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Drive just about any backroad near Bishop, California during the winter months and you’ll see herds of horses and mules out in pasture. Drive that same backroad during the summer and those pastures are likely to be empty, raising the question, “Where did they go?”

image of mules in pasture

The answer is to be found up in the high Sierra. Aside from the privately owned mules and horses, the vast majority of equines you’ll see in the Owens Valley belong to the eastern Sierra Pack Outfits – locally owned businesses specializing in getting people and their gear into the backcountry for fishing and camping. Come summer time, those cute and friendly mules and horses you stopped to photograph are back at work. It isn’t a bad gig; the typical pack station equine “employee” works about 4 – 5 months out of the year. They work for room and board – but that room and board extends year-round, which is why you see them down in the valley after October.

Horses and mules will be pastured together. You may be more familiar with horses but mules will quickly win you over, even if you are a little leery of their size and power at first. Mules have large gorgeous eyes with long lashes, and super soft big ears. Their muzzles are about the silkiest thing you’ll every lay a hand on, and you’ll soon learn they are playful, inquisitive, and intelligent. Mules have a very distinctive vocal call, and once you’ve heard a plaintive bray you’ll never forget it. Mules look a lot like horses, but there are some key differences, including their big ears. After a while you’ll be able to impress your friends with your ability to distinguish one from the other at a glance but for a primer to get you started, check out this blog post.

image of a woman standing next to a mule

Photo: Vickie Taton

Spend a little time watching them out in pasture and you’ll be able to pick out the clown or prankster of the herd – the one who’s always in everyone else’s hay or hair. Mules are quite curious by nature, and will likely wander over to check you out. It’s fun to test your identification skills – how many horses and how many mules? Girls or boys? Any burros or donkeys? Equines are fed once or twice a day, and when they aren’t eating they do a stellar job of hanging out and lounging. Mid-day you’re likely to see several laying down soaking up the sun and snoozing while others stand watch.

image of curious horses with a photographer

Photo: Katherine Belarmino

Good equine etiquette is to avoid feeding other people’s animals unless you are invited to. Despite their size and hardiness, mules and horses have fairly limited diets, and offering the wrong treats could result in illness. Additionally, your own fingers might be at risk! If an owner or wrangler is around don’t hesitate to ask for permission, especially if you have a stash of carrots or apples on hand, but also be prepared for a polite “no, thanks”. If you do get the okay, here’s a general rule to follow for safe feeding. Keep your fingers together, place the treat on the palm of your hand, stretch your hand tight, and offer your outstretched palm, letting the horse or mule take the treat from you. Be prepared for a tickle as their whiskers touch your skin!

If you get the go-ahead to touch, a great place to start is on the neck. Rub firmly but gently. Some animals will move away, but some will stay and enjoy your touch. Just like people, some mules are more touchy-feely than others. A friendly mule might move in a little closer for a little more petting – just watch your feet and fingers. Remember, mules weigh any where from 1000 pounds or more – getting a toe stepped on is going to hurt. Another good rule to follow is to never walk behind a mule or horse; they have a blind spot directly behind them and may accidentally kick or startle.

Image of a Sierra lake through the ears of a mule being ridden

Photo: Jennifer Roeser

Another treat is to drive out 20 miles east of Big Pine on Hwy 168 to the Piper Mountain Herd Management Area to look for burros. Burros are another equine species – smaller than mules and horses, with big ears and a short mane. Burros were used extensively by early prospectors, as they are hardy, strong, and sure-footed. Read more about the BLM wild horse and burro program here: https://www.blm.gov/programs/wild-horse-and-burro/about-the-program

image of a burro looking in a vehicle window.

Photo: Julie Faber

A great place to get close to mules & burros, and to learn much more about these amazing animals is Bishop Mule Days. Every Memorial Day weekend, Bishop is filled with mules, donkeys, and burros. There are mules jumping, doing dressage, cutting cows, reining, pulling, and racing. There is an incredible parade of mules right down Main Street, Bishop. For ten days you can learn, touch, hear, and smell mules. It really isn’t to be missed – there’s something for everyone from the youngest wrangler wannabe to the senior citizen reminiscing about the good ole days of mining and logging. Find out more about Bishop Mule Days and get your tickets here: https://muledays.org/

image of a burro with hat on its head.

Photo: David Calvert

After Mule Days, the pack stations begin preparing for their summer seasons, and you can actually ride a mule or horse into the backcountry. Whether you are looking for an hour ride or to spend a few days in the wilderness, the pack stations are your gateway into the mountains via saddle. Watch “A Day in the Life of a Pack Mule”

to get an insider’s glimpse into what you can expect to experience. The backcountry normally starts to open up in June, and pack trips generally are scheduled through September and even later, depending on the weather. Some pack stations offer rides in the off-season, such as this one in the Alabama Hills led by McGee Creek Pack Outfit.

image of a rider on a horse in the Alabama Hills

Photo: Jennifer Roeser

You can find a list of local pack stations here: http://www.easternsierrapackers.com/members.htm. 

And once you’ve fallen in love with that special mule, consider supporting the American Mule Museum here in Bishop, California. You can find out much more about mules and their history in the Sierra, enjoy historic photos and recollections from local mule packers, and understand some of the lingo tossed around the pack stations and Mule Days. Check out their website here: http://www.mulemuseum.org

 

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10 hours ago

Sunsets around here never get old. 😍
#nofilter #visitbishop #bishopBIGbackyard
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Sunsets around here never get old. 😍
#nofilter #visitbishop #bishopBIGbackyard

Comment on Facebook

Classic Western Sky with cattle to add to the picture. Hearing some Western music in the back ground. Just need a windmill. <3

Those Happy Cows love the Bishop sunsets.

I've got a lot of nice trout up in Bishop I love it there

Beautiful picture

I love it in the late afternoon when the Sierra's cast their shadow on the White Mountains

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14 hours ago

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Comment on Facebook

Snow in the mountains, but dry in the valley, that's why we love Bishop!

Home sweet home beautiful

Ready to roll there!!!!

Beautiful

Pretty

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19 hours ago

Definitely feels and looks like winter around here these days.... this is a shot from yesterday.
📷 by Julie Faber
#visitbishop #bishopBIGbackyard
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Definitely feels and looks like winter around here these days.... this is a shot from yesterday. 
📷 by Julie Faber
#visitbishop #bishopBIGbackyard

Comment on Facebook

wow, such a beautiful post, need long johns to stay longer then an hour in that snow ?

Fabulous!

... name of the "pyramid peak" please.....

Wish you'd post what mountains we're looking at. Lovely photograph!

Mt. Tom

This is absolutely beautiful! 😊😀

Awesome picture

Hello Tom!

Beautiful

Beautiful

Frank

I need to go fishing on the Owens or PVR, been a while.

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3 days ago

Who loves a little winter fishing???? We've got it year-round here!!Out side enjoying the lower Owens River. Snow storms are rare in the Owens Valley. Snow only lasts a few days at the most. Photo by @leviaguilera_photography ... See MoreSee Less

Who loves a little winter fishing???? Weve got it year-round here!!

Comment on Facebook

Glad to see L A didn’t get all the Owens valley water!

Beautiful background !

Looks cold, but what a great place.

plenty of brown trout,large trout at bridgport res

always did ice fishing onway to bridgport

He should wear one of those wrist bands or forehead bands which shows his temperature so he can regulate. Risky sports have science to make them safer.

Love to go fishing in this stream ! Look at the great snow.😁

Refreshing, stunning, incredibly beautiful and the bestest fishing ever ! I love Bishop !😲👍🇺🇸🦅🇺🇸🎅☃️🎄💥

Oh yea!! He’s gettin them native Browns right there!!

I have fished the Lower Owens for many years, winter is the best because of reduced flows. Great Blue wing olive hatches, and plenty of wild browns. I fished this same run pictured . Love this River and the town of Bishop.

Benton crossing?

That looks so amazing

Jo Nathan we need to go asap!

Do you know where your legs are?

Is that you Josh Beck?

Fred Powers

♥️

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