Yosemite horseback riding in Sierra National Forest as seen from between the ears of a horse in Mariposa Grove, surrounded by lupine flowers and sequoia trees.

Horseback riding in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Thanks to environmentalists such as John Muir most everyone has heard of Yosemite National Park in California. However, not many people have had a chance to visit Yosemite horseback riding. I’m a huge fan of exploring national parks on horseback. Horses are able to trek through national forests and power across streams much more gracefully than I and they never complain about carrying lunch or a water bottle. It’s also a different type of experience to see the Sierra National Forest from a horse’s perspective.

When the folks at Visit Yosemite Madera County invited me to go horseback riding in Yosemite National Park, I jumped at the chance. Like a horse heading back to the barn, my pace quickened as the days approached before we would leave on our California road trip. I had visited Yosemite by car in March, but this July trip, I was going to see the national park from a cowboy’s perspective on the back of a horse.

About The Knapp Family’s Yosemite Horseback Riding

Located near the small town of Fish Camp, Yosemite Trails is about 2 miles from Yosemite National Park’s south entrance. The family owned business dates back to 1935 when it operated as a pack station. In the fall of 1966 the Knapp family purchased the horseback riding operation and has been raising cattle and guiding trail rides in Madera County ever since. Now into the fourth generation, with many cowboys and cowgirls scattered around the ranch, Yosemite Trails is truly a family affair.

I met Yosemite Trails owner Larry Knapp as he was overseeing equestrians going out on the Big Creek 1 hour ride. Everyone from beginners to old timers can take this trail ride because all of the rides start with a horseback riding lesson in the arena. Why is this important? All of their horses are very responsive to neck reining.

The wranglers prefer all riders keep quiet hands and give their horses a loose rein on the trail. These horses know what they are doing and will take great care of you! Apologies if I’m getting too technical for novice riders, but go see for yourself what I mean. You’ll be very impressed at the caliber of horses at Yosemite Trails.

Yosemite Trails owner Larry Knapp and his horse ready to take into Yosemite horseback riding.

Larry Knapp of Yosemite Trails with his horse. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

I could go on and on about the fact that all of their horses are well trained and AQHA registered with the American Quarter Horse Association. However, I’m sure you want to get to the business of how to go horseback riding in Yosemite Park, Mariposa Grove and the Sierra National Forest. You’ll have three rides to choose from; Big Creek 1 hour trail ride, Vista Pass 2 hour trail ride and the 5 hour Mariposa Grove Giant Sequoia Trail Ride.

While all trail rides are loop rides, meaning you won’t see the same scenery twice, the shorter rides take you along the banks of Big Creek and into the towering pines. Unless you don’t have the time to commit to a 2 hour ride, or you are nervous around horses, I’d recommend the Vista Pass 2 hour trail ride. You’ll want more than one hour in this forest.

Horseback riding in Fish Camp, Madera County

Six-year-old Gwen Bluhm and her family are all smiles while horseback riding in the Sierra National Forest in Madera County.

Six year old Gwen Bluhm horseback riding with Yosemite Trails in Madera County

A woman I spoke with on the 5 hour ride had recently taken her husband, a novice rider, and her three young children on the Vista Pass ride and they all loved it. In fact, the couple enjoyed their trail ride so much that they signed up for the Giant Sequoia half day ride.

Her favorite parts of the half day Mariposa Grove ride were riding through the streams, being able to access Mariposa Grove through the back trails (during a time when access to Yosemite National Park was limited) and watching how the horses navigated these, not so beginner trails.

“We are blessed to have Yosemite Trails only 40 minutes from our home,” said Cheryl Bluhm from Yosemite Lakes Park.  “We went on the 2-hour Vista Pass ride with our entire family. There were eight of us, including two 6 year olds on their first ride. We were a little apprehensive that the 2-hour ride might be too long and hard for the two little ones. They did amazingly well and loved every minute.

The very well trained horses at Yosemite Trails ensured a safe, fun and beautiful trip for all ages and experience levels.  After that trip, my husband and I went on the 1/2 day ride to Mariposa Grove.  My husband, having only the previous 2-hour ride as his horseback riding experience, did well. He liked it so much, he wants to continue riding monthly with Yosemite Trails.  This is something we plan to do together as a family.”

Mariposa Grove Giant Sequoia Trail Ride in Yosemite National Park

Wrangler Mitch Makenson surrounded by giant Sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, while on horseback.

Wrangler Mitch Makenson is surrounded by sequoia trees while riding horseback in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

As an experienced equestrian, I highly recommend the Giant Sequoia half day trail ride. Personally, I wouldn’t have recommended Yosemite horseback riding for 5 hours or more of saddle time to beginning riders. Yet, after riding with Cheryl and Mike Bluhm, I’ve changed my mind. They both handled this scenic walking ride into Mariposa Grove like pro riders. As Mike said, “the horses do all the work.”

That being said, our wrangler Mitch Makenson did an excellent job of explaining what we were seeing in the forest, from wild lupine and manzanita plants to sequoia trees. Did you know that Mariposa Grove is home to 500 giant Sequoia trees? After several creek crossings, we made our way through the Sierra National Forest and into Yosemite National Park.

Mitch tied up our horses while we had time to explore Mariposa Grove and get up close and personal with the Grizzly Giant, one of the grove’s most notable trees. This tree has weathered forest fires and has welcomed countless visitors including President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. Be sure to see the photo, taken in 1903 of Muir and Roosevelt after a camping trip where Muir convinced Roosevelt to preserve the grove and Yosemite as public lands for everyone to enjoy.

The Grizzly Giant is a sequoia tree in Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. It measures 209 feet tall and 28 in diameter in Madera County, California.

Enjoy lunch under the 209 foot tall Grizzly Giant. The sequoia tree is as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Grizzly Giant

While we can no longer ride horseback up to the Grizzly Giant, guests may eat a picnic lunch under the 209 foot sequoia tree that measures 28 feet in diameter.

Be sure and get a picture at the base of the California Tunnel Tree. The historic tree was carved in 1895 by the Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company. Back in the day you could ride your horse through this tree. However, now it is only accessible to pedestrians. Visitors with a valid disabled placard may drive to the Grizzly Giant parking lot and enjoy a wheelchair accessible portion on the Grizzly Giant loop trail.

The base of the California Tunnel Tree in Mariposa Grove is large enough for a car to drive through; although now only for pedestrians.

California Tunnel Tree is wheelchair accessible. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Things to see and do in Yosemite and Madera County

Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad locomotive #10 chugs through the Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park.

Climb aboard Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad

In addition to Yosemite horseback riding, Madera County offers plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Children and adults will want to experience Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, located just outside Yosemite National Park’s south gate. Privately owned and operated, the Sugar Pine Railroad offers a glimpse into logging history and the steam train’s significance in the Sierra National Forest. Running three times a day April through October, there are 5 Vintage Shay locomotives in operation. We rode on number 10 locomotive. She was built in 1928 and weighs 84 tons.

Arrive to the station early to purchase your train tickets and climb aboard the first passenger car if you want to feel the drops of water sprayed from the steam powered train. Parents and grandparents will enjoy the one hour narrated steam train ride. Kids will like the gold panning, Thornberry Museum, Kids Depot Toy Store and the picnic area. The Moonlight Special is an evening ride that begins with a BBQ dinner at the depot. I was pleasantly surprised to see that dogs on leash were allowed on the train.

Bass Lake, California

Bass Lake with marina and boats, surrounded by Sierra National Forest in Madera County, California in July.

Year-round recreation at Bass Lake. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Bass Lake is a year-round vacation destination offering boating, paddleboarding, swimming, fishing, hiking and even eagle spotting if you’re lucky! With 3 full-service marinas, this is the place to learn water-skiing or wakeboarding. Base Lake is owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and the water from the lake is still used to generate electricity, as well as irrigate Central Valley farmland. Did I mention that Bass Lake is just 17 miles from the south gate to Yosemite National Park?

For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Instagram or Twitter @Nancydbrown and Yosemite Trails on Instagram.

Yosemite horseback riding details

If You Go

Yosemite Trails (559) 683-7611
7910 Jackson Road
Fish Camp, California 93623

Yosemite horseback riding review, photography and YouTube video by Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown. She was a guest of Yosemite Trails while horseback riding in Madera County, however all opinions are her own. Thanks to Visit Yosemite | Madera County for arranging this California road trip.