Details on a multi-night horse pack trip in the Washakie Wilderness with Elk Fork Outfitters. This guided adventure is an incredible way to see Wyoming’s natural wonders, and the food and glamping-style accommodations bring modern comforts to the backcountry.
My fondest childhood memories are centered around horses, so I had long dreamt of venturing into the wilderness on a pack trip. Connecting with nature on horseback is equal parts exciting and relaxing, and it offers a glimpse into the history of the Wild West. Horse packing also allows you to bring all kinds of amenities deep into the mountains, and guides are responsible for everything from food to safety, making this an easy adventure to plan. After chatting with a few companies, I chose Elk Fork Outfitters, which is owned and managed by guides Seth and Alden Ballard, and based in Cody, Wyoming.
Pack Trip Basics
Pack trips are typically five to seven days, and most outfitters require a minimum of four guests to book. Last summer I joined a group of five in the Washakie Wilderness, which is part of the Shoshone National Forest. The group had already chosen their trip dates, and since they were intermediate-level riders (and happy to have me tag along), Alden and I agreed it would be a perfect fit. Though Elk Fork Outfitters will take up to ten guests on pack trips, they prefer smaller parties, as it creates a more intimate experience. Some outfitters arrange custom hunting and pack trips like the Ballards, while others offer packaged trips with set dates and up to a dozen spots.
Solitude and scenery abound in the Washakie Wilderness. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
Beginners are welcome to book with Elk Fork Outfitters, but they will be limited with backcountry riding, as some trails are long and can be technical in spots. If you are inexperienced but determined to go on a pack trip, take lessons and go on a few trail rides to learn the basics. If you are experienced but rusty, consider reacquainting your muscles with a saddle before your trip, as you’ll be riding for four to six hours each day.
Planning and Accommodations
Pack trips in northwest Wyoming generally run between June and early September, and guests should consider booking 9-12 months in advance. August brings the most ideal weather to the region, with daytime highs in the upper 70s and overnight lows in the upper 40s. Outfitters send a detailed packing list ahead of the trip, and guests are responsible for bringing basic camp gear, including sleeping bags and pillows. The spacious wall tents have cots, tables and gas-powered lamps, and camp chairs and all kitchen utensils are provided, along with bear-proof storage for toiletries and food.
The Washakie is home to grizzly bears and black bears, so it is important to be bear aware. In addition to carrying bear spray and making plenty of noise on the trail, equestrians and backpackers should bring bear canisters or bear hangs for food, trash, toiletries and any scented items kept at camp.
Wall tents at Elk Fork Outfitters’ camp, illuminated by lanterns at night. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
The camp kitchen is adjacent to the dining tent, and the outhouse, which consists of a sturdy composting toilet, is just a short walk from camp. Seth and Alden haul jugs of water to the kitchen each day, but guests are responsible for bringing a portable water filtration system, like a Sawyer Squeeze or Lifestraw. We had access to a gravity bag shower with hot water, but most of us jumped in the creek after our daily rides, so be sure to pack a swimsuit and a camp towel. All tack is provided, but helmets are not.
Our entry point was Elk Fork Trailhead, which sits between Yellowstone National Park and Cody on U.S Highway 14/16/20, aka the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. In addition to several first-come, first-serve U.S. Forest Service campgrounds less than a mile from the trailhead, nearby Buffalo Bill State Park has nearly 100 campsites that can be reserved online. Wapiti is home to a handful of lodges, and Cody, which is 30 miles east of the trailhead, has three dozen hotels and a number of fabulous restaurants.
Seth and Alden Ballard preparing breakfast at camp just after sunrise. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
Seth and Alden greeted us by the fire around 7 a.m. every morning with smiles and a pot of coffee, and breakfast was served shortly thereafter. We hit the trail by 9 a.m. with bagged lunches and snacks, and we returned to camp around 3 p.m., giving us plenty of time to relax. Appetizers were served around 5:30 p.m., and guests were called to dinner by 6:30 p.m. Gathering around the fire for a nightcap and stories was the perfect way to end the day, and most everyone was tucked into bed by 9 p.m.
Whether it was flatbread, doughnuts, vegetable fritters or steaks, guests enjoyed a variety of stellar camp meals made from scratch. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
Guests have the option of riding, hiking, fishing or even lounging at camp during the day, but everyone in our group was keen to maximize their time in the saddle. Most days we rode for four to five hours on easy to moderate trails with a handful of creek crossings. However, on the third day of the trip, we logged nearly seven hours on a trail that would not have been suitable for beginners, as it ascended steep switchbacks and required us to hand walk our rides downhill in several spots. We also encountered a few small logs that some horses and mules gently jumped, and we had to duck around low branches from time to time. Each day we hopped on and off multiple times, but any time we needed help with a tack adjustment or mounting, Seth and Alden had us covered.
Guide Alden Ballard crosses Elk Fork Creek with pack stock. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
When it comes to pairing riders with horses and mules, the Ballards are expert matchmakers. I have plenty of experience in an English saddle, but I haven’t done much riding in the mountains, and I told Alden I was nervous about steep, exposed sections of the trail. For the trails with significant elevation gain, I rode a sure-footed mule named Phil who navigated the rocky terrain like an ATV. Phil’s smooth, careful strides and mellow personality helped me relax – and soak up the beauty around me.
Elk Fork Outfitters has a knack for matching each guest with the perfect mount. All of their horses and mules are capable, confident and have excellent ground manners. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
Merging my love for horses and off-grid adventures made for a dream trip. I marveled at the mix of nostalgia and newness I was experiencing. I admired craggy peaks listening to the rhythm of hoofbeats and giggled when Phil got fiendish about munching on every patch of lupine he could find along the trail. I’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry, but adding horses to the equation elevated the experience to a whole new level.
After riding to this vista point, we tied up our horses in the shade and took a leisurely lunch break. Photo: Elisabeth Brentano.
On our final morning in the Washakie, we sipped hot coffee and took turns signing the Elk Fork Outfitters guestbook. As I flipped through to find a blank page, a sketch of a horse caught my eye, and the entry brilliantly summarized everything I was feeling. “People talk about how riding horses when you’re not used to it will stretch muscles you didn’t even know you had,” the guest wrote. “But something else happens out here, too — you stretch senses you didn’t even know you had. I came here as an artist, and being in these forests and streams has helped me see things in a way that made me feel like part of it, not just a visitor.”