Some of these were intact and we’re quite impressive. A short drive further I spotted the lizard drawings from the car. The trail leading to them was closed for restoration so we could only view them from a distance.
This concluded our visit to the park and we headed home. We opted to take the route home that passes through Steamboat Springs for a change of scenery.
In Steamboat Springs we stretched our legs and took a break from driving at the Yampah River Botanic Park. The Yampah River Botanic Park is 6-acre park full of lovely flower gardens, all maintained by volunteers. There is no admission fee and the park is open from dawn till dusk. There are over 40 individual gardens each with its own theme, all landscaped beautifully. I highly recommend this stop to break up a long drive.
Hotel $40.83 (after $25.00 best western rewards voucher, I had from a previous stay)
Total Trip Cost $197.00
I think the trip was great value for the entertainment derived and highly recommend Northwest Colorado for a weekend away. The wild horses of colorado are certainly a treasure, and it is sad that this herd has since been reduced to a tiny fraction of its grandeur.
Looks like fun and thank you for sharing. You did a great job of writing this blog. Miss you guys.
Ahh thanks Miss Barbara, we miss you too!
This makes me want to travel! So much beauty! Thanks for sharing!
I’m lucky it was just an overnight excursion for me! It was an awesome trip.
This sounds like such a fun trip! I need to get out west and explore more. I’d never heard of Dinosaur National Monument before, I don’t think I’ve ever seen petroglyphs in person, and I would love to see wild horses!
The west is certainly a lot of fun to explore. Petroglyphs are a fascinating look at the lives of those who lived before us.
This sounds like an amazing trip!! Seeing wild horses is on our bucket list! Thanks for sharing all this information, I am saving/pin for future use!!
It was awesome. I was so worried we wouldn’t see horses, or that they wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but we saw lots of beautiful mustangs.
Greg - Year of the dad
Very cool. My son and I went hiking in Missouri in an area of wild horses. We had hoped to see some but never saw any. We did see lots of deer and snakes.
I’m glad we saw the horses and no snakes!
Definitely saving this in my notes! Colorado is such a beautiful place.
Colorado is beautiful and this was an awesome trip!