Horses are everywhere, but there is something just a bit magical about seeing them running free in the wild. From the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the barren canyons of Nevada, these are the 15 best places in America to see wild horses.
1. Assateague Island
The ponies that call Assateague Island home are actually half of a much larger group of ponies. The other half live on nearby Chincoteague Island, featured next on our list. The horses on Assateague are cared for by the National Park Service and can usually be spotted around the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. To protect both the horses and the local ecosystem, the park service keeps the herd exactly at 150. To do this, the ponies are rounded up each July to make the swim to nearby…
2. Chincoteague Island
Once on Chincoteague, foals are auctioned off to the local public as part of the Chincoteague Pony Swim, a tradition that extends back nearly 100 years. Marguerite Henry immortalized the swim and auction in her classic children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague. Proceeds from the auction benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Members of the Fire Company voluntarily care for the other 150 ponies that reside on the shores of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina provide for great viewing of wild horses, and the island of Corolla is no exception. Corolla’s small horses — only slightly larger than ponies — have lived on the island since about 1520. At least, that’s when 16th-century Spanish ship logs report the horses’ first arrival. Spotting wild horses on Corolla is as simple as joining one of the many guided wild horse tours. However, if you have 4WD vehicle you can your luck by driving along the beaches’ sand-covered side roads.
4. Cumberland Island National Seashore
Georgia’s largest barrier island, Cumberland Island National Seashore, boasts approximately 200 wild horses. It’s largely believed that Cumberland Island’s horses are descended from the same group that populated the islands of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. These particular horses are interesting because they’re a little larger than their northern neighbors. The herds are free to roam Cumberland Island at their leisure, but are often spotted around the Dungeness Ruins Historic Site (pictured).
5. Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area
About 150 wild horses live on the 36,000 acres known as Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area in Colorado. Though studies haven’t been done on all of the horses, some DNA testing has confirmed that many of the area’s equines descend from the ponies owned by the Ute Native American tribe which once lived in these parts. If you’re aiming to view the horses during the summer, head to the Indian Park and North Soda areas. Come winter, Coal Canyon, Main Canyon, or other areas that avoid snow are your best bets. Because many of these viewing spots aren’t accessible by car, it’s recommended that those trying to see the horses cover the terrain via horseback or the hiking or biking trails.
6. McCullough Peaks
Cody, Wyoming is exactly the type of place you’d expect to see a herd of wild horses. The mustangs are often spotted all around (and sometimes in!) this historic Old West town located near Yellowstone National Park. It’s said that the horses — which range from chestnut to palomino to paint to roan — are descended from the equine participants of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, after whom the town of Cody is named.
The Silver State is well known for its wild mustangs, and herds are frequently seen throughout the state. If you’re driving along Route 341, or hanging around just outside of Reno, keep an eye out for the especially famous Virginia Range Herd. Interestingly, Nevada’s wild horses became some of the first in the country to become federally protected when the tireless activist “Wild horse Annie” inspired a bill that prohibited hunting the horses or poisoning their watering holes.
If wild burros are more your style, head to Oatman, Arizona! This former mining town was quite the boomtown around 1915, when prospectors used burros to haul water and other supplies to and from the mines. When Oatman became depleted and the miners moved on, the burros were set free in the surrounding countryside. Today, feral burros are frequently spotted in and around the town. But head’s up — these burros have become notorious for sneaking treats from unsuspecting tourists!
9. Ocracoke Island
Known as Ocracoke ponies, or Banker horses, the wild herds on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina have become quite famous. While some believe the horses were brought to Ocracoke by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, just like those on nearby Corolla, the first sightings of these herds weren’t documented until the 1730s. Either way, these hardy horses have become vital to this little island. While most remain wild, others have been captured and trained by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Lifesaving Services.
10. Pryor Mountains
Montana and Wyoming
Sadly, the herds known as the Pryor Mountain Mustangs are Montana’s only remaining wild horses. DNA tests have concluded that the Pryor mustangs are directly descended from the Colonial Spanish horses brought to North America by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The herds are most frequently spotted grazing in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area along Highway 37. If you have trouble spotting them, head to nearby Lovell, Wyoming, where the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center provides visitors with valuable information about the horses and where they were last seen.
11. Rachel Carson Coastal Reserve
The Rachel Carson Coastal Reserve is actually part of the much bigger North Carolina Coastal Reserve and the National Estuarine Research Reserve. Collectively, a number of islands are included — Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Carrot Island, and the aptly named Horse Island. Wild horses thrive on all of them. Seeing the Reserve’s equine population is often as easy hanging out on Front Street in the historic town of Beaufort. For those who want to get a little closer, several companies offer guided tours, while a ferry service will bring visitors from Beaufort to the various islands.
12. Shackleford Banks
Shackleford Island is only about nine miles long and less than a mile wide, but about 100 wild horses call it home. While spotting Shackleford’s wild horses is easy, getting to the island itself is a bit more complicated. Regularly scheduled ferries ferry visitors the three miles from the mainland to Shackleford. Another option is to book a wild horse guided tour with the local National Park Service.
13. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Spotting wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota is about as close as we can come to spotting horses of the past. Largely left alone for centuries, these beautiful horses are characterized by their large heads, short backs, and stocky builds. They also tend to be roan in color, with unique white patches reminiscent of an apron. Such characteristics are not often seen in modern-day horses, so the wild horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park attract the interest of many. For the best chance of viewing a herd, search around the park boundary along Interstate 94, or head to the park’s elevated spots like Buck Hill or Painted Canyon Overlook.
14. Tonto National Forest
Arizona’s wild horse populations are safe now, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that local advocates had to step in to stop the government’s plan to round up and remove them all. Today, the equine herds that make their home in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest are protected. They’re often spotted by visitors at recreation sites near the Salt River. Just be aware you’ll need to purchase a day pass to the forest.
15. Waipi’o Valley
Wild horses in Hawaii? As unexpected as it may sound, it’s true! A herd of hardy wild horses, only a bit bigger than ponies, lives in and roams the Big Island’s Valley of the Kings. It’s not certain how the horses got to the island, but like so many other wild horse populations, they probably came with explorers. Seeing the horses isn’t so simple, as the Valley is best access via foot or horseback.