“Babe, I’m not sure it’s going to happen this time,” my husband, Will, says to me. He’s using that tone longtime partners use to placate each other when delivering less-than-ideal news—he knows I’m bummed. “We can keep driving around, or we can go back to camp—your call.”

I shield my eyes from the hot desert sun and look out across the rugged landscape in front of me. It’s late spring on the Western Slope, nearish to Grand Junction. Our camp is deep in a pinyon-juniper forest in the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area, amid its 36,000 acres of golden plateaus, sloping craggy canyons, and jutting buttes. Also somewhere in these high-desert folds are throngs of Colorado’s famous wild horses. Today, they thrive in the region thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which protects them as integral to the land. I want to finally find some.

So far, no luck.

“One more try,” I say to Will as I climb back into our truck, where our daughter seems to take the news better than I. He points the F-150 down a dusty and bumpy side road, gently easing us through the overgrown sagebrush. As the fragrant leaves clear from the windshield, I catch a glimmer of blonde flicker around the bend.

Looking for horses in the Little Book Cliffs
Looking for wild horses on a day hike in the Little Book Cliffs. Photo by William M. Rochfort, Jr.

There they were: the wild horses of Little Book Cliffs. Huddled together on the edge of a cliff stands half a dozen horses of all colors. I marvel at the muscled shoulder of a palomino as a light breeze whispers through its mane and the deep-red coat of a sorrel as the sun glimmers off its back. When we hop out of the car, the horses acknowledge us but remain largely unconcerned as they nicker and munch on blades of grass. Clutching our daughter in my lap, I settle onto a rock and watch the handsome creatures as they gracefully move around the scrubby land. They continue to ignore us. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Then abruptly, it’s over. With a small snort, a leader of the band takes off down the hillside, leaving a cloud of dust billowing in its wake. For a brief moment, I imagine what life must have looked like two centuries ago in the Little Book Cliffs, when mustangs danced across every horizon. But my western fantasy disappears as the rest of the horses follow their leader, disappearing over the edge.

Life list, unlocked.

Trip Planner for Visiting the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area

Camping in the Little Book Cliffs
Dispersed camping in the Little Book Cliffs. Photo by William M. Rochfort, Jr.

Anywhere from 90 to 150 wild horses live in the Little Book Cliffs area year-round, so there is a good chance you’ll spot some. They travel in smaller bands of two to 10 animals, and breeds intermingle. Currently, there are palominos, curlies, paints, grays, blacks, bays, sorrels, appaloosas, and blue and red roans.

When to go: You can visit the Little Book Cliffs, which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, year-round without any sort of permit or reservation. Spring and fall serve up the most mild temps. If you opt to visit in summer, expect tons of sunshine and little water. In other words, pack appropriately: Bring sunscreen and wear full-coverage clothing, and pack in your water. We recommend a gallon per person per day in typical conditions.

How to get there: While most people visit from Grand Junction, we recommend slipping in the back way via De Beque for the best camping ops. (Not only is the scenery beautiful and the night sky incredible, but the backcountry dirt roads make for some epic gravel biking—especially if you pedal around some horses.) To do it, take exit 62 from I-70 West at DeBeque. Cross over the Colorado River and follow the road to town. Take a left at 4th Street and then another left on Curtis Avenue. At the road’s end, turn right onto the main drag (called West 2nd here) and again onto V 2/10 Road, also called Winter Flats Road. Travel roughly 20 miles along the washboard to pick a dispersed camp spot: north in the North Soda area or south in the Indian Park area.