California Flying

Horse power

May 1, 2003

John Muir said, "Going to the mountains is going home." Ronald Reagan said, "Nothing is better for the inside of a man than the backside of a horse." If you've got the itch to straddle a saddle in the Sierra, the Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit offers a variety of options. In the summertime you'll find its herd of about 90 horses and mules at the pack station above Mammoth magic (see " California Flying: Mammoth Magic," April Pilot) giving hour-long, half-day, and full-day rides and custom multi-day trips into the wilderness. The horses and mules are experienced trail horses and are well suited to riders from beginner to expert. Even a half-day ride in the mountains can be refreshing, but if you're a more experienced rider and you're looking for something more adventurous, you should consider one of Mammoth Pack's six-day horse drives.

The spring drive is a 100-mile trip that moves the herd from the winter grazing area near Fort Independence, at the north end of the Owens Valley, to the Mammoth Pack station at the 9,000-foot level above the town of Mammoth Lakes. The fall drive moves them back again. You don't have to be a card-carrying cowboy, but you do need some basic riding experience for the drive. If you haven't had trail-riding experience, you should at least have logged some time trotting and loping. You're considered part of the trail drive crew and you'll be spending most of your day in the saddle.

The trip begins before you leave home. Mammoth Pack's Web site ( gives you details on what to bring, and more important, what not to bring. Do bring a cowboy hat with a horsehair stampede string. (Sure, Billy Crystal wore a Mets hat, but that's the movies.) Do bring a pair of Western boots with riding heels — not your handmade dress-up rattlesnake-skin customs. Do bring a wild rag — a.k.a. bandanna. You won't be robbing banks, but it'll help with wind, heat, and trail dust. You'll also need a small tent, a sleeping bag, and an inflatable pad. Whatever you bring has to fit into two duffles, which Mammoth Pack carries for you. (Check the Web site for what not to bring.)

The first day on the trail begins with "crew call," usually an hour or so after sunup. You'll pack your sleeping gear and your tent and carry it to a big trailer so it can be where you need it later in the day. The baggage trailer, the chuck wagons, a hay wagon, a horse trailer, and the Buckaroo Loo — a four-hole restroom on wheels — are always present wherever the herd stops en route.

After breakfast the crew — that's you — mounts up and assembles the herd. Horse drives are different than cattle drives. Cattle usually only make the trip once, just before they wind up on a menu. Packhorses work for a living, and these horses make this round trip every year. Once they're on the familiar trail they know where they're going and they're excited to get there. On a horse drive, the crew isn't there to keep them dogies rollin'; you're there to hold them back.

Just like formation flying, each slot in the herd comes with different challenges. Lead riders ride abreast, set the pace, and get to ride ahead of the dust cloud. Flank riders hold the pack together and round up strays. Riding flank is dustier than riding lead, but it's the best spot if you like riding solo through the sagebrush, standing tall in the saddle, and chasing horses. Bringing up the back is the dustiest spot, but the least demanding in terms of horsemanship. Where you ride is up to you.

After about three hours of riding you'll pack the herd into a corral and stop for lunch. The stops are a lot like hangar flying; some jokes, some tall tales, and maybe a pointer or two from a more experienced rider. After lunch it's back in the saddle for another few hours until you reach the campsite for the night. The horses go into the corral, the saddles come off the trail horses, and the farrier and the trail boss check them all for broken shoes and perform any necessary veterinary triage. Meanwhile, riders pitch their tents, freshen up, and the camaraderie continues over beverages and snacks.

Last fall's trip had 23 guests, along with three cooks, two lunch crew, four camp crew, and six wranglers. You might think a horse drive is something you would only do once, but 20 of those 23 were veterans. One couple came from just outside London, England, to ride. Stuart Gorrie, a software engineer from Yorba Linda, made his third drive last fall. "On the fall trip, the scenery is awesome," he said. "You're climbing rocks, climbing steep banks, descending ravines, and riding through pine trees. The challenges on horseback aren't difficult, but they put your basic skills to test." Don Blackman of Riverside was on his fifty-third drive — twice a year since 1976. Blackman brought a handheld GPS, not because he doesn't know the route, but because he likes to monitor the pace. On last fall's trip there were singles and couples of all ages.

After dinner the crew adjourns to the campfire and listens to cowboy songs and poetry. Last fall Dave Stamey performed for about 90 minutes, including a yodeling lesson and lots of sing-alongs. When the music's over, the light show begins; more stars than you can count, lots of shooting stars, and an airshow of planes based at Fallon, Nellis, and Edwards air force bases. (Area 51 is just over the hills to the east, just in case you see lights you can't explain.)

Mammoth Pack's Sharyn Henry is in charge of matching riders and horses "based on the rider's size, experience, and personality. I have a conversation with each guest and learn where they want to ride, what type of horse they like and are used to, and if they're aggressive riders or more timid. So far I've done well in my matches." Six days on the trail will cost you $920 per rider, which covers all your meals and includes a ride to and from Mammoth Yosemite Airport or Bishop Airport. The company also offers discounts for groups of 12 or more — like a flying club.

If you're concerned about your horsemanship, try the spring drive. It's 30 miles shorter, and it starts with easy terrain and gradually gets more challenging. In the spring the streams are all flowing full from melting snow, the trail is greener so there's not as much dust, and it's still too cool for bugs. In contrast, the fall drive moves from cool weather to hot, from high altitude to low, and from rocky, hilly terrain to flat ground. Still there are no guarantees from the Sierra; last spring's trip encountered a hailstorm, which was challenging but brief. In either season they ride rain or shine.

Last year the fall drive was the same week as the Reno Air Races. If you're the type who likes your Mustangs to have a prop in the front, maybe someone in your family would like to ride the trail while you watch airplanes. Saddle up. The spring drive starts on June 14.

Mammoth Lakes, all four square miles of it, sits at an altitude of 7,800 feet in the Inyo National Forest in Mono County. The town, home to 7,093 year-round residents, is bordered by the Ansel Adams and John Muir wilderness areas and is 32 miles south of Yosemite National Park's east entrance.