You can bring your own horse to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah's redrock country and ride off into the shimmering sunset, but under a rule change you'll likely have to hire a guide from the concessionaire who offers trail rides.
Barring any significant push-back during a 30-day public comment period expected to open today, the rule change will seemingly be a first in the National Park System, where the American horsewoman/man long has been welcomed to head down the trail on their own.
"People have explored the canyonlands area on horseback for over a hundred years. In fact, many routes created by cowboys and sheepherders have become popular four-wheel-drive roads and hiking trails," notes the Canyonlands National Park website.
On Yellowstone National Park's website, officials note that, "Traveling in the Yellowstone backcountry with horses, mules or llamas is an exciting way to see the park."
Bryce Canyon also long has welcomed the private equestrian. But now it seems that they'll have to pay a stranger to guide them down the trail no matter their horsemanship.
Or maybe not.
The announcement of the proposal was juggled a bit raggedly. A press release from the park went out Wednesday, indicating that the guiding requirement would take effect April 1. That met with some eyebrow-raising among those who follow a listserve pertaining to management and protection of the National Park System; some of the comments from those well-familiar with Bryce Canyon questioned the need for such a requirement.
The release also caught officials at the National Park Service's Intermountain Region Office in Denver off-guard, and after meetings there and phone calls to the park on Thursday it was decided to open the matter to a 30-day public comment period.
A check of the other Utah national parks -- Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion -- found no similar requirement that park visitors with their own stock pay a local guide to lead them on rides. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Grand Canyon national parks also all invite riders into their landscapes without a requirement that they hire a local guide.
James Doyle, chief of communications for the Intermountain Region Office, said Thursday that safety concerns were behind the rule change.
"To further clarify what we have in mind, we're going to offer a 30-day public comment period on some of these proposed rule changes," he said. "I think the proposed changes, they're in response to some safety concerns on the trails. There are just a couple of trails and they're kind of narrow, and we need to do some education about trail etiquette and things like that. I think the primary driver to the changes is A), some safety issues on the trails and B) some resource damage issues that occur when people aren't guided, when they're kind of off on their own."
However, Mr. Doyle didn't have any statistics from the park pertaining to safety-related incidents involving either private riders or concession-led riders, and couldn't cite any resource damage. Officials at the park could not immediately be reached for that information, either.
Also unanswered were how many private equestrians visit the park each year, and how many trail riders the concessionaire takes into the park.
Bryce Canyon's initial press release said that going forward private equestrians would have to coordinate their rides so as not to interfere with those offered by Canyon Trail Rides, the park concessionaire. Additionally, private groups would have to hire a guide from Canyon Trail Rides "to insure safety and protection for visitors and park resources alike."
Under the rule change, Canyon Trail Rides would schedule private stock rides daily at 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Riders must make arrangements for the guide a minimum of 48 hours in advance of coming to the park. An unspecified fee would be charged for the guiding service, based on the number of riders, the release said.