This article is published in Explore Magazine’s fall & winter 2018 issue, featuring Iowa’s scenic byways. This week, The Gazette will publish articles featuring one byway each day online. You can pick up a hard copy of the magazine at area businesses, convenience stores and grocery stores. You also can pick up a copy at The Gazette.
FARMINGTON — No matter where Chuck and Carolyn Fisher go for equestrian camping, the trail always leads them — and their horses, Tabby and Ginger — back to River Valley Lodge and Campground in Farmington.
“We hit 14 states last year and I never found one I liked better than River Valley,” said Carolyn Fisher, 67, of Oskaloosa.
Equestrian camping has been growing in popularity, said Carolyn Kokjohn, who started River Valley Lodge with her husband, Steve, in 2007. The self-described “horse people” own two similar equestrian campgrounds in Estes Park, Colo., now run by their daughter. Their southeast Iowa operation includes a ranch and a horse-breeding program with more than 50 foals available for sale each year.
Nine Iowa State parks have designated equestrian campgrounds, which connect to trail systems.
“People are a lot more mobile with their horses than they used to be,” Carolyn Kokjohn said.
River Valley includes a lodge that seats 125 people and hosts events, including concerts, benefits and a Halloween costume contest. Guests can rent cabins or campsites, while horses stay in five horse barns. There also is a horse arena, horse wash and an obstacle course with jumps, water hazards and a horse-sized teeter-totter. “It’s like a playground for you and your horse,” Carolyn Kokjohn said.
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One of the amenities that gets a lot of attention on River Valley’s Facebook page is the shower house, which is spotless with a tumbled rock concrete floor, mirrored stations for makeup and hair, piped-in country music and fall-scented toiletries.
“The shower house is the cleanest, most well equipped of any campground I’ve ever visited in any campground, including non-horse camping,” one Facebook reviewer enthused.
The campground fills quickly on fall weekends, when the trees along the Des Moines River turn rusty reds and campfire yellows. The Fishers were saddling up for a three-hour trail ride, including a loop through the nearby Shimek State Forest, which has hitching rails, pit toilets, picnic tables, water hydrant and shade for horses.
“The leaves are falling in front of you as you ride,” Carolyn Fisher said. “It’s just beautiful.”
For people not lucky enough to own horses, Deah and Laverne Westercamp rent horses and mules for guided trail rides through Shimek State Forest. The Westercamp operation, just east of Farmington on Highway 2, provides one-hour and 2.5-hour trail rides by reservation at (319) 878-3596.
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