The Wild Horse Chase – June 5th, 2020

On our way from Dinosaur National Monument to State Forest State Park, Right Buddy (RB) talked Left Buddy (LB) into stopping at the Sand Wash Basin Herd Management Area (HMA) near Maybell to check out the wild horses. It turned out that we got a lot more than we bargained for. So was it a wild horse chase or a wild goose chase?

About 25 miles west of Maybell, there was what looked like little clumps of dirt on the road. RB noticed they were moving so she asked LB to pull over to check them out. They were a swarm of red grasshoppers crawling along across the highway. They only hopped when RB startled them. The grasshopper swarm lasted a couple of miles. We believe they were Mormon crickets, which are actually shieldbacked katydids. They sometimes swarm and wreck havoc on crops, but they really don’t know what causes them to swarm. About a mile later we came across the rest area where we had lunch on Wednesday.

Before we reached Maybell, we stopped at the “I Do” Fire point of interest. According to the sign, there was a fire there in 1988 which was the largest wildfire in recorded history in Colorado at the time, at 15,438 acres. It is interesting that wildfires have gotten much larger since then and the “I Do” Fire doesn’t even make the top 20 list any more. The current record holder is the Hayman Fire in 2002 which destroyed 137,760 acres.

Sand Wash Basin HMA is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It is 250 square miles where wild horses are allowed to roam. They try to maintain a population between 163 and 363 horses. When we arrived at the Sand Wash Basin HMA, we discovered the road into the area was a rough dirt road. A short way in was an information board with a faded map of the area. The sign said that the roads were impassible when wet, but there was no indication the roads were only for high-clearance or 4WD vehicles. The road was totally dry and there was no rain in the forecast, so we continued on. We were definitely giving our recently installed SumoSprings (paid link) a good workout. If we did not have the SumoSprings, we probably would not have even started down that dirt road because the bouncing would have driven us nuts. There were a lot of ATV trails and a couple of camping spots within the first mile. There was a camper at one of the sites with a small herd of five horses standing still in a group nearby. Somehow those wild horses were not what RB had pictured in her mind. The horses were just standing there and did not seemed bothered by our presence. Wild horses are supposed to be running in the wind, right? RB wanted to continue to see what other horses we could find.

We agreed we would turn around if the road got too difficult. We stopped at a little pull off with a short trail that led to some 47 million year old fossilized stromatolites. Stromatolites are layered mounds formed by the growth layers of cyanobacteria, a single-celled microbe and the oldest life form on earth. After almost an hour, we made it to where another county road split off. We decided just to go down into the draw, have lunch, and turn around.

The road got worse. We had to get out to negotiate through some really rough spots. Then we came up to a steep dip that we knew we could not make, not far from the draw. What do we do now? The road was too narrow to turn around there, with high, soft banks on each side. So we slowly started backing up the road. RB was out walking beside the van, directing LB where to go. We made it back to one of the really rough spots, but our first attempt through it lifted the driver side front wheel off the ground. We were able to pull forward and try again. Then it took some maneuvering to get through the second rough spot. However, a steep uphill was coming up along with a curve in the road that we weren’t sure we could make going backwards. We needed to turn around. After about a 20-point turn, burying the bikes and hitch mount in the soft dirt of the shoulder each time we backed up, we finally made it. Luckily no other vehicles came along while we had the whole road blocked. We could have pulled the bike hitch off, but that would have taken more time and we were a little concerned with how long we were blocking the road. We also had a couple of short 2x6 boards and a shovel in the van that we could have used if needed. The road pushed our comfort level a little too far. We didn’t want to have to test out the SOS feature on our new Garmin InReach Mini (paid link) nor did we want to know how much someone would have charged us to pull our van out. We’ll be a little more shy of going down dirt roads from now on. We made it back to the little pull off at the stromatolite trailhead and stopped to have lunch.

LB’s nerves were shot. LB, who had been driving the whole time this week, was ready to hand over the wheel to RB for a while. It took about 40 minutes for RB to drive from our lunch spot back out the dirt road to CO 318. The small herd of horses was still in the same spot on the way back out, so we stopped and took more pictures. If only we had known they would be the only wild horses we would see that day, we could have turned around so much sooner and saved so much time. But then we wouldn’t have this wonderful story to tell! However, RB will probably have a hard time convincing LB to go looking for wild horses again anytime in the near future.

We headed back to US 40 and headed east again. We stopped at a couple more points of interest along the way. One was a cinderblock house of Edwin C. Johnson, a politician from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. He was a U.S. Senator and was the governor of Colorado two separate times. The Johnson tunnel, the eastern part of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel along I-70, is named for him. The cinderblock house is part of the homestead he and his wife built when they first came to Colorado in 1910.

The other point of interest had a series of signs which explained the Taylor Grazing Act, the Hayden Surveys, and the 157th Infantry Memorial Highway. The Taylor Grazing Act created grazing districts regulated by the federal government. The Hayden Surveys were completed by Ferdinand V. Hayden in the 1800’s where he explored and surveyed nearly all of Colorado. The town of Hayden is named after him. The 157th Infantry was part of Colorado’s National Guard Regiment who served in WWII with the 45th Thunderbird Division.

The day was quite an adventure. Other than wanting to visit the Sand Wash Basin area, it was mostly unplanned and unscripted. Sometimes those are the most memorable experiences. We're sure we'll remember how we almost got our van stuck on a 4WD road for a long time to come.

Check out our related video: The Wild Horse Chase

(RB)