Five hundred years ago, the Spanish conquered the Southwest on horseback. They saddled their stallions in Veracruz and rode north from Mexico, mapping, declaring their lands, and setting up horse ranches. Today, many vestiges of this time have been lost, but the remnants of a sturdy horse culture remain. In fact, wild descendents of vaquero steeds live on in Colorado. And you can see them if you know where to look.

Four separate herds of wild horses are managed in western Colorado, and one of these is easy to spot during the winter and spring, just east of I-70 in the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Range. Located about 15 miles northeast of Grand Junction, Little Book Cliffs’ 30,113 acres of dry canyons and sagebrush flats make up one of only three Bureau of Land Management areas in the United States established specifically for the protection of wild horses.

During the summer, most of Little Book Cliffs’ mustangs seek good grazing in the high country, but they move down into the narrow canyons in the winter, making this the best time to view them. On a sunny winter day, I found the trailhead for Main and Coal canyons and hiked up an old road along the dry wash in Main Canyon. Although not as spectacular as nearby Colorado National Monument, the canyon’s rugged ocher walls and fragile standing hoodoos were plenty appealing.

About a mile up the trail, just past a junction with the Spring Creek Trail, I spotted an enormous pile of fresh manure. I’m no expert, but even I could tell that horses must have been around. In fact, I later learned, such “stud piles” are territorial markers left by males. The Little Book Cliffs herd numbers around 120 horses, but it’s divided into much smaller bands, usually consisting of a single stallion and a harem of mares and their foals. Males that have been driven away by the dominant stallion will form small bachelor herds. In all, there are 800 to 900 wild horses in Colorado, a small fraction of the estimated 29,500 mustangs in the West, more than half of which roam Nevada.

Though some of these animals trace their bloodlines all the way back to the 1500s, when the Spanish began reintroducing horses to North America and Indian tribes spread them throughout the West, most are more prosaically descended from ranch, cavalry, or mining stock. The horses breed almost every year, and from April to June you might catch sight of foals along Dry Fork Road before the herd moves to higher country.

At a bend in the trail, as I rounded a steep, red-dirt hillside, a band of half a dozen horses came into view. The cover of a large juniper allowed me to watch without spooking them. Although the horses obviously sensed my presence, cocking their ears and flicking their tails, they didn’t move. Most were bays and sorrels, and only females seemed to be in plain sight, though I figured the stallion could see me even if I couldn’t find him. Watching in silence, I studied the horses. They are beautiful animals: medium-high and powerfully built, their coats smooth and unmarked. The herd was a wistful reminder that not all that long ago Colorado was truly the Wild West. I let myself briefly imagine that I was a cowboy who had camped nearby, hoping to lasso one of these wild creatures and make it my own. But the horses seemed to read my mind—the band soon slipped away and disappeared behind a red butte.

Although the Main Canyon Trail continues for several miles and joins other routes climbing into the Little Book Cliffs, I’d seen what I came for. I turned back down the trail toward the only horses I’ll ever tame—the ones under the hood of my car.

If You Go During the winter months, exit I-70 at Cameo (Exit 46), drive across the Colorado River and past the power plant, and continue about 1.5 miles on a gravel road to the Coal Canyon trailhead. Park and hike up old roads (closed to traffic in winter) into Main or Coal canyons. Mustangs often are spotted within one to two miles of the trailhead. Access the horses’ summer range with a 4WD vehicle by following the Winter Flats or Dry Fork roads about 20 miles west from the town of De Beque (Exit 62). Visit the BLM website for directions. The horses are easiest to find in the early morning and evening hours.

Rimrock Adventures offers half-day horseback tours of Main and Coal canyons from May to October. Rimrock’s guides lead guests to low-elevation waterholes where some horses linger throughout the summer.