Monday, November 9, 2015

Riding at Thompson WMA...FINALLY!

I first heard about Thompson Wildlife Management Area a couple of years ago.  Since then, several endurance riders have mentioned it to me as THE PLACE TO TRAIN for endurance rides, especially the ones run by Old Dominion (No Frills, The OD, and Fort Valley).  I admit that I didn't really investigate the park that much at first.  My experiences at the Phelps WMA convinced me that the State of Virginia had set things up to be as confusing and as difficult as possible for those wishing to access WMAs, particularly for horse-back riders, and after finally getting my bearings at Phelps, I wasn't too keen on trying to learn a new park.  Also, the only people I knew who could show me around were pretty experienced and hard-core endurance riders and the thought of trying to keep up with them over rugged terrain wasn't that appealing.

But then I met a lady a few weeks ago who rode at Thompson WMA all the time and wasn't an endurance rider.  She offered to ride with me at the park and show me the trails.  I also discovered that the park was only about an hour from Nimo's barn, which made it a lot more appealing that the hour and 45 minute drive I was doing out to the 4-H Center in Front Royal, so I could access the major climb into the Shenandoah National Park and up to Skyline Drive.

With the stars finally aligned, I met up with my new riding friend at Thompson's last Sunday.  I didn't really know what to expect, but I was first surprised by how small the parking lot was and how time-consuming it would be to park more than a few horse trailers there.  There are actually 11 parking lots, but my friend assured me the one we wanted to park at was the one at Lake Thompson.  I assume that the others are smaller lots or don't have good access to the trails (although I may explore a bit after I become more familiar with the park).  I remember spending a lot of time at Phelps trying to figure out which parking lot was the best one for horse trailers and accessing the trails.

Luckily the day we choose to ride had kind of crappy, drizzly, cool weather, so there were no other riders there that day and only a few fishermen.  After I got parked and Nimo was saddled, we headed out.  And right up the mountain.  There is no level ground in the area, except for a short path around the lake.  Even the parking lot has some slope to it.  I guess that makes sense because the park is essentially in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it doesn't take long to get to the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the park.  (And apparently horses are not welcome on the AT, which is a real bummer.)

The lady I rode with was quite familiar with the trail up the mountain and while she kept saying her horse wasn't that fit, he trotted quite a bit UP THE MOUNTAIN.  The trail was easily comparable to any OD trail I've been on in terms of grade.  Not all of it was super steep, but there weren't many switchbacks and it was basically a 3-mile climb.  The thing that made the trail perfect for conditioning was that it wasn't nearly as rocky as OD trails typically are and it was wide enough for two horses to walk next to each other for most of the way up.

View from the trail about halfway up the mountain
Just to be clear, Nimo does not trot up mountains.  He walks in a dignified manner being very careful about where he puts his feet, especially if he doesn't know the trail.  So when faced with riding with someone who wanted to trot up the mountain, I wasn't sure what Nimo would do.  As it turned out, he apparently felt quite perky and happily trotted some sections.  We didn't trot all the sections of the trail that our companions were capable of doing, but I was pretty happy with Nimo's effort.  We did the 3 miles up at a pace of 4 mph.  I know that isn't super fast, but compared to Nimo's typical walking speed of 2.8 mph on climbing trails, I was pretty impressed.  And that kind of a pace on an OD ride would be great if I could make up some time on other sections of the trail.

Even better is the idea that we can continue to train at the park and probably improve our pace up the mountain even more, which means that Nimo should get quite a bit fitter.  And best of all, we can work on trotting down the mountain as well.  I think the trail is quite comparable to the downhill section of the first 15-mile loop of the OD ride that gave us some trouble and being able to practice at Thompson WMA will give us great experience for the next time we do the ride.

View from the top of the mountain down the trail
Plus, there are a couple of side trails off of the main climb that should provide some variation and additional miles to the 6-mile trip up and down the mountain.  I'm really looking forward to doing more riding at this park, and now I understand why so many endurance riders like to condition there!


  1. Lovely pics! I'm glad you've found another place to condition :)

  2. The trail looks like a dream and what a beautiful area to train in. Are you able to ride year round there? Sadly, the snow is falling out here in MT and getting the trailer off the mountain at our place requires chains on the truck and the trailer...and then all trails snowed in. Also so glad you have a comrade-in-the-saddle to help you learn the maze of trails out there. Post more pix! :-)

    1. I think I can train there for most of the year. Snow or ice on the road would make things difficult in terms of hauling because the last few miles are on a narrow unmarked road with steep hills and winding turns. That said, most winters in Virginia are pretty mild (especially compared to Montana!), so I expect to be able to ride there through the winter.