Profile of a Backcountry Horseman: Dennis Serpa

By Kathleen Lynch

Dennis Serpa runs an almond farm in Turlock, California, breeds mules and is the father of four children and grandfather to 11. In between all that, he is a volunteer with the Mid-Valley Unit of the Back Country Horsemen of California and uses his animals to pack tools and supplies to PCTA Carsonora Crew camps in the Northern Sierra.

Dennis grew up in a cattle-farming family. In college he studied farm management at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He went into the cattle business after college and began taking horses on backcountry camping and hunting trips.

Dennis' mule train near Ebbetts Pass.

Dennis’ mule train near Ebbetts Pass.

He got involved with the Back Country Horsemen of California in 1990 after discovering the group at Bishop Mule Days.

“I started doing trail work in local Emigrant Wilderness in the Stanislaus National Forest,” he said. “I had been somewhat involved in the backcountry, riding and taking my family on pack trips in the 80s. The kids were about 4 or 5 years old, saddled up and packing in for overnights. We always enjoyed the backcountry.

“After I discovered Back Country Horsemen of California and all the trail work that they do, that was my passion. Giving back to my kind, making the trails better for the general public.”

It was a presentation by thru-rider Ben York, a former PCTA Board chair, which brought Dennis to the PCT. “His riding of it and putting on that program got me hooked on the PCT. And that’s why I wanted to help out wherever I could to promote the cause of the PCT.”

The Back Country Horsemen of California have grown considerably since Dennis joined. “We started doing more volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service, more backcountry trail work. Now Back Country Horsemen do a lot of training and education in backcountry maintenance. We put on educational events, camps for young people teaching them how to care for the backcountry, how to take care of their stock, Leave No Trace ethics.”


With 400 members, the Modesto-based Mid-Valley unit is now the largest in the state. The PCTA Carsonora Crew maintains approximately 84 miles of the trail between Carson and Sonora passes in Northern California and couldn’t do it without packers such as Dennis. PCTA partners with Back Country Horsemen and other equestrian groups in all three states. They are key to maintaining the trail, especially in wilderness areas, which often requires crews to walk longer and stay overnight. Horses and mules often bring in the tools and supplies for these crews.

Additionally, the Back Country Horsemen do everything from tree removal and rockwork to packing in supplies for trail crews. This summer, they’ll be surveying trails affected by fires with the Forest Service, “seeing where to send trail crews, and we’ll be doing a lot of that trail work ourselves.”

Hikers will see Dennis packing in mules, not horses, this summer. “Mules are a unique character, they have a different personality. They really get a hold of you. Mules can do anything a horse can do, sometimes better. They may not have the speed that horses do, but they can do it all. They are more sure footed than a horse and smarter too. Everyone thinks that mules are stubborn. They won’t get themselves into trouble as easily as a horse. They’re fun to work with.”

Dennis Serpa

Dennis Serpa

His children and grandchildren will join Dennis on backcountry trips this summer. “They help pack supplies, pull on one end of a saw. I’m trying to pass it on to the next generation. They’re always ready to go to the mountains.”

What brings Dennis back to the PCT every summer is his love of the backcountry. “We love what we do. That’s our passion is going into the backcountry with a string of mules and trying to make it a better place for those who come after us.”

He says the Back Country Horsemen are, “always looking for new people to get involved. We show them the ropes and share this beautiful part of this country that we get to ride in. We are looking for people who want to participate and give back to the backcountry.”

No horse, or mule, required.

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