River Road Horse Camp Now Accepting Happy Campers

As I rounded the corner, the River Road Horse Camp came into full view. Horses were happily hanging out in the pens while their human counterparts were enjoying their horse trailers with living quarters and campers. The River Road Horse Camp, at Santa Margarita Lake, was excitingly experiencing its debut and its first overnight tenants were enjoying the fruits of their labor. I took a moment to reflect that this fresh scene has actually been years in the making.

Looking for places to go horse camping in San Luis Obispo? Get the complete list and descriptions with the SLO County Horse Camping Guide.

Happy Campers Celebrate with A Grand Opening Party

Left to right – Bob Skinner, Barbara Dixon, Shirley Rasmussen, Craig and Jody Smith, Ann Crain, Kathy Redden, Patti and Fred Mensing, (sitting) Miechelle Callerman, Greg Feinberg

The first happy campers of River Road Horse Camp were all members of the Atascadero Horsemen’s Club who put in the physical labor of setting up the pens, building and painting the picnic tables, connecting the perimeter fence and installing the gate. However, all this could not have been accomplished without the financial support of many sponsors, the vision of many horse camping enthusiasts, plus the diligence and persistence of Kathy Redden.

The milestone weekend was marked with a Grand Opening party, where guests sat at the picnic tables while the horses happily hung out in their pens. A special carrot cake was the crown of the celebration as all present acknowledged the significance of the moment, the trials of the journey and the pleasure of finally camping at River Road Horse Camp. “We’re just so happy to have what is here!” remarked Patti Mensing who also described building and painting the very picnic table she was sitting at.

Kathy Redden and her horse Nevarre

Fellow camper, Jody Smith, remarked to Kathy, “This is the coolest thing you have accomplished. This will be here for years.” Indeed, Kathy was the one who stayed persistent and used her connections with Parks and Rec to secure the first step of getting the permit two years ago and stayed with the project through completion.

Rides from River Road Horse Camp

Although the milestone weekend was extra hot with smoke easily detected in the air, several campers had already enjoyed their first ride out from camp the evening before. “We enjoyed a full-moon ride,” one described. “Even though the moon was orange, it was still so beautiful.” Moonlight rides and early morning sunrise rides are two special features of camping right at the River Road trail head.

River Road trail access area on east side of the lake.

Several riding trails begin at the River Road trail head, and explore the backside of Santa Margarita Lake. The easiest ride is Sandstone, which is an out and back ride touching a bit of the lake. Sandstone is 2.7 miles and takes about an hour and a half at the walk. Blinn Ranch trail goes to the Santa Margarita dam and several trails finger off Blinn Ranch. Khus Camp is a pack-in camp accessible by boat or hiking. It is located off the Blinn Ranch Road 4.4 miles from the trailhead. Falcon trail is quite technical and requires a fit horse with an advanced rider. Sandstone and Blinn are fire roads; the others are single track trails. 

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Amenities at River Road Horse Camp

There are no marked camp sites, but there is plenty of room to set up in the open field. Three camp “sites” make up the base camp, each site is assigned two pens so there are six pens total. The pens are situated with space between each one, to reduce squealing and kicking between the horses. If six pens is not enough, there is plenty of room for temporary horse housing.

Each site can also claim one of the three picnic tables. A port-a-potty is accessible in the River Road trail head parking lot, which is maintained by Parks and Rec. There are no fire pits, as open fires are not allowed. Future plans include an additional port-a-potty in the camp, a shade structure and a bear box. There is no water at this camp so all water for horses and humans must be brought in.

Water Sources for the Dry Camp

Corner horse water tank

Since the River Road Horse Camp is a dry camp, there is no water on site. Campers brought in their horse water in trailer corner water tanks and truck beds. Water was offered to the horses in portable water tubs placed by the campers in their horse’s pens.

Gorilla Flexible Water Tub
Photo credit: Riding Warehouse

Horse camping gear: Water tank, feed bag, hose and a saddle pad.

Manure Management

All horse manure must be cleaned up from each pen upon vacancy. The manure can either be spread out in the area behind the pens or packed home. A wheelbarrow will be provided.

Other Things to Note

Although River Road Horse Camp is a primitive camp near Santa Margarita Lake, there are permanent residential neighbors. Therefore, campers must be respectful and quiet hours between 10:00 pm and 7:00 am must be adhered to.


Bears live in the Las Padres forest, where the River Road Horse Camp resides. In fact, a bear came quite close to camp to welcome the first happy campers as they celebrated the Grand Opening! This is why a bear box will be a future amenity to add to the camp. Please pack out your trash and don’t leave open food containers out while camping.


The River Road Horse Camp is open! Campers will need to reserve sites by calling 805-788-2401. The camp is found at the River Road trailhead near Santa Margarita Lake. Campers will need to get the gate code to get into the horse camping area. A reservation fee will be collected. On top of the reservation fee there is a vehicle and animal permit fee. Annual passes for the vehicle and animal can be obtained on the SLO County Parks website. The annual pass is good for both Santa Margarita Lake and Lopez Lake for both camping and day use.

Just a couple of Covid notes:

  • Currently there is no group camping allowed in SLO County – single site reservations are only available for the time being.
  • Individual site reservations are only secured for 48 hours in advance.

Getting There

From Santa Margarita:  Take Pozo Road out of Santa Margarita (go past the main entrance to Santa Margarita Lake, past the Rinconada trail head and almost out to Pozo Saloon), turn left on River Road and continue for several miles, until you reach the River Road trail head parking area which is on the left. The River Road Horse Camp is in the left corner of the trail head parking.

Get Out and Enjoy River Road Horse Camp

The long-awaited River Road Horse Camp is a welcome addition to the horse camping options available in SLO County. It is also a testament to what vision and persistence can create for the benefit of many.

Photo credit: Sharon Jantzen Photos

Just so you know, clicking the above picture and product links takes you to the product on the Riding Warehouse website. This makes shopping easy and convenient for you. We do get a little kick-back from items purchased, giving us resources to bring you more stories, but your price stays the same. It’s a win-win! Riding Warehouse ships free to CA addresses. Local riders can skip the delivery wait by ordering items online and requesting pick-up – during checkout – at the Riding Warehouse store in San Luis Obispo. Happy Trails!

Go Horse Camping! Explore the wonder and beauty of the SLO County trails from the best place on earth, the back of a horse. You and your friends and family plus horses can camp right next to the trails! To help you get packing, you can use this FREE Horse Camping packing checklist. We’ll continue to post horse camping stories on the SLO Horse News website. You can stay up-to-date by becoming a SLO Horse News herd member. Get your Horse Camping Checklist here >.

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