Califonia Bountiful

Pack up and go

July/August 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Horses and mules take guests into back country

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Surrounded by stunning wilderness views, the Schuler family enjoys a trail ride hosted through Aspen Meadow Pack Station in Pinecrest. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

In the days before 20th-century transportation and paved roads, settlers relied on pack animals including horses and mules to move people and supplies to formerly inaccessible locations across the Sierra Nevada and rugged West.

"Once the Gold Rush hit, miners had to get supplies such as shovels and food to remote places and where there were no roads, so pack mules were used," said Seth Diemel, co-owner of Aspen Meadow Pack Station in Pinecrest, a popular recreation area in the Stanislaus National Forest. "You can move a lot of gear in a hurry with a string of pack animals. Today, pack animals are used for recreation, but at times are still used to move supplies."

The recreational use he speaks of provides an opportunity for people to enjoy the outdoors, away from crowds. One of the oldest national forests, Stanislaus National Forest encompasses about 1,400 square miles in four counties and lies adjacent to the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park. Diemel described his typical customer as an urban resident from the Bay Area or Central Valley.

"The experience of going to the mountains for most people is pretty rare anymore, unless they go on a trip like we offer," he said.

Aspen Meadow trips are back-country trail rides, with travel on horseback accompanied by pack mules. Views include granite peaks, alpine meadows, lakes and wildlife. The trips are led by experienced packers, while trained horses and nimble mules carry riders and gear to nearby points of interest from June to September each year, depending on snowfall.

The pack station, which has led guests to the Emigrant Wilderness area for 91 years, is co-owned by Seth Diemel, shown leading a team of pack mules. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

'Trip of a lifetime'

Aspen Meadow Pack Station, with roots dating to 1929, is the mountainous base of operations and starting point for trail rides and back-country experiences that many guests describe as "a trip of a lifetime."

Louis Hughes, a business owner from Forestville, is a returning guest who now plans pack trips for family and friends.

"It's become the family destination for getting up into the wild, particularly a place we discovered a few years ago that we really like, Granite Lake, which we practically have to ourselves," he said.

Aspen Meadow co-owner Doug Morgan has worked at the pack station for 20 years, having grown up riding horses and packing. He said he enjoys sharing the wilderness experience with guests and added, "We see a lot of kids that have never seen a horse, let alone been on a horse. It's a magical thing for them."

Aspen Meadow Pack Station co-owner Doug Morgan does leather work in the shop. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Many options, many opportunities

According to Morgan and Diemel, most guests are families and groups of friends who enjoy the outdoors and backpacking, fishing or hunting. Aspen Meadow offers one-hour, two-hour, half-day and full-day trail rides, as well as more extensive experiences. For "drop pack" adventures, packers load gear and accompany guests on horseback to a designated wilderness location, then return later to repack and accompany riders back to base. With all-inclusive trips, packers remain with guests, cook meals and provide all gear.

A longtime backpacker, Hughes said family and friends eagerly anticipate the drop-pack trips, where the group travels to a spot and stays put.

"You can pack in just about everything you want. I'm impressed with the mules and their ability to pack all that gear and stay surefooted on the trails. We've had really fun day hikes, climbing to the tops of different peaks in the area, discovering new creeks and pools," Hughes said. "It's here for us to enjoy, just the interaction between the water, the granite and the trees and the high altitude. I love it. It's just another world and it's right in our own backyard."

Most guests are families and groups of friends who enjoy the outdoors and backpacking, fishing or hunting. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Ready, set, go

When a trip is set to begin, guests arrive early at the pack station. Staff and volunteers saddle the trail horses and weigh and load gear into saddlebags, which are carefully balanced on the mules. To ensure surefootedness and a comfortable ride, Diemel said horses and mules are trained and ridden by staff for many years before they are able to carry a guest. Horses are matched to each rider's ability—from novice to seasoned equestrian.

Each mule carries a maximum of 150 pounds and can travel 20 miles or more per day, Diemel said. And when the season is over, the horses and mules relax at a Tuolumne County ranch until the next season begins.

Hughes' granddaughter, Sophia Schuler, now lives in Kansas but said her first experience riding a horse was as a teenager during a family pack trip with Aspen Meadow. She's been hooked ever since.

"The people that run the pack station—we call them the cowboys because, I mean they've got spurs on their boots—they're just so fun to talk to, and when you're with them on horseback for four hours, it's a great way to tell stories and enjoy the view," she said. "The horses all follow in a line and the mules carry our stuff behind us. It's so easy."

Her grandfather agrees.

"The guys at Aspen Meadow, they're the best," Hughes said. "It's fun to just watch them do their cowboy thing."

Morgan Stearns bonds with horse Poncho. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Schuler's father, Costas Schuler, a graphic designer/web developer from Forestville, described his first pack trip last year as "one of the best trips I've taken in my life."

"We brought all kinds of stuff with us," he said. "Hikers would come by and say, 'How'd you get a cooler out here?' They didn't have anything, and we've got boats and pots and pans—everything."

Traveling with family, including his four children ages 10 to 23, Costas Schuler said he didn't miss the internet.

"It was beautiful," he said, adding that it was special to enjoy nature, including a night swim in the lake. "Swimming through dragonflies being hatched on top of the water and then watching them take off into the air—it was really a magical moment."

Pack trips provide the opportunity for people—young and older alike—to access wilderness locations that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

"There's no country in the world that has public lands like we do in California," Diemel said. "People like being in the back country and getting away from it all. It's incredible how much fun you can have."

Christine Souza

Aspen Meadow Pack Station mules eat hay before carrying up to 150 pounds of gear each for a trail ride. Photo: © 2020 Lori Eanes

Getting to know your long-eared trail companions

The mule, which is the offspring of a donkey and a horse, leads the pack when it comes to pack animals. Mules are surefooted, larger than an average horse, and can carry the weight of a pack or passenger for long distances.

Mules are strong for their size and have an average lifespan of 30 to 50 years. They look similar to horses, but have longer ears, smoother muscles and more endurance. The mule inherits its athletic ability from the horse and its intelligence from the donkey. Its coat is mostly gray, brown, red or black.

These equines first arrived in the U.S. in 1785, as a gift to George Washington from King Charles III of Spain. They helped shape the American landscape and played a critical role in agriculture until they were replaced by engine-powered machines.

The term "mule" can be used for any hybrid of the two equine species. For example, crossing a male horse (stallion) and a female donkey (jenny) produces a hinny, and breeding a female horse (mare) with a male donkey (jack) also results in a mule. A mule cannot reproduce.

Mules have a natural attraction to humans, and when treated with patience, kindness and understanding, learn to trust and obey. In addition to intelligence, mules are known to be patient and able to detect and avoid dangerous situations, which makes them excellent back-country trail companions.


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