Sunday, April 3, 2016

Virginia Bluebells!

For a few weeks from late March through mid-April, the Virginia bluebell blooms are at their peak.  The best place in my area to see these fantastic gems is Bull Run Regional Park.  I've ridden at BRRP twice over the past few years - once with Clifton Horse Society about 3 years ago and another time at a Judged Pleasure Ride, back when I thought that might be a fun thing to do (until this JPR convinced me otherwise).  I have to admit to not being that impressed with the park - the trails are flat, there aren't that many miles of them, and it's confusing to figure out where to park and where to ride if there isn't a special event that has great organization.

However, last weekend at our final conditioning ride before Foxcatcher, I met a fellow endurance rider who was quite desperate to see the bluebells and didn't know about BRRP.  I knew I wouldn't want to do anything too exciting out on the trails this weekend, so a nice, easy jaunt to see the bluebells seemed like the perfect thing to do.

Because it had been two years since my last trip to the park, and because the park is actually pretty close to where I live, I decided to take my daughter to scope the place out during the week before our ride, so I could confirm parking and trail locations.  I was also in search of the trailhead to the Bull Run Occoquan Trail, which has reached mythical proportions in my mind.  The BROT is a 17 mile trail that connects the BRRP and Fountainhead Regional Park, both of which also have several miles of horse trails.  So, theoretically, a person could get a lot of riding in by accessing the BROT.  I knew that one end of the trail was at BRRP, but when I asked about it, I would get weird directions that didn't work with my frame of reference, and I had trouble reading the sideways map that I found on the Clifton Horse Society website.  Some horse riders seem to know about the trail, but I couldn't find anyone who had actually ridden it within the last few years or could give me good directions about how to access it.

And so began the 2 and a half hour adventure.  There was, regrettably, no one manning the gatehouse at the park during the week, so when I got to the park, there was no one I could ask for directions to anything.  But that's OK, I thought, because I sort of remember where I was told the horse trailer parking is, and I'm sure there will be a sign designating the parking lot as parking for horse trailers.  And I'm sure there will be a sign identifying the horse trail.

Hahahahaha!  Not so much.  I could find no signs for anything horse-related.  I did however, find this very nice access point to the Occoquan Water Trail, which is basically for canoes to float down the river.  My daughter had a great time exploring the shore and the woods next to it.

Checking things out from the ground level
After hanging out at the river for a bit, we got back in the truck and drove around some more.  My daughter was very clear that she expected to do more exploring, and I was convinced that I could figure out where the horse trails were.  I drove around the main loop of the park and saw nothing, so I decided to drive down what looked like an off-shoot with a sign pointing to the park campground.  I followed the road, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a sign for the horse trail.  Ahh ha!  I had at least found where it crossed a road, so that was something.  I kept driving until I saw the Holy Grail - the trailhead for the BROT.  Hallelujah!  Now I didn't need to know where the horse trail was because I could get to the BROT and ride to my heart's content.  I parked at the water park lot (for those in the area, the BROT trailhead is quite close to the parking lot for the water park within BRRP), and we went to check out the trail.

Pretty much how I felt too!
We only did the first half mile or so of the trail, but my first impression was not that great.  Much of that first half mile is covered in long, wooden bridges like this one:

That is because this section of the trail is kind of a swamp. I can tell it's really wet probably all of the time; hence the long wooden bridges.  But these bridges aren't meant for horses.  Horses are apparently supposed to walk next to the bridges in the swamp.  I have two concerns about that.  One, my horse would have to struggle through mud for at least this half mile and who knows how much more of the trail is like that.  Two, this looks like a sensitive environmental area, and having hoof traffic in the mud doesn't seem like a very conservation-minded thing to do.  While I do enjoy riding as many places as I can, I also think it is important to tread lightly whenever possible, and slogging through mud doesn't strike me as treading lightly.

But, the lure of being able to ride so many miles still called to me, so I figured I would check things out in more detail on Saturday when I was with another rider and get her thoughts on the situation.  Before we went home, though, I snapped a few more pictures because while this trail may not have been the best for horses, it was gorgeous!

We had to stop at a small playground before we could go home for the day, so Gemma could get one last burst of energy out and then she passed out for a nap while I drove home. 

I never found a parking lot labelled for horse parking or the beginning of the horse trail, so I decided to call the park office the next day.  A very annoyed lady told me that horse trailer parking is at the parking lot for Shelter 5, as if any idiot would know that due to the completely non-existent sign, of course.  And she informed me that during the week, it would be unlikely that anyone would have reserved Shelter 5, so there should be plenty of room for me to park.  Presumably then, on the weekends, if someone had reserved the shelter, I might have trouble finding parking.

Because I had suspected that lot as the horse trailer parking area, I already knew where it was and what it looked like, which is a regular car parking lot for maybe 30 cars to park on one side and enough room to drive through on the other side.  So not really that great for accommodating a lot of horse trailers.  I estimate you could get maybe 6 rigs in that lot if there are no cars.  Sigh...this lack of information and difficulty in accessing parking and trails for horses is not that uncommon in this area, and I'm pretty sure it is done on purpose to discourage equestrians from using facilities that they are, in fact, legally entitled to use, and even more in fact, PAY to use.  Because on weekends, there is a $7 fee to ride for the day, which is actually kind of a lot for people like me who haul to ride almost every weekend.  But I pay it because I know that maintaining parks and trails costs a lot of money and I expect to contribute for that maintainance.

Anyway, I let the lady I was riding with know the plan for the ride, and didn't give it much more thought for the rest of the week.

Saturday morning dawned with rain.  And as is not atypical for me, my riding partner decided that riding in the rain was not her thing, so could we maybe go on Sunday instead?  I already had a lesson planned, so I couldn't switch the ride.  I decided to go without her because I had recently purchased a lovely Muddy Creek raincoat (Aarene's post on a new and improved raincoat for equestrians came out after I'd already gotten it, but something is definitely better than the nothing I had before!) and I wanted to try it out.  Also, the rain was supposed to let up before noon and it didn't seem that heavy.

So, I headed out to the barn, loaded up Nimo, and made the trip to the park in less than an hour.  The rain had mostly let up by then, so I decided to take the opportunity to try out attaching my new cantle bag and rump rug to the saddle, because I thought I might need both at Foxcatcher, and there's nothing more exciting than trying out new gear a week before a ride:)

I got the EasyCare Stowaway Slim Western Cantle Pack even though there is a bag specifically made for Specialized saddles.  The thing I don't like about that bag is that it screws in using the screws on the saddle, or in my case, the fancy conchos that took me about an hour to get in properly.  I have no desire to ever remove them again and if the saddle bag is attached with them, I will never take it off the saddle, and I really want the flexibility to use the bag or not on a per ride basis.  So, the general model it is.  I put the bag on empty, and I wasn't able to get it strapped in tight enough to avoid all shifting.  However, it is meant to carry my raincoat and maybe one or two other lightweight things that I don't want in my pommel bags, so shifting might be visually annoying, but not really a huge issue in terms of balance.  And, when the raincoat is packed in it, I think the shifting is much less.

I also got the EasyBun Warmer Rump Rug.  I expect to fully body clip Nimo for the Foxcatcher ride, but temps are not looking that warm for the week before or even the day of the ride, so I wanted to have the option of using a rump rug until he warms up.  I can't give a decent review of the product at this point because all I did was strap it to the saddle.  I will say that I think I will look for something like small clips to use to attach the rump rug instead of the ties that came with it because I'm always suspicious that knots will unravel at the most inconvenient time.  That said, even my pathetic tying job kept the rug on for our whole 3 hour ride.

Nimo's new braids!
And about that ride.  I found a tiny sign (like literally 4"x4") pointing to the horse trail off of the parking lot.  I followed it.  And then, past a giant junk pile in the soccer field parking lot, I spotted another tiny sign that appeared to point in the direction of many, many semi-truck trailers and not much else.  Sigh...that didn't seem right, so I wandered over to some soccer players getting ready to play and asked if they knew where the horse trail was.  They looked at me like I was an alien and shook their heads (in their defense, I did look quite a bit different from them with my blue tack, sage green yarn for braids (it was what I had!), crazy rain coat, blue helmet, and giant horse).  So we wandered around the soccer field/RV/semi-truck/junk pile parking lot for awhile until I saw another tiny sign pointing in a different direction.  This time the sign was useful, and we headed off on our ride.  Rain was lightly falling, but I was impervious to it in my long rain coat, and I was just happy to have found the trail.

We rode for maybe 2.5-3 miles (I didn't bring my GPS because it has been acting a bit wonky lately and irritating me) and we crossed the road that I knew led to the BROT, so we took off down the road.  And then we stopped for pictures.  Look, I get that my horse seems really cool to the average person and I recognize that I am an ambassador for the equestrian community when I'm on public trails.  But I really don't like our picture being taken by random strangers.  Especially random strangers who don't ask for permission.  It's like they consider us part of the wildlife or a tourist attraction instead of a real person and horse who deserve the common courtesy of being asked before 100 pictures are taken and posted to all kinds of social media.  I wouldn't just start taking snapshots of random people or more specifically, their kids, without asking, and I kind of expect the same courtesy to be shown to me.  I've never said anything to anyone about it because I don't really know how to convey my message without seeming bitchy or offending someone, but I think we got stopped 4 times for pictures during this ride, and this isn't the first time.  I actually avoid riding certain places because of the constant attention.  I don't mind if someone wants to chat for a minute or ask a question, but the pictures really do bother me.

Anyway, we kept going and got to the BROT trailhead.  Nimo did an awesome job of slogging through the mud and swamp and luckily, it did seem to be just that first half mile that was the problem.  And because of the rain, not many people were on the trail, so we cruised on through the woods and the beautiful bluebells.  We did have to cross a couple of bridges that I wasn't convinced were designed for horses, but there was not really a good alternative because the banks of the streams were quite steep and eroded.

After maybe 2.5 miles, we got to a very sagging bridge crossing a wide river and it was clearly marked as a non-horse crossing.  Huh.  I looked for another way across and found a side trail that had possibilities and was later marked as a horse crossing (I don't know that much about making trails, but shouldn't it have been marked at the main trail junction instead of 50 feet in?).  But it was a no go.  The access trail to the river was steep and eroded.  I think a more advanced trail horse or a brave water horse could have done it, but it involved maybe a 3 foot drop-off into the river (which did not appear to be more than 1-2 feet deep at that point), and Nimo was pretty clear that he was uncomfortable about it.  If it had been warmer, I'd have gotten off and led him into it, but I wasn't excited about jumping into cold water.  Alternatively, if we'd been with someone else, we might have tried it too, but I decided the risk wasn't worth it for what was supposed to be an easy trail ride, and we turned around.

We ducked off on the Bluebell Loop and enjoyed the flowers for awhile before turning around and heading back the way we came.

The sun came out!
More and more people were on the trail now, and I was glad to be heading back, even though it meant more swamp and mud.  And apparently giant gnats.  We were beset upon by a swarm of them when I stopped to take my coat off and the damn things followed us for miles.

We made it back to the trailer with no issues other than riding through gunfire (there is a shooting range at the park which is quite close to a section of the horse trail), riding next to heavy interstate traffic (a busy interstate runs next to a section of the horse trail), passing giant piles of junk (super scary if you're a horse), passing the giant water slides of the water park, and OMG! the stumps!  I find it incredibly amusing that Nimo is solid through gunfire, heavy road noise, and water slides, but loses it when he sees a stump.

The trail was pretty muddy in most sections, so we didn't do too much trotting, which was fine.  It did mean that I think we did about 10 miles in 3 hours, but that was pretty much what I wanted for the day anyway. 

I am sad that the BROT was not the fantastic trail I thought it would be (that's probably why I've had trouble finding people who know about it).  It is supposedly for horses and hikers, but I think the average trail horse and rider would find the section of trail that I did to be not that much fun.  With the mud/swamp, all the people, and the non-horse safe bridge, it just isn't designed for serious trail riders/endurance conditioning.  There is still the possibility that the other end of the trail is better, and I have a lead about a different access point, so I haven't completely given up on it, but for now, I'll be sticking to my usual haunts.

Still, I'm glad I went.  It's always better to know something for sure than to wonder about it, and now I feel much more comfortable riding around the BRRP, although I doubt I'll go there more than once or twice a year with friends who just want a nice, easy ride.  But, it is a place to ride that is close to me, so being aware of it and knowing how to use it is a Good Thing:)  And I sure did get to see a whole lot of bluebells!


  1. Wow! It is really rude for people to take your picture without asking! It's not like you are in a parade.

    1. I'm glad you agree with me, Kara. I was a bit worried that maybe I've been over-reacting:)

  2. Please let us know what happens with the rump rug. I have never used a retractable and wonder if they stay in place even at a canter. My relatively new one has a tail strap and even when the wind blows it stays centered ( I got sick of seeing the rug hanging off one side uselessly.

    I was amazed that my Stowaway cantle pack fits my Specialized perfectly when I have the English version ( I didn't know there is one made for Specialized. I've never tried to unscrew a concho and I hope I don't have to: ) Probably nothing compares to your Wintec screws.

    1. I will be curious if the rump rug stays in place too, lytha:) This one has magnets on all 4 corners but I don't know if that will work as well as the tail cord. I will report back on what I discover:)

      And good tip about the English version of the stowaway maybe working better than the western version. I think I can live with the way it is now, but if not, it's good to have another option. And haha! about the Wintec screws - that was a trauma I will never forget!

  3. You would not enjoy riding here. We have our picture taken all the time when we're out riding. And most people don't ask. A lot of people do it sort of surreptitiously too: hiding their cameras or waiting until we've passed. It really doesn't bother me. I just think it's weird. Like, I love horses and still I almost never take pictures of other people riding. I don't really know what these people do with the pictures. Post them to fb like, "ooh I saw a horse". It's not a freaking unicorn; you didn't really accomplish anything.

    1. That's kind of weird, Olivia. But it's good that it doesn't bother you:) But your comment makes me think maybe I should put a horn on Nimo's head. If he was actually a unicorn, I wouldn't mind if people took a bunch of pictures:)