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Traveler's View: National Park Service Should Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth At Bryce Canyon

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Bryce Canyon officials have a great opportunity to welcome -- not drive off -- private equestrians. NPS file photo.

My father-in-law, a Wyoming-bred cowboy who knows a thing or two about riding a horse, would hesitate if told he needed a guide to lead him through Bryce Canyon National Park...and then turn on his booted heel when told that would cost him $100.

But that's what visitors who travel with their horses, or mules, could encounter at the canyon-sculpted national park in southern Utah if Bryce Canyon officials move forward with a plan to require visitors with their own horses to pay a local guide for the privilege of riding in the park.

With nothing more than anecdotal stories about horses not getting along with other horses, the park is poised to provide Canyon Trail Rides with a new revenue stream...if equestrians are willing to pay up.

Under the plan, a lone rider with horse would have to pay $100 for the guiding service. Two riders would be charged $165, three riders $200, four riders $235, five riders $265, six riders $295 and seven riders $320.

Those fees, once you approach four riders, are somewhat comparable to the concessionaire's per-person charge for their trail rides: $60 per person for a two-hour ride and $80 per person for a half-day ride. But the concessionaire's trail ride fees also have to go to the overhead of their string of horses, accompanying tack, horse trailers, corrals, and stables.

Private parties have their own horses, saddles, etc., so it doesn't seem as if there is additional overhead for the concessionaire, outside of calling in an additional guide, who would be paid by the private riders.

Park officials attribute the need for this guiding service to "avoid trail conflicts and ensure the safety of all users on the park’s steep, narrow trails.  Those trails offer limited space for stock groups to pass.  When unfamiliar groups of stock pass each other they can spook."

During a phone call Friday, Bryce Canyon Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said, "This is a situation where we’re trying to be proactive based on things that have been reported to us from the field, principally from (concession) wranglers.”

"We’re concerned about visitor safety. The way our trails are laid out, there’s opportunities for experienced folks on horses bringing their private stock in to the park to run head-long into the concessionaire trail ride groups," he added.

Now, unfortunately, park officials don't have any documentation of specific conflicts between private riders and concession-led rides, no list of injured riders -- private or concession-led -- to demonstrate whether there's a safety problem, other than the wranglers' mention of private groups going the wrong way on trails.

There have been injuries on trail rides but, again, apparently no documentation as to whether they were on concession-led rides or involving private riders, or a combination of both.

When you look at the numbers -- just 85 private equestrians have ridden all or part of Bryce Canyon's 8 miles of horse trails since August 2011, vs. "thousands" of concession-led riders who have -- it doesn't seem like there are enough private riders on the trails to create much of a problem. 

That said, it also would seem like the park has a golden opportunity to not only embrace private riders, but also restore some Western lore to the park.

Rather than forcing private equestrians to pay a guide to lead them on trail rides, Bryce Canyon should seize the marketing and PR value of having rangers saddle up to lead rides much as they lead hikes, for free. That way not only are the private riders spared a pretty hefty fee for an 8-mile ride, but rangers have a golden opportunity for reaching out, rather, than alienating, a decidedly small but nevertheless welcome visitor group.

After all, as the park points out on its website, "Bryce Canyon is a wonderful place to ride horseback! Some visitors enjoy bringing their own riding stock into the park to enjoy the breathtaking views one can experience from the back of a horse or mule."

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