Cowgirls & Mustangs: Riding the High Desert in California’s Surprise Valley
By Louisa Preston
Romeo and I followed the trail on the moon colored sand. We maneuvered around silver balls of sagebrush, a rattlesnake, horned lizards and a herd of wild mustangs.
This was a day’s experience on a cowgirl ride in the high desert of Surprise Valley, California.
Surprise Valley, located in the northeast corner of California, is a prehistoric lake bordered by the Warner Mountains, on the west and by the Hayes Range on the east.
The frontier town of Cedarville has an elevation of 4,648 feet and approximately 800 residents. Main Street is bordered by buildings from the late 1800s when more than 300,000 emigrants in wagon trains traveled through.
Today farmers still herd their livestock down the center of Main Street. Cedarville has B & Bs and ranches which offer guided horseback tours. The base camp for our rides was Fandango Ranch.
On a ride at “Massacre Ranch” (There was no massacre that we know of) we collected obsidians which were scattered on the desert floor. Obsidian is a glossy black glass formed by rapid cooling of molten lava.
Surprise Valley was formed over a million years ago from molten rock that erupted to the surface during volcanic activity.
This area has other geological items, such as volcanic pebbles which look like pine nuts. In 1995, Massacre Ranch, located in northwestern Nevada, was acquired by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) which reintroduced bighorn sheep into the area. The BLM maintains a bunkhouse and a camping area both open to public use.
Our rides followed the National Historic Trails. There were places were one could distinguish the trails created by the wheels of covered wagons.
Stakes with descriptive plaques mark different sites. Near Massacre Creek we observed part of the original Applegate Trail and Marker A22, which read “Applegate Trail – Singular Rock:
‘After we left (upper high rock) canyon we crossed over one or two hills and passed some water and grass and then took round a hill and encamped in a valley a short distance after passing some large rocks on our left.’ Israel Hale, Aug, 29th, 1849.”
Ponies and Pampering
Darice Massey organized this trip “Ponies, Pampering and Pretty Women.” Darice started riding as a child. Later she trained mustangs at the Lifesavers Wild Horse Rescue. Now she and her husband Jim train and breed mules and mustangs and work as wildlife guides.
Nina was staying with the Massey’s as an intern working with the mustangs and mules. Seventeen years old, she was the youngster of our group. Another one of the “Pretty Women,” Cindy, a firefighter in Cedarville, wore turquoise cowboy boots with large spurs attached with yellow bale twine. She rode one of her mustangs, a large gray, Harley.
Tracey, a beginner rider, rode her friend Monnie’s mustang, Mama. Occasionally on the trail we would hear “Whoa, Mama, Whoa.”
Monnie has owned several different breeds in the past, but mustangs are her favorite. “They are gentle, tougher, and smarter,” she says.
At Sand Creek we parked the trailers on a sandy plateau and rode off creating plumes suited of fine alkaline dust.
Darice, slim with long blond pig tails and blue eyes, rode a handsome palomino. Some of the horses were not accustomed to the desert or to Jim’s black mule. Jim suggested that the riders, rather then following the sandy trail, ride though the sagebrushes which lined the trail.
The horses’ concentration on maneuvering through the sagebrush calmed them. Jim wore leather fringed chaps and a wrangler’s hat. A holstered pistol with a line of bullets hung at his waist. A leather water canteen was tied to his saddle along with several full saddle bags.
After an hour of riding, two mustangs appeared over the ridge above us. We quietly stopped, not wanting to spook them. A few more Mustangs appeared. A stallion gathered his herd and moved them closer.
Jim and Darice recognized that the mustangs were from the Carter Reservoir land. They were happy that the young stallion, which was slightly lame, had been able to attract a couple of mares, a yearling and a foal for his herd.
“Usually wild mustangs do not like mules and will keep away,” Jim said. “However, we have a few mares in our group and stallions want more mares.”
Jim directed us to keep him and his mule between us and the mustangs. We were not to dismount. We photographed the mustangs for about 15 minutes. Then Jim on his black mule trotted toward the herd and the mustangs galloped away.
Darice explained that the Carter Reservoir mustangs have characteristics of the Spanish Mustang. Genetic testing confirmed genetic markers which are unique to horses of Old Iberian descent.
They are often dun in color and may have dark zebra stripped leg markings, dark shoulder bars, dark stripes on their necks, black tipped ears and/or a cob webbing design on their forehead.
The Carter Reservoir herds have been isolated in the areas of Washoe County, Nevada and Modoc County, California.
We stopped at Chicken Hot Springs, with a water temperature around 230 degrees, one of many hot springs located in Surprise Valley. The locals cook their chickens and pigs by throwing them into Chicken Hot Springs.
We saw the dried carcasses and entrails of recent cookouts. We concentrated our attention on historical marker A27:
“Applegate Trail – Hot Springs ‘Steam from boiling springs is visible in many places. Last night a company of 6 wagons from Galena Ills., had their cattle all stolen by the Indians. I learn… that they have recovered but three of them.’ – Simon Doyle, Sep 15, 1849.”
Driving to “cattle corrals” we passed a hay pasture where two greater sandhill cranes were feeding on insects. Surprise Valley is on the Pacific Flyway, which for migratory birds is a major north-south route extending from Alaska to Patagonia, Chile.
Darice mentioned, “One morning I looked out from my kitchen window to see two sandhill cranes enjoying the water coming from our lawn sprinkler. My mules often chase the cranes around the pasture.”
We parked our trailers near a large cattle corral. Karen, a real cowgirl, who has lived in the area all her life, rode with us.
In her late teens she worked for a horse wrangler who captured and trained mustangs. Since she was a woman she was not allowed to ride with the men.
One day she was riding by herself when she came across a herd of mustangs. Two stallions were fighting and didn’t see her.
A nice yearling was on the outskirts of the herd. She rode up and roped the yearling. The rest of the herd galloped away. Within seconds she halter trained the yearling so she could lead him to her home.
“Cattle Corrals” was in a location where Jim and Darice thought we might see wild mustangs.
We climbed a rocky trail which followed a small dry stream. We rode though a lovely area which was covered with winter flat shrubs with tennis size balls of white tuff.
Following a rusty barb wire fence, we came to a grass valley and a disintegrating settler’s cabin.
Blooming wild flowers, such as desert aster, thistle, and rabbit brush lined the banks of a stream. During our return drive back to Fandango we spotted a few mustangs on a ridge high above the road.
The rides had ended, but not the pampering. The Surprise Valley Hot Springs Spa provided massages and mineral tub soaks. We drank champagne and feasted on fruits and bread dipped in a chocolate fountain. The “ponies” relaxed in Fandango’s 60 acre pasture.
Sunrise Valley Resources
Surprise Valley is approximately 123 miles from Klamath Falls, Oregon; 188 miles from Reno, Nevada; 400 miles from San Francisco.
Surprise Valley Chamber of Commerce
519 B Main St., P.O. Box 518, Cedarville, CA 96104
Information on guided rides, bird watching and lodging. This 1st Annual Ride was sponsored by the Chamber.
Fandango Ranch Bob Altieri
P.O. Box 2, Cedarville, CA 96104
Surrounded by sagebrush the ranch is located in the middle of Surprise Valley with 360 degree views. This guest ranch provides lodging for couples, groups, families and horses.
Riders of the Sage Guide Service Darice & Jim Massey
P.O. Box 351, Cedarville, CA 96104
Louisa Preston, a professional photographer and travel writer, travels between California and Virginia.
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