The great American adventure

Whether it's cliff camping, wild horse-riding, paddling through swamps or chasing storms, the USA is no stranger to rugged, raw and often terrifying adventure experiences. Take a deep breath and dive right in…

By Aaron Millar
Published 5 Mar 2015, 16:41 GMT
Mustangs being rounded up. Image: Aaron Millar.
Mustangs being rounded up. Image: Aaron Millar.

Mustang Monument, Nevada

There's no time to run. In the cold amber of dawn, I've crept out alone to a band of wild mustang horses, stealing between scratches of sagebrush and swaying crests of ryegrass until, without me noticing, I'm surrounded by the herd, close enough to see the muscles flexing on their legs and the sweat beading on the back of their necks. Suddenly, a mare charges — eyes flaring, snorting angrily — stopping a few feet from my trembling hands to raise her head in defiance. Later, Clay Naninni, a local cowboy whose friendly swagger could have charmed John Wayne out of town, laughs it off: "She was just playing," he says. But I'm not so sure.

The wild rights of some 40,000 mustangs are under threat. For more than 400 years, these horses have wandered the Great Basin of America's western range, an unfathomable emptiness of grasslands and salt beds, stretching from Utah across Nevada and into California and Oregon. But in this water-poor, cattle-rich region, free-roaming horses are increasingly seen as a threat. Ranchers claim that without a natural predator, their presence is unsustainable and the Bureau of Land Management — charged under federal law with maintaining an ecological balance of grazing rights — has, more often than not, agreed. As a result, round-ups of wild horses destined for holding pens or worse, illegal poaching and slaughterhouses, have become a regular occurrence. In 2013, nearly $50 million (£33 million) was spent keeping almost 50,000 wild horses in captivity.

But there may be a solution. Businesswoman and philanthropist Madeleine Pickens — a glamorous billionaire so beautiful, she could have stepped out of the pages of a Jackie Collins novel — has built the world's first wild horse eco-resort: a 900-sq mile sanctuary for up to 1,000 mustangs who have been forcibly removed from the land. By negating the need for expensive holding pens, she believes her ranch can spare US tax payers up to millions of dollars a year, while allowing the horses to remain free and enabling tourists to connect with this iconic symbol of the American West. I couldn't wait to take a look.

The resort itself is glamping on diamond-studded flysheets — authentic reclaimed wood cabins, and enormous hand-painted teepees, lavished with rustic chic interiors, artisan throws and hand-carved rocking chairs that gaze out to the herd. Home-cooked communal banquets are served every night. Cocktails are served at every opportunity. Staying here is like being in a Vogue editor's daydream of the Wild West: sensual, stylish, but with just the right amount of dust and grit to make it real.

Six hundred of Madeleine's herd wander freely across her lands, but a select few have been trained for guests to ride. On my first morning, I helped Clay round up our horses, watching him driving a band of two dozen across the range with swirling lasso cracks, jaw clicks and whistles. We corralled them, chose our mounts and kicked higher into the Spruce Mountains — one of three ranges encompassed by the property — the scent of broken sagebrush filling the air. "That smell is the number one thing I love about Nevada," Clay said. "Well, number two; the bars don't close."

Later that day we explored ghosted 19th-century gold mining settlements, tracked wild horses from watering holes to grazing meadows, and feasted on a picnic of cheeseboards, salads and fresh baked cookies bussed up to meet us with dining tables, armchairs, wine and hot coffee. If Downton Abbey went west, I thought, this would be how they'd do it.

Still, I wanted to get closer. Experienced equestrians can ride alongside the wild herd, but it can be dangerous: the ground is uneven, the horses unpredictable and your mount is liable to bolt. Thankfully, there is another way. Anticipating the need to branch out from traditional, ranch-style experiences, Madeleine, with the kind of intoxicating lack of frugality one would expect from a billionaire, purchased two of the highest-powered, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) known to man, and an ex-Navy Seal to drive them.

The next morning we tore deep into the ranch's grazing grounds, sliding to tipping point on every corner, joyous terror emanating from every orifice. And then we saw them: a herd, 40-strong, cutting through the high desert in a dust storm of galloping hooves, muscle and grace.

"To be near them," Clay had said earlier, "is like thunder." But it felt more than that too. As we matched their speed, pulling up alongside them to hear the beat of their hooves on the open ground, it felt like I was somehow connected, for just an instant, to that wild spirit they represent.

On my last morning we roped up two enormous draft horses, Pat and Duke, to a hay wagon and rattled down to feed the herd. Once again I found myself surrounded, though not by a small band — 600 wild stamping hooves and darting black eyes circled us nervously. Yet, I wasn't afraid. There is something harmonious about seeing the mustangs in this landscape as they seem to be a living symbol of that free, untamed spirit that helped build the American West.

Then they were running again, circling us in a mist of bleached white dust. I watched them in awe, willing them to always roam free.

How to do it: Mustang Monument Wild Horse Eco Resort, outside of Wells, Nevada, costs $1,000 (£650) per tepee per night and $1,500 (£970) per cottage per night for two, including full board and all activities.

Alternative: Ride out with a herd of 2,500 bison at Zapata Ranch, Colorado. Six nights with Ranch Rider costs from £1,495 per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation, meals and activities. Flights not included.

Coyote, Yellowstone National Park. Image: Getty
Coyote, Yellowstone National Park. Image: Getty

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Twenty years ago this January, wolves, having been hunted to near extinction, were reintroduced to Yellowstone in an attempt to cull the escalating elk numbers and halt the detrimental effects of over-grazing. Their impact on the entire eco-system was dramatic, helping to regenerate devastated valleys and restore the habitats of numerous smaller animals. Go and see for yourself on a wolf-watching adventure in Yellowstone, now one of the most reliable places in the US to see this remarkable alpha predator in action.

Details: Yellowstone Wolf Guides offers six-day, expert-led wolf-watching trips in Yellowstone from $1,670 (£1,080) per person including accommodation, transport, equipment and most meals. Flights not included.

Yosemite National Park, California

This October marks the 125th anniversary of the iconic wilderness destination of Yosemite National Park. But it can get busy. Escape the crowds, with a catered camp-to-camp, long-distance hike through its undiscovered backcountry. The bunkhouse-style tents are basic, but the locations deep in the glacier valleys and granite domes of the High Sierra Mountains — accessible only by boot or saddle — are sublime.

Details: Open June-September. Advance reservations are granted on a lottery basis. From $180 (£118) per person per night including dinner, breakfast and dorm. Expect 6-10 miles of walking per day.

Read more in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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