Almost everything about summer vacations is wonderful: new places, new people, amazing landscapes—except that part when you start to miss your horse at the end. But what if you didn’t have to leave him behind?
Thankfully, some of America’s most scenic national parks are also horse-friendly, meaning there are plenty of happy trails for you and your buddy to explore together this summer. Here are five of our favorites, from sea to shining sea.
Sea meets sky at Acadia on Mount Desert Island in Maine, a more than 47,000-acre reserve containing granite peaks, crashing coasts, green lakes and dense woodlands. It’s also a horse-lover’s paradise, with 45 miles of rustic carriage roads built by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the first half of the 20th century. Today, you can bring your own horse or arrange a scenic carriage ride from the park’s resident Wildwood Stables (running the end of May to mid-October).
Sheltering more than 450 species of birds, the diverse landscape of Big Bend, in West Texas, houses a rare mix of habitats and geologic features, from desert oases and dinosaur fossils (plus a flying pterosaur and a 50-foot crocodile), to blooming cacti and temple-like limestone canyons. If you’re trucking in, day use is permitted on Big Bend trails including Chisos Mountain and Burro Mesa, or you can overnight with your horse at several of the park’s primitive road campsites.
In the badlands of western North Dakota, more than 70,000 acres make up President Teddy Roosevelt’s national park, founded in 1947 in his honor (a hunter and outdoorsman, Roosevelt had a longstanding relationship with the region, where he also maintained cattle ranching operations). Wild horses and petrified forest are just some of the wonders visitors can experience in the park’s varied ecosystems, including wide-open prairie, lush river bottoms, buttes, ravines, and more. And the best part? In keeping with TR’s love of riding, almost all of the park is open to horses.
Separated into four distinct regions by the Colorado River and its tributaries, Canyonlands National Park is straight out of a Hollywood Western film stage—only it’s the real deal, with Native American rock art panels, mysterious canyons, and towering buttes. Bring your horse for a day-trip in Horseshoe Canyon, or overnight in park quadrants including the Needles, the Island in the Sky, or the Maze—a remote, lunar-like landscape. (Note: lack of water can be a limiting factor for pack trips, so be sure to contact the park in advance for recommended destinations.)
Located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, these two, side-by-side parks are home to one of the country’s rare groves of towering sequoia trees. Highlights include General Sherman in Giant Forest, a famous sequoia measuring 275 feet tall; some of the most extensive stands of old-growth coniferous forest on the planet; and Kings Canyon, a glacial valley comprised of tall cliffs, green meadows, river and waterfalls. Strike off with your own horse or take a guided trail ride, available at Grant Grove Stable or Cedar Grove Pack Station in Kings Canyon.
Note: Each national park has its own requirements for “stock use”—including permits required, seasonal trail guidelines, grazing dos and don’ts, and more. These can change over time, so make sure to do your research and contact the park for updates before you go.