BRUNEAU DUNES STATE PARK – The silhouettes of 70 horseback riders crossed the mid-July moon, which hung in the sky like a large, round paper lantern that had been caught on the tip of a star. Dust swirled up, casting them in an eerie light like ghost riders in the sky.
“We just went right over one of the dunes,” said one rider. “Could have been Sahara for all I could tell,” answered another.
Slowly, the riders turned into a steep descent overlooking one of the dunes, its outline stark in the light of the full moon.
“Look at what we just came down,” Julie Robert of Mountain Home exclaimed, breathing easier as she and her horse approached flatter ground 10 minutes later. “I'm glad it was dark so we couldn't see what we were coming down.”
The moonlight ride last weekend officially opened the Burneau Dunes State Park Equestrian Trail, the first of several horeriding trails proposed for southwestern Idaho.
The gala event featured a belly dancer, exotic dogs, falconers, and a former California juvenile officer who was visiting the park and voluntarily donned sheik's robes to direct traffic.
Among the riders were seven members of the Des Arab Arabian Horse Association who re-created a picture of Arabian-costumed horses and riders in baggy Arabian pants, slippers, and sequined veils taken when the park opened 20 years ago.
For many, including the Arabian equestrians, the 3 ½-hour moonlight ride along Eagle Cove Rim was their first encounter with riding in sand.
“It's a fantasy I've always had,” said Ruth Main, a Boisean decked out in a pink pearl-embedded, sequin-laced hat to match her horses' pink and white tasseled saddle blanket.
“It's romantic,” echoed Carmen Dickman of Meridian. “But, until you get used to it, you feel as if your horse is going to sink to its belly and drown in the sand.”
By daylight, the 7-mile trail around the park is a contrast in ecosystems – with high desert plain, Sahara-like sand and marshland sporting North America's tallest sand dune, silver sage, Russian olive trees, swallow-inhabited cliffs and lakes with abundant wildlife.
By moonlight, the 4,800-acre park is haunting – a collage of howling coyotes, moon-shaped sand dunes, flapping bats, shimmering lake ripples and ribbons of trail aglow in the moonlight.
But until Saturday few horsemen had ridden in the park. Most thought park regulations prohibited riding. Park officials hope to change that by providing overnight facilities and promoting equestrian activities, such as a mounted competitive orienteering ride on Sept. 19.
“We're in a unique position because we have one of the largest state parks in Idaho and we're not impacted that much by horse riding,” says Park Manager Wes Whitworth.
In addition to promoting riding within the park, officials are working with the Idaho chapter of the American Feral Horse Association and other groups to establish a 24-mile commemorative trail along the southern alternative route of the Oregon Trail, from Bruneau Dunes State Park to Three Island State Park near Glenns Ferry.
A 25- and 50-mile endurance ride will be held along that route Oct. 10, and modifications to the trail will be based on that ride, says Andrea Day, equestrian liaison for the park.
The Bureau of Land Management is already marking parts of the Oregon Trail from Bonneville Point, 10 miles east of Boise, to Hagerman. The trail is designed for use by hikers and horseriders.
The Federal Association also is working with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation to establish additional trails in connection with Idaho's 1990 Centential, says club president Bruce Walker, Boise.
One proposed trail would go from Bruneau Dunes State Park past Indian Bathtubs several miles south of Bruneau and on to the Nevada border.
Another would follow the high plain south of the Snake River from Three Island State Park through the areas surrounding Bruneau, Oreana, Murphy and Marsing, ending at the historic Fort Boise site near the Idaho-Oregon Trail north of the Snake River from Three Island Park to Fort Boise.
Each of the proposed trails would have designated camping areas.
Though ambitious, the proposals are achievable, says John Barnes, public non-motorized trails coordinator for Idaho Parks and Recreation.
A developed equestrian trail system in southwestern Idaho is becoming more necessary as more and more private property intersects public land, he says. At the same time, more people are riding horses for pleasure, rather than hunting or competition.
Riders are enthusiastic about the proposed trails.
“It's be nice to have some riding paths at lower elevations that we could ride in Febuary or March,” says Jim Taipale,a members of Boise's Western Riding Club.
Likewise, Roberts, the rider from Mountain Home, says she is looking forward to doing more riding in the sand dunes area.