"That over there's what we call a rattlesnake hotel," says my grinning cowgirl guide, Hannah, from atop her dusty brown quarter horse, Scout. Hannah adjusts her fedora and points to the rattlesnake hiding placea hulking, half-sunken tree trunk riddled with more holes than a rabbit warren. I'm about 8,500 feet above sea level on a steep trail in California's Giant Sequoia National Monument, and I'm suddenly thrilled that I'm five feet above the ground on the back of my own horse.
Hannah is at the head of the packthere are six of us in all, not including our guideand as she looks back over our group, her grin eases into a cheery smile. "No rattlesnakes today," she says. "Too cold for 'em." With that, she urges us further up the trail, through what she calls a "horse carwash" between two big bushy evergreens that leave us smelling pine fresh. We emerge into a stand of giant trees amid partially submerged boulders. Moments later, a flurry of orange- and red-tinged butterflies burst onto the trail from nearby bushes, momentarily disturbed by the rustle of our horses.
This is the High Sierras at their most accessible. The Big Meadows Horse Corral organizes horseback riding trips like these in the Sierra Nevada range, complete with horses suited to your temperament and experience level, guides like Hannah to show you the way and provide some local color, and of course the best alpine scenery this side of the Great Western Divide. It's hard to go wrong with the price, too. Guided rides cost as little as $25 a person.
Planning your trip
The Big Meadows Horse Corral, operated by Charley and Judy Mills, is open for guided rides and pack trips from mid-June to Labor Day. The Mills own about 75 horses, most of which spend the off-season in the foothills above Three Rivers, California, and make the summer journey to the pack station inside Giant Sequoia National Monument in early June. From the pack station, the Mills offer two types of guided daytrips:
- $25 a person for a one-hour ride on mostly level terrain
- $50 a person for a half-day (three-hour) ride that climbs into the high mountain passes of the Sierra Nevada range
Charley Mills recommends making arrangements at least a few days ahead of time. He employs three stable hands who, like Hannah, act as guides for the guests and help around the ranch. Children must be at least seven years old to ride, and Mills requires anyone 16 or under to wear a riding helmet. On trips where children are present, Mills supplies a second guide at no additional cost.
For those who can set aside more than a day, Mills also offers spot pack trips, extended pack trips, and all-expense trips. Call 559-565-3404 (summer) or 559-565-6429 (winter) for prices, which vary by destination.
The Big Meadows Horse Corral is about 90 minutes east of Fresno. If you're coming from out of state, you might find better airfare prices by flying to either Los Angeles or San Francisco, which have many more direct flights and are served by more airlines than Fresno. The Giant Sequoia National Monument is about four to five hours from both cities.
More than 7,500 feet above sea level, the Montecito-Sequoia Lodge (800-227-9900) isn't just close to the Big Meadows Horse Corral, it's also a worthy destination by itself. Rates range from $79 to $125 a person based on double occupancy, and include buffet-style meals and access to the lodge's hiking trails, private lake, canoes, archery range, outdoor swimming pool and hot tub, tennis courts, volleyball net, campfire activities, and (believe it or not) Wi-Fi Internet access. Advance reservations are critical, particularly during the summer months when Montecito-Sequoia's highly regarded family vacation camp is running in full force.
The lodge is a throwback to another era, a place where families and couples sit around a crackling fireplace on a cool summer night in the mountains, sinking deep into the leather chairs and couches arranged around the stone hearth. If the chairs themselves are a little beaten up, and the rooms and cabins a little more reminiscent of the 1950s than the 21st century, it doesn't really matter. The atmosphere makes up for it. The lodge is open year-round, and has also won numerous awards for its winter sports and activities, including cross-country skiing and private trails.
Those on a tighter budget should consider the Big Meadows campground, which is one of about 50 organized campgrounds in Sequoia National Forest and is close to the horse corral. Wilderness permits for the entire area are available at the Sequoia National Park visitors center in Lodgepole.
It's hard to beat Montecito-Sequoia, though, both for its central location and its old-fashioned ambience. In writing this, I'm reminded of my final night at the lodge. There I am toasting my toes by the fireplace and lost in a thick book, while across from me a little girl is reading an enormous tome of campfire ghost stories, eyes wide with delight. There's a sort of unspoken kinship here, a simple connection between generations, even among strangers. In many ways, that's what the lodge is all about.