The iconic symbol of freedom is still alive and well from coast to coast. Here’s where to see them for yourself.
Watching a herd of wild horses gallop across an open stretch of land is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that leaves you breathless. Unfettered and free, horses in the wild have become a symbol of that freedom we admire and yearn for ourselves. Though many associate wild horses with the American West, in actuality, wild horses can still be found in states across the country. Here are five places in the U.S. where herds can be seen in their natural state:
1. Sweetwater County, Wyoming
Witness the untamed beauty of the wild horses of Pilot Butte against a stunning, wide-open backdrop. With a herd 1,500 strong, the sound of their thundering hooves pounding the ground embodies the frontier spirit. The horses are descendants of those brought to the area by cattle ranchers in the 1800s. To see them, take a 90-minute self-guided tour along 24 miles of gravel road (best maintained May to October). The route takes about 90 minutes going between Rock Springs and Fourteen-Mile Hill and across the top of White Mountain.
Early morning or just before dusk are optimal times to spot not only the horses but other wildlife like pronghorn antelope, desert elk, deer, rabbits, coyotes, hawks, eagles and sage grouse. Cell reception is limited, so be prepared with a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, a spare tire and extra water. Horses can also be visited at the Rock Springs Wild Horse Holding Facility, where the horses are temporarily held before they are adopted. To learn about adopting one of these magnificent creatures, contact the Rock Springs Bureau of Land Management.
2. Waipi’o Valley, Hawaii
Hawaii’s Big Island is home to the “Valley of the Kings,” sacred Waipi’o Valley, the largest of seven valleys of Kohala Mountain and the boyhood home of King Kamehameha I. An important place in Hawaiian culture, the picturesque spot is virtually untouched, featuring a black sand beach, tropical foliage, one of the state’s tallest waterfalls, and herds of wild horses. Though oral history says as many as 10,000 people lived in the valley before Captain Cook arrived in 1778, today only some 50 people live in the area. It’s a very steep 1.5-mile hike from the lookout point to the valley floor, which is not accessible by car. The best way to get to the valley floor is on horseback, where surrounded by 2,000-foot cliffs, you can explore and hopefully spot the three herds of wild horses roaming the lush vegetation. The horses are descendants of the Spanish Barbed Mustangs brought to the island to mitigate herds of wild longhorn cattle introduced by colonists. When a tsunami destroyed the main village in 1946, many islanders relocated, leaving their horses behind, which in time formed the wild herds.
3. Outer Banks, North Carolina
North Carolina’s wild horses are called Banker horses – the name given to the breed of feral horse living on the state’s barrier islands on the Outer Banks. They’re descended from domesticated Spanish horses brought to the Americas in the 16th century, believed to have survived shipwrecks or failed settlement attempts. Herds are found on Ocracoke Island, Shackleford Banks, Currituck Banks, Cedar Island and in the Rachel Carson Estuarine Sanctuary. The largest herds are at Corolla and Shackleford Banks, each with roughly 100 horses. The best way to get a close-up look at these majestic animals is to take one of the many guided tours offered here.
The herd at Shackleford Banks lives on an island on the Cape Lookout National Seashore, three miles offshore and accessible by private boat or passenger ferry. In Beaufort, sign up for a three-hour tour through the Shackleford Wild Horse & Shelling Safari, which gives you time to explore the beach, photograph the herd and beach-comb for shells.
4. Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, Oregon
Nestled in the southwestern corner of the state, the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area is the state’s most pristine and untamed territory. On 428,000 acres of public land, it’s possible to enjoy all sorts of recreational activities: hiking, camping, exploring and viewing the wildlife. Several herds of horses call the basin home, including the Kiger Mustang, a magnificent horse descended from Spanish Mustangs brought here by conquistadors in the 16th century. The South Steens Campground is the best place to camp for optimal chances of spotting a herd. There is also a working guest ranch, Steens Mountain Guest Ranch, that offers Kiger Mustang Experiences on horseback.
5. Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Just a half hour from Phoenix, there are hundreds of horses roaming freely through the Salt River Basin in Tonto National Forest. In 2015, the Forest Service declared the herd “unauthorized livestock” and planned to capture, remove and auction off the horses, but locals organized a nonprofit, saved the horses, and now manage the population. The horses move between the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Reservation, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and Tonto National Forest. The river doesn’t run year-round, but kayaking or tubing is a great way to float right through horse territory. An $8 day pass to access the park is required, but they aren’t available for sale in the park – they need to be purchased ahead of time at a gas station. There are camp sites in the park and accommodations are also available at nearby Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, where horses are available for guided trail rides.