There is a little slice of heaven for horses and horse lovers alike nestled between Yellowstone National Park and Bighorn National Forest. Covering just under 110,000 acres of land (slightly smaller than Vatican City), the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Herd Management area (HHMA) boasts more than 140 wild adult horses (as of June 2014). These horses are the epitome of the untamed west, galloping freely across a vast stretch of land—unbridled and unbothered by the distant cities surrounding them. Not only are they iconic for their imagery of wild Americana; they’re also one of Wyoming’s most alluring tourist attractions and guided tours are offered by several agencies in nearby Cody, WY.
After our incredible Yellowstone tour, we were hooked to Wyoming’s wild allure and were excited to experience another unique adventure. Since we were on a limited travel schedule, we opted out of a guided tour, especially taking into consideration the horses’ reputation for high visibility. With some general information about the area, we entered the HHMA through McCullough Peaks Road off Greybull Highway/U.S. 14.
Almost immediately after entering the HHMA, the landscape began showcasing its beauty. The breathtaking view was typical of badlands terrain, flaunting bright oranges and corals against the rusty sand background. At times the grass looked a weathered greyish green while other spots seemed to have absorbed all the water and carried a vibrant green color to prove it. The only thing that took away from this view was the roads which had a thick clay-like consistency that made it difficult to navigate at times. Although we had already equipped Fargo with BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2 tires, our rig weighed down with all of our gear, had a tough time maintaining traction. This was due to the insane amount of clay, layered on so thick that it tamed the aggressive tire tread pattern, making it almost smooth. Believe us when we say, mud terrain or krawler tires would have also been equally caked in this terrain.
Nonetheless, we ventured on, motivated by the possibility of documentary-style views of wild horses. Although the backdrop scenery held its own, it was not in fact what we had come to see, but it was a pleasant surprise to say the least. After 20 minutes of driving, we had yet to see the horses we sought and as a matter of fact, we had yet to see any wildlife besides the occasional bird or rabbit.
We were baffled at the fact that there were no signs of life despite the vast amount of land, lush terrain and remote location. Logic told us to seek high land so that we could have the best vantage point and have a chance of spotting the elusive horse herd. Higher and higher we went, reaching false peak after false peak. Despite the promise of experiencing an American postcard first-hand, the lack of results was beginning to take its toll. And yet, what we expected to take a half hour, was now entering its second hour. We decided to take on one last peak that looked steeper and distinctly higher than the others we’d crested. A few feet into our ascent, we saw a yellow diamond road sign which read “Caution: Very Slippery”. We should have taken to that to heart. After all, anyone who takes the time to put a warning sign in what felt like the middle of nowhere, must’ve had a very good reason to do so. But up we went, inching higher up the hill bringing with us almost two hours’ worth of clay-covered tires.
Suddenly, the truck started slipping sideways and backwards with nothing but a ravine to break its fall. We had to turn around…on a one-lane, steep and slippery incline in the middle of nowhere. Since the driver (Eddie) was having enough of a hard time just keeping the truck in place, it only made sense that as the passenger, I step outside of the vehicle to direct the descent. I opened the door and with the slightest hop sunk four inches into the clay. I wadded up the hill enough so that I could be seen giving instructions. I felt like the ground crew at an airport directing parking and alignment. The truck backed up a little bit—just enough to get out of the worst part of the muddy clay. As soon as we felt more solid ground, I jumped in the truck and we maneuvered a zillion-point turn so that we wouldn’t have to reverse the entire way down. We carefully made our way off the HHMA land and back on to the 14 highway.
Back on pavement, we refused to accept that despite our best efforts and the horses’ fame, we not only hadn’t seen them, but we had put ourselves at an unexpected risk. The distance between the several entrances of the HHMA provided enough time to do more research and now that we’d quadrupled the original amount of time we’d allotted to this activity, we chose to give it another shot in the hopes of having something to show for it at the end. Back in we went, this time through the opposite end of McCullough Peaks’ Road. Led by the continuously captivating views, we drove further and further into the mountains. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we drove so far in from both entrances, that we almost completed the entire arch through the driving we’d done from each end. This part of the land offered different challenges. We spotted Pronghorn—alas a sign of life and yet another motivator to keep going further in. This journey brought us deeper into the land than our previous traverse. We encountered marshy parts of land that were difficult to get through. The first few were exciting but as the puddles began resembling ponds, we realized that we were putting ourselves in a bad situation. We had no cell phone signal, no one knew we were there, we didn’t have a second vehicle or a winch and it was just two of us. Though we were confident our 4×4 and Maxtrax would be enough to get us out of it if it came to it, at this point we were ready to cut our losses. The negatives began to out weigh the positives and the majestic mustangs just didn’t seem to be worth the risk at this point. We turned around and celebrated each puddle crossing that brought us closer back to the highway. And then it happened. Off in the distance, two horses grazing peacefully. We almost missed them. We’d lost hope. But there they were.
We approached them cautiously in our vehicle. The last thing thing we wanted to do was scare off the only horses that we had found after hours of searching for them. Luckily for us, the horses turned out to be indifferent to our presence and continued on their regularly scheduled horsing as we approached them. We parked within a safe distance, took out our telephoto lenses and began capturing them through our lenses—these two horses that graced us with their presence as a pay-off for all our efforts. The stallion was broad and chiseled with a tan coat and the most amusing rasta dreadlocks. We later learned his name may be “Navigator”, his companion was a sleek and strong brown mare. After a half hour admiring them, we took off, grateful that our efforts had finally paid off!
On our way back to the highway, we spotted another truck near the exit of the trail. We decided that we might as well exhaust all our options and ask them if they knew about these supposed wild horses. The family were locals and were on the land spotting owls. (Seriously? We can’t find a herd of horses and you’re trying to spot owls?) They confirmed the existence of these horses and added that they are usually easily visible from the highway. We should just look for a bunch of multi-colored dots in the hills, and that’s usually them. Ha, wouldn’t that be something? We thanked them and took off. With the last nugget of knowledge and the locals’ advice, we drove down the highway, keeping an eye out for a bunch of multi-colored dots on the hills. Wouldn’t you know it, not 15 minutes later, that’s exactly what we saw! Son of a mare! No wonder we couldn’t find the horses deep in the Land, they were hanging out by the highway. We laughed out of irony, misery and relief and without a drop of hesitation, drove into Whistler’s Creek to take a closer look at the herd we’d so desperately wanted to see.
After hours of driving, researching and waning hope we were finally able to enjoy the famous McCullough Peaks’ wild horse herd. And boy, did we enjoy them! It ended up being two groups of horses, including a black stallion who wandered off alone at the distance and could have been a stunt double of Black Beauty. At last. We sat and admired the 20-30 horses as they grazed, galloped and moved across the hill. It was worth every pound of clay and every minute of driving time.
After some time admiring them and having taken a satisfying amount of pictures, we decided to take off, just like the horses were doing. We packed up our photography gear got in our truck and began driving off. Just when we thought we’d seen it all, the black stallion began running alongside our black 4Runner, as if escorting us off the mountain (or kicking us out!). It was an experience that is shockingly difficult to put in words but which created more emotions with a wild animal in a few minutes than most experience in a lifetime.