Friday, April 29, 2016

The Bull Run Occoquan Trail at Fountainhead Park or The Day I Fought a Tree (twice)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I tried to access the Bull Run Occoquan Trail (BROT) from the Bull Run Regional Park and had to turn around after a couple of miles because the trail became impassable for us at a river crossing.  At the time, I vaguely planned at some point in the future to head to the other end of the BROT at Fountainhead Regional Park to see if the access was better/worse and also to see if we could make it a little farther down the trail.  Plus, Fountainhead has its own horse trails, so I figured I could always do those if the BROT didn't work out.

Well, last Sunday, I decided the day had come.  I wanted a relatively easy 10-12 mile ride as a final conditioning ride before our next competitive effort and having once boarded Nimo in the same area as the park, I figured it would be a good place to go for lovely, scenic, gently rolling hills in the woods.

I have never been to Fountainhead Park before, but I have driven past the road that leads to its entrance many, many times over the years, so I knew generally how to get there.  I wasn't really looking forward to the drive, which would involve the narrow, winding, hilly roads of the Clifton and Fairfax Station area, but I figured I would have to bite the bullet and deal with it.

Sunday dawned sunny and warm, and I got to the park around 10:45.  I hadn't been sure what to expect for parking, but I knew at least one trail riding group organized rides at the park every year, so I figured it had to be decent enough to handle several horse trailers.  A map I had of the park indicated a designated trailer parking area, so I was surprised to find that there was just one big parking lot.  Like a normal, grocery store parking lot.  That was really full of every kind of vehicle but a horse trailer.  I think I drove around the parking lot about 5 times trying to decide what my best parking option was, and I even stopped and asked a hiker if she had any idea about how horse trailers typically park.  She said she'd seen them in the lot before, but only at one end and that end was currently full of cars.  So eventually, I just parked in an area that had two spaces front to back that were clear as well as a spot on one side that was empty.

I got A LOT of attention when I unloaded my horse and I even overheard someone say in a snarky sort of way, "Are horses even allowed here?"  Grrrrr.  YES, horses are allowed!  Please note the trail markers that clearly designate the trails for hiking and riding.  I really almost lost it at that point, but there was no one to lose it with.  The park is free (I''m sure tax dollars cover the usage fees, though, because the park is in a very wealthy and exclusive area) and there is no ranger or other staff on duty.  So I'm going to lose it here.  IF YOUR PARK ALLOWS HORSEBACK RIDING, IT NEEDS TO HAVE PARKING AVAILABLE FOR HORSE TRAILERS AND IT NEEDS TO BE MARKED WITH A SIGN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Otherwise, I don't see the point in claiming that horses can use the trails.  I'm getting really tired of this sort of lip service to allowing horses on trails but then making the trails inaccessible to average horses or keeping it a secret where horse trailers can park or even just making horse trailers have to squeeze in random spots in a regular parking lot.  I was beginning to understand why I got so much attention - because my guess is that the vast majority of horse riders would feel unwelcome in such a place.  Certainly if any other horse trailer had pulled in, it would have been extremely challenging to find a place to park.

But, having traveled over an hour, negotiated the twisting roads, and finally found a parking spot, I was loathe to leave without trying the trails, no matter what kind of looks I got.  As it turned out, the people parked next to me were bikers (the biking trail is very separate from the hiking/riding trail) and they were actually really cool about my horse.  They asked to take pictures (thank you for asking!) and asked questions too, so I could tell their interest was genuine and they weren't acting like my horse was a zoo exhibit.

I got Nimo saddled up and then checked out the signs at the trail starting points for information.  I expected to have the same difficulty figuring out where the BROT trail started as I'd had at the Bull Run park, but the very first sign I looked at designated the starting point of the BROT trail.  Easy peasy!  I got on Nimo and we headed out.

It immediately became apparent that there was going to be a very heavy flow of foot traffic on the trail.  Every single hiker we encountered, though, was very respectful, and only a very few took pictures of us (and most of them asked first).  We really could only walk on the trail because of all the people, and I decided to take a detour on a side trail just to see if we could get miles in on a less-utilized trail.  That trail ended up dead-ending in a few minutes, though, but I was pretty impressed with Nimo's creek-crossing abilities.  He handled a 2-3 foot drop-off into a creek with no problem.

After we got back on the main trail, we quickly encountered a series of "steps" going up a very steep hill.  I hate these kinds of steps for horses.  In particular, this trail appeared to be so heavily used that there was beyond excessive wear and most of the wood used to support the trail was badly eroded and probably unstable under the pressure of a 1500 lb animal.  But I sent Nimo up the trail anyway and trusted him to be careful with his feet (because he's always careful with his feet and he's really concerned about only putting them on stable ground).

Note that these steps kept going well beyond the frame of the picture and the hill got quite a bit steeper too
We negotiated that first hill successfully, although I had some concerns about going down it on the way back. I figured we'd deal with it later, and I could always get off and lead Nimo down if I had to.

At the top of the hill, we hit a nice section that looked like this:

I figured our hard work was paying off and this would be the kind of trail we'd be on from that point forward.  Umm, not so much.  Instead, I soon ran into a tree.  It wasn't a big tree, but unlike the other trees we'd ridden through, the branches were not soft and easily moved out of our way.  This tree had incredibly stiff branches for its size and unbeknownst to Nimo, it had grabbed a hold of me as he was walking under/next to it and I ended up struggling quite a bit to get untangled as Nimo obliviously kept going.  I ended up losing my whip in the struggle and I decided I was lucky to escape and had no desire to go back for it.  I figured I could always snag a light branch on the trail if I really needed a whip and I planned to pick it up on my way back.

Our difficulties were not over at that point, though.  Within a minute, we got to a place in the trail where it looked like every tree in the vicinity had given up and either completely or partially fallen over.  The trail was absolutely impassable to a horse.  I tried to find a way around the mess, but because so many trees had fallen over, it wasn't possible.  But I wasn't ready to turn around.  (And despite all the people on this trail, not a single one went past us at this section.)  I got off Nimo and we just stood there for awhile, maybe 5 minutes or more while I thought and thought.  And then I realized that if I could get rid of one of the three trees that were all hung up on each other and blocking the trail, we should be able to squeeze through.  And it so happened that one of the trees did look its trunk was mostly broken.  It just needed a little help.  So I leaned on it and bounced up and down.  (I can't even imagine what Nimo was thinking at this point.)  And I bounced up and down some more until the trunk gave way.  Which was great until I realized that there was a whole upper section of tree hanging above us and that it might not be fun if it fell on us.  Luckily, it was tangled a bit with another tree, so I was able to work it loose gradually and get it down without injury.  (The tree was not a huge tree - the diameter of its trunk was probably 8".)  And we were set.  With one of the trees out of the way and the remaining trees appearing stable, I could just squeeze Nimo through.

I admit that at this point, I was seriously questioning my sanity.  I mean, who does this?  The road to the park sucked, the parking sucked, and at this point, the trail was pretty much sucking too.  There are lots and lots of other places to ride that have nice parking, that are closer, and that have well-maintained trails that are not hiked by what appeared to be hundreds of people every day.  I'm not sure I can explain it, but it bugs me when there are equestrian trails that aren't accessible or that don't get used by horses.  If we don't use them, we are going to lose them.  And while I certainly respect the rights of hikers and bikers and boaters to have recreation too, the equine industry in northern Virginia injects an incredible amount of tax dollars into the economy and we contribute quite a bit of open space in the form of farms and boarding facilities in an area that would otherwise be completely overrun by the plague that is humanity.  It seems reasonable that if a trail is approved for equestrian use, we should take advantage of it in a responsible way.  (I'm not sure if breaking through trees to clear a trail is responsible, but at that point, it would have taken an armed contingent of Navy Seals to get me to turn around.)

Anyway, I quickly found a fallen tree to use for a mounting block and Nimo and I continued on.  And what I discovered is that the BROT is a delightful series of moderate to steep short hills for miles and miles.  Many of the sections of the trail are rocky and the heavy foot traffic has eroded the trail in such a way that most of the trail is quite technical solely because of all the exposed tree roots.  All of which means it is actually a really great conditioning trail.  Basically, if you can survive the first mile and a half, the rest of the trail is awesome.  It wouldn't be something I would recommend for a beginner both because those hills would suck the life out of an unconditioned horse and the tree roots would be dicey to negotiate for a horse that lacked confidence, but for a more experienced horse and rider team, the BROT is a pretty nice ride.

We made it to mile marker 5 on the trail (this trail has mile markers every single mile, which is a fantastic perk), and then I decided we needed to head back.  We'd made pretty slow time for those 5 miles with all the hikers, the crazy hills and tree roots and steps, and the fallen tree incident, plus several creek crossings that gave Nimo pause (I give him credit for one time when he absolutely refused to cross a small stream - when I got off to lead him through, I promptly stepped into ankle-deep, boot-sucking mud and I could just feel him telling me, "I told you so.").  But, I had discovered that the trail was passable for at least 5 miles (and hopefully many, many more).  With that distance, plus the 6+ miles of equestrian trails that are separate in Fountainhead park, a person could really do some serious riding at this location, and that is exactly what I was hoping to find.

And you might think that all the hikers would be a bad thing, but because they were all so good about yielding the trail to us and because there are really no long sections of trail that are appropriate for trotting/cantering anyway, it became a matter of developing a bit of a rhythm on the trail.  I'm usually not a fan of the trot 50 feet, walk an obstacle, trot 100 feet, slow down for a bridge, trot 30 feet, walk up and down a hill, etc., but somehow it worked on this trail.  We made really good time on the way back to the trailer and we did 5 miles in an hour and 20 minutes.  I realize that isn't endurance ride pace, but given how technical the trail was, how much of it was too hilly to do much more than walk (at least on the downhill side), the number of hikers, and the fact that Nimo was barefoot so I didn't trot him over anything too rocky, that was actually kind of an impressive time that could definitely be improved over time if I put hoof boots on him and work on his conditioning up hills.

We did run into one situation that could have ended so badly that my brain just shuts down rather than imagine it.  There were two sets of hikers that were apparently walking their dogs without a leash.  In both cases, the hikers recalled their dogs and got them back on the leash when they saw us coming (seriously? not a good trail for that kind of behavior, but there's always somebody).  Anyway, apparently one couple took their dog back off the leash once we were out of sight.  Which is why as we were approaching the crazy steps that we'd gone up (see picture above) on the way out, Nimo all of a sudden reacted as if something of concern was approaching from behind.  Luckily, he did not spook when the pit bull came running down the trail behind him.  Instead he stopped.  Had he spooked forward and bolted, we would have had no choice but to careen down those steep steps and I can't even imagine what shape we would have been in at the bottom.  The dog was thankfully not growling or barking, but merely seemed curious.  So curious that after a minute or two, she approached Nimo to sniff one of his hind feet.  (Another situation that could have ended really badly...)  Nimo is familiar with dogs and generally likes them unless they are chasing him or leap out of bushes.  In this case, when the dog sniffed his foot, he absolutely cocked a hind leg and I knew another sniff would yield a kick.  The dog also immediately got the same message and instantly backed off to stand a few feet away and stare quizzically at us.  I debated about what to do because I figured if we started walking the dog would follow and I had no desire for a "buddy" on the way down that section of trail.  I also had some concern about reuniting the dog with its people.  Thankfully, after another minute of waiting, the dog acted like she heard something (probably her people calling her) and headed back the way she'd come from at a run.  Whew.  We then headed off to negotiate the steps and Nimo handled them really well.

I will give credit to the couple who owned the dog.  The woman came to find me when they got back to the parking lot to make sure that my horse and I were OK.  I could tell by the look on her face that she knew exactly what could have happened.  It wasn't the first time we'd been accosted by a loose dog and I'm sure it won't be the last, and because everything turned out OK, I was willing to let it go.  To be honest, though, I was surprised dogs off-leash would need to be a concern on this trail because it was so heavily used.  With so many other dogs and people (including lots of kids) and now apparently a random horse, the liability risk for your dog causing a problem would seem too great to me.  To each their own, I guess.

And if you're wondering if I stopped on the way back to pick up my whip, I didn't.  When we got to that same tree again, the damn thing attacked me again and snagged my helmet and it was not easy to get free.  I saw my whip lying on the ground as I once again struggled with that tree and I decided that it absolutely was not worth it to try to retrieve it.  Nimo had done fine without me needing to use a whip for the whole ride and I chalked it up to paying a toll to get past a tree that I suspect is a transplant from one of the forests in The Lord of the Rings.:)

Luckily, we survived in good form, and I am definitely adding this trail into my regular rotation of conditioning trails.  I don't know that I'll convince anyone to come with me, but despite the issues, this is really one great trail that deserves to be ridden.


  1. Love that you rose to the challenge! I would also totally want to be on the trails specifically because they're not being used to show that equestrians are a force in the community. Beware those attacking trees: I had one hang me up and drag me off the horse once! Glad only your whip was a casualty. Sounds like a worthwhile park, especially if you took a friend and even more riders used the trails!

    And I had to laugh at "I'm usually not a fan of the trot 50 feet, walk an obstacle, trot 100 feet, slow down for a bridge, trot 30 feet, walk up and down a hill" That is about 90% of my trails. I'm so used to it that nice trails where you can move out for longer than 30 seconds are a wonderful luxury.

    1. OMG, irish horse, I would go crazy with that kind of trail all the time!

      And yes, there are some trees that seem to have a mind of their own. I've seen other riders pushed or pulled off their horses by seemingly innocent trees and I'm convinced those trees have a mind of their own:)

  2. I hear you on the trailer parking. We have an open space preservation group in our area. About 20 parks allow horses. 3 have trailer parking. And 1 of those is a shoulder in a different lot and you have to ride a connector to the park. It sucks

    1. That's awful, Olivia! What a nightmare to deal with!

    2. There are lots of other parks in our area that do have trailer parking so it's fine. But it's annoying to me that they claim to have horse trails, but really only someone who lives nearby has access. I'm used to it at this point and I've learned how to navigate that system. Some place have huge empty parking lots and I know we can just park across a bunch of spots in the back of the lot. But a lot of parks we simply cannot go to, so the existence of horse trails is bit like Schrodinger's cat; they may or may not exist, but unless I can get to them (open the box) it doesn't matter.

    3. Haha! I love the analogy to Schrödinger's cat:)

  3. This sounds like my own personal hell on horseback! But I'm really impressed that you made the best of it. Minus the whole maniac tree moment, it sounds like things went really well. Rather impressed that the woman came to you afterward to check on you. NEED more people like that in the world!