Big Creek Herd Area
Big Creek is a very small herd area in the middle-elevation foothills of the Stansbury Mountains, stretching along the eastern bank of Skull Valley. Ranging across BLM, National Forest, and privately owned land, it supports a tiny and diminishing herd population estimated at 10 horses in 2011 (down from 25 in 2004). The area is serviced by several springs, including Aspen, Box Canyon, Granite Canyon, Chokecherry, and Little Pole. On August 6, 2009, lightning sparked a fire that stripped this area bare, as high winds fanned the flames across 44,000 acres. The Big Pole Fire, as it was dubbed, left only blackened skeletons of tens of thousands of juniper trees across a five-by-fifteen mile swath along the eastern side of UT-196. As of 2015, grasses and low-lying shrubbery blanket these hills again, but most of this area remains a designated fire rehabilitation zone.
More Locked Gates than horses
Numerous roads and jeep trails interweave the area, but it is difficult to differentiate public from private land. I ventured in one April morning, 2015, to find every eastward road gated at relatively low elevations, rendering most of the springs inaccessible. I also spent significant time retracing my route upon discovering that locked gates also blocked some of the north-south running roads. These limitations, combined with a very small herd population, makes siting these mustangs very unlikely.
The morning was not a complete loss, however, as avifauna was unexpectedly abundant. Of course, the ravens think they own the place, but Western Meadowlarks held strength in numbers. Their cheering tunes wafted from every direction, and they were easily spotted whistling and warbling from the barren branches at nearly every location. On two occasions, Red-tailed Hawks quickly took flight from roadside trees as my Wrangler rumbled near. Three Swainson's Hawks flew close enough to make themselves known, and several other raptors arced unidentifiably above more distant hills throughout the day. Winding through a copse of lifeless cedars, I stopped to watch a male Mountain Bluebird forage in the road immediately ahead, while his mate eyed me warily from a branch just outside my open window. Around midday, having found my way down a road that turned out to be long-abandoned and impassable, I stopped to admire the spring runoff tricking through a lush ribbon of green ground cover. The sound of my door closing elicited the unmistakable call of wild turkeys from the brush beyond the stream. Horned larks darted across the road here and there, but seemed less plentiful in these hills, a thousand feet above their favored valley floor. I also happened upon a small herd of deer congregating at the near side of a locked gate barring the road to Granite Canyon Spring.
I accessed this area -- definitely high-clearance 4WD country -- from the road at Horseshoe Spring. Driving in around 10 a.m., the gate just east of the OHV trails was wide open. Coming back down mid-afternoon, the gate was closed, leaving me to wonder whether I should have been up in there in the first place. Fortunately, the gate was secured with a slip chain rather than a padlock, and I was able to let myself out. I later learned that the BLM officially closed the area to all motorized travel on May 17, 2010 for a period of at least two years. My search of the Federal Register for a subsequent announcement lifting this restriction came up empty. While it may seem that I am essentially confessing to a crime here, I will note that the slip-chained primary access gate was open when I arrived, and it was not posted with signage of any kind, restrictive or otherwise. I also encountered a few hikers, campers and OHV riders throughout the area. I will admit to feeling a little guilt over this excursion (perhaps unnecessarily), but be assured that I always travel on existing trails, and make every effort to tread lightly on these adventures.
Given the fragile condition of these hills, uncertainty concerning ownership and accessibility, and the extremely low likelihood of spotting the few horses inhabiting this area, I will save publication of more information for a later date. This allows me the opportunity to learn more about the area from official sources, and Mother Nature time to pursue her regenerative course.
Other Points of Interest
Lone Rock dominates the landscape immediately south of I-80. The photo above, taken from inside the herd area, shows why some refer to this formation as Submarine Rock.
Horseshoe Spring flows immediately west of UT-196. A small parking lot provides access to a short boardwalk trail.
Horseshoe Spring OHV Trails etch the knolls east of the highway opposite Horseshoe Spring.