In the fall of 2019 we headed west with the ultimate goal being Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. However, on our way there we had one little side trip in mind. Seeing and photographing WILD horses! After a lot of research, I managed to come up with a good game plan for our best chances at spotting some. Little did we know that this LITTLE side trip would later become one hell of an experience that we will not be forgetting any time soon.
But, before we get into that, I want to talk about another favorite location of ours; Devils Tower in Wyoming. On our way west this was our first destination. We had night shots of the tower on our agenda. It is so amazing to view it at night when the crowds are gone, and it is drenched in moonlight, surrounded by shimmering stars. After photographing the tower, we also headed off to another neat structure near by. Just before entering the park there is a neat stone building near the trading post. It is an old flour mill, built in the 1930's, that has been carefully moved and reconstructed in this new location. I love history, so here is a link to an article about it that I found quite interesting and informative. In the article they mention using it as a wedding venue. I would LOVE to shoot a wedding there! What a gorgeous venue it will make!
Tale of an Unfortunate and Unforgettable Event
Where to begin...
Well, let's start with the 1st day we arrived in Lovell, Wyoming. Upon arriving we got set up in a pretty awesome little campground. Then we headed to the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center. This wonderful place was quite helpful providing us with a map and tips of where some of the horses had been most recently spotted that day. Check out their website here. We then ventured off, and not long after we spotted our first wild horses! It was SUPER windy though, and they were quite a ways away. So after watching them for a while we continued exploring the area...ON PAVEMENT, mostly. The views of Devil's Canyon Overlook at sunset was one heck of a bonus (check out the stunning panorama from here below). Along the return drive to camp, we came across this handsome guy who I later learned is named Chief Joseph. The Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center keeps record of the horses and has helpful information about them. He was quite curious and wandered rather close to where I was photographing him from. I gave him some space and shortly after he heard some other horses off in the distance. We continued driving and a short drive later he caught up to us and a couple other horses. What a way to end our one day getting to observe and photograph wild horses....or so we thought was our last day...
About The Horses
"The history of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses is not well known. There are accounts of the wild horses being present in the late 1800’s, and many people believe that there were wild horses in the Pryor Mountains in the early to mid-1700’s. At the Center, we believe the herd is descended from Spanish horses brought to the area by different Native American tribes, especially the Crow. Many other share this belief, though some other plausible explanations have also been proposed. Starting in the mid-1990’s, studies were done on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses to determine genetic traits of the herd, such as their level of inbreeding and what type of horse the herd was most genetically related to. From these studies, it was determined that the herd has high genetic diversity, meaning they have low levels of inbreeding. It was also determined that the herd has genetic traits consistent with Spanish horses and that the herd lacks genetic traits that would have originated in draft or thoroughbred ancestors. Around this same time, there were also studies on the phenotype of the herd. That is, these studies were concerned with determining if the wild horses looked like Spanish horses. These studies confirmed that the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses indeed had colors and conformation consistent with Spanish horses.
Because of the above reasons, we and many others believe that the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses really are descendents of Spanish horses. They are a type of horse today known as the Colonial Spanish Horse or the Spanish Mustang, which is considered a rare and endangered breed. -From the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center
Continuing along...spotted these cuties!
As we headed back to camp for the night we stumbled upon the stunning Chief Joseph. He was SOOOO much closer to us that I stood right next to the vehicle to capture some images. As I continued shooting he slowly wandered closer and appeared to be quite curious. I was so excited to get the exhilarating opportunity to be so close to him. His presence was awe inspiring. I gave him space though, and soon he trotted off across the road. Continuing to watch him, we noticed he became quite alert and had heard something in the distance that we did not. It was just a short drive up the road that we saw what it was. It was two other horses heading his direction. I believe their names are Oak and Pax. What a treat to be photographing them as they encountered Chief Joseph. I am no expert on horse behavior...especially wild ones; but there seemed to be tension in their greeting, so it was exciting waiting to see what would unfold. Things didn't get too exciting between the three, but it was quite the experience anyway. What a way to end our one day getting to observe and photograph wild horses....or so we thought was our last day...
After a Decent Night's Sleep
The following morning the plan was to originally get packed up and hit the road to our next destination. However, we had caught the bug...the wild horse bug. So, a spontaneous decision was made to try hitting some of the unpaved back-roads to look for just a few more wild horses. We had the intention of just making it a short drive and to get back on the road by 10:00 AM. HAHAHAHAHA!!!! We didn't even eat breakfast I don't think! DUMB!!! I mean we had a few snacks in the vehicle...but still!
So, we venture up what we THOUGHT was a road I had heard of called Sykes Ridge Road. After driving a bit we came to a 'Y' in the road...we happened to see a pickup truck with a couple cowboys in it. They were kind enough to point is in the right direction to get to Sykes. If kind is the right word knowing what we now know..lol. Anyway, we followed Burnt Timber Ridge Road up the mountain as it turns out...until we FINALLY found ANOTHER band of horses!!! We were so ecstatic. But, before I continue on about all that...let me just give you an idea of what this ROAD was like. It was so NOT a road! It was a beaten 4-wheeler trail is how I would put it. Granted, we enjoy off-roading adventures, but we had a Chevy Suburban. Which would have been just fine...except things didn't go quite as planned...and the signs warning that short wheel base vehicles are recommended ALMOST should state REQUIRED! I mean we did come out alive...but let's just say not until the FOLLOWING DAY!! Check out these couple of short video clips from the phone of just how rough of a ride it was. Did I mention that we didn't even reach Sykes Ridge Road until about NOON!? So much for that 10:00 AM departure.
So at the end of Burnt Timber Ridge Road was where we hit the jackpot on horses! In a wooded area we first came across the band of stallion Garcia. (Thanks again to the Pryor Mountain Mustang Center for all the help in identifying which horses we saw) After spending a little time with his band and that cute foal, we made our way around a bend and WHOA! Check out all those horses across the way from where we were! Is that the road we were on that they are standing along?! Well, yes it was!
More of Garcia's Band
When we reached this treasure trove we were in heaven! Unfortunately I have not figured out all of the names of these horses at this point in time. The few I did, are captioned with the names.
Check out a few short video clips...sorry for the poor video quality.
I could have spent so much longer just watching all these horses. After we left the Pryor Mountain area, I did try my best to count how many we saw the entire time we were there. The closest estimate I got was around 90...that's right NINETY wild horses!!!! Even after everything that was about to unfold as we left these horses behind us to head back to camp for the night, it was 100% worth it! I may have been absolutely terrified for my life for several of the hours to follow...but it sure gives us one hell of a story to tell. So, let the dramatic and terrifying scene unfold...
When we started making the return trip to camp, we decided we might as well take Sykes Ridge Road back down the mountain. We knew what was behind us already after all, might as well try the other road which SHOULD have taken just as long, and for all we knew might be in better shape. HA! We soon learned it was not any better...in fact, was worse in certain areas. We saw some more big horn sheep on this stretch, but no more horses. There was this cool spot though that we got out to explore just a little. There was this really large hole in the cliff, and the views overlooking the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Devils Canyon Overlook from the panorama image above. The cover image for this blog post is from this vantage point looking down on where we were the day before.
Alright, it was going on almost 3:00 PM now! Did I mention we had not eaten at all yet except a few snacks, all day?! We were starving and wanted to get back to camp to eat and relax for the night before leaving early the next morning. So we didn't stop for any more exploring or photo ops. We did have a map that had the roads we were traveling labeled, but it was not great. It didn't tell us how far we really had to go yet, and at times it was hard to pinpoint where we were on the map exactly. The cell phone service was almost non-existent, which is to be expected in remote places such as this, but it does make it more stressful too. By our best estimates, we would guess we had made it within maybe just a couple miles of the tar road back to civilization, when we came across a steep hill that was horribly washed out and there was NO WAY we were going to make it out that way! That could only mean one thing now... we would have to backtrack that entire road we had just come from! We were all feeling quite angry, defeated, nervous, and just a mixture of all kinds of emotions at the thought of the roughly, almost 4 hours (if you don't count the time just watching the horses) we had ahead of us now...and it was now about 3:30 PM I think. The sun would be setting very soon!
Now, we made decent time climbing back up Sykes Ridge, kind of knowing the route we just took. I should also mention Matt and I love off-roading and four-wheeling, so trails like this normally aren't an issue, and we enjoy it. Sometimes though, things just don't always go as planned. The problem, to put it lightly, was about halfway up Sykes where there was a hairpin curve on the edge of some steep cliffs where the path was kind of sketchy. Going downhill earlier on it wasn't too bad. However, as we made the ascent it quickly became a treacherous situation! Now, my husband didn't think it was all that bad (and maybe I was a bit over-reacting, but in the location we were and the surroundings, and no other people ANYWHERE...I was not about to let him take chances trying to make it out. The problem was that as we came around that hairpin turn there was a shelf-rock, and with how the vehicle was sitting it cause the rear-end of the Suburban to start sliding to the left towards the cliffs behind us! When ever Matt tried to move it at all it would start sliding, and that's when panic hit HARD! Me, and the two other female photographers that were with all got out and climbed up the hill a bit. We could NOT sit in it while he tried to move it. Watching him in it as it was sliding down, I was so worried it was going to roll or something. I demanded he not try any more....I had become kind of hysterical if I must admit it, haha. So after some heated moments of frustration, we took a few minutes to try and collect ourselves and assess the situation. It was now 4:30 PM...and we could see rain moving in! *CRYING* Thankfully, Whitney had just enough service to make phone calls right at where we were. So, not seeing any other alternative, and no internet service working to look up places to call for help, we had no choice but to call 911. After making multiple phone calls to the local Sheriff's Offices and towing companies, we had thought we finally would be getting out. Unfortunately, that particular guy would charge WAY more than we had to spare. That meant back to square one, but eventually Matt was able to get a hold of another guy he was local and said he could help us but he was in another city in the opposite direction finishing another job. At that point though, he was our only hope. Before talking to him, it had come up with the dispatch that a search and rescue could be done but for that we would have to leave EVERYTHING there...the vehicle, food, camera equipment...everything! Not an option we said. Anyway, so this guy quoted us a much more reasonable amount and was going to come rescue us. This only issue was that it originally was estimated it wouldn't be until at least 10:30 PM! We hadn't eaten dinner yet and since getting stuck it had started to rain. Go figure! It forced us to have to get back in the vehicle which was leaning at a serious angle to the left. It was SOOOO uncomfortable! Not to mention scary because of not knowing if it would decide to start sliding on its own more. Now, we did have our food in coolers buried in the way back, but most would require a grill that was back at camp, and we weren't about to try moving all kinds of stuff around in the back either. So we settled for the same snacks we had been eating ALL DAY. We were hangry and tired for sure. As we sat waiting, trying to be patient, Matt continued to call the guy back every hour or so to check in on progress, being the guy seemed like he wasn't very familiar with where we were...no surprise to us. As it turned out, he had NEVER been up in this area before! He had no idea what he was getting himself into trying to find us with our vague guess at where we were on the map. He later said he would never be taking jobs going up there again...we don't blame him. He had to drive up to us in complete darkness the entire way too! The hardest part was the wait now...he ended up not reaching us until about 2:00 AM! That was the longest almost 10 hours sitting in that position, starving, and stressed to the max! Thankfully, he brought a buddy with to help, granted they were both older gentlemen and the one I don't know if he even knew much about towing vehicles...I think he was just along to accompany the owner. So the moment of freedom had finally arrived. Or we hoped so. I was unable to watch, and insisted Matt not be in the vehicle as the guy hooked a chain between our Suburban and his pickup to pull it over the ledge. Surprisingly to me, it didn't take very long and they were able to get it over the ledge and up the hill a bit to leveler ground! I was so happy that I insisted on giving both gentlemen a hug! Yes, me..the one who is not big on hugging, especially strangers, at 2:00 AM in the middle of nowhere.
Unfortunately, we did still have several hours of driving these sketchy roads in the dark yet. My nerves and anxiety were back in high gear again! We did eventually make it to the spot where the 2 "roads" met and there was actually another one that the tow truck guy said he believed would be the better route back to town, as he had been on part of that one before. So, we did follow that back to town. It was probably the safer bet. However, remember it had been raining? Well, as it turns out that dirt road is a lot of clay, and it is like driving on black ice back home in Minnesota when it gets wet! So it was still nerve wracking the entire drive back, being much of that road there were steep cliffs next to the super slippery roadway, and the Suburban was fishtailing. At last though, we had made it back to the campsite at 5:30 AM!! We all collapsed in our beds and fell fast asleep! Granted we only slept for a few hours...after all, we had places to be and things to see today yet! HAHAHA
(After the initial rain, we got a break for a while where we were greeted with this fantastic view of a double rainbow with the misty clouds creeping over the top of the mountain. Leave it to a stressed out photographer to STILL find the will to capture something amazingly beautiful in a horrible situation. The one thing to take away for sure from all of this, is to always see the positive in bad situations and you can grasp onto that to help make it through.)