"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mountain Climbing!

Lily and I did this on Sunday:

Everything finally came together so that Kathy and I could take the mares up to Catoctin Mountain in Thurmont, MD.

About 2 months ago, Charles and I had gone up to Cunningham Falls to hike. Cunningham Falls is literally right across the street from Catoctin. Driving up the mountain, I'd been paying close attention to the terrain, as it was as rocky as that of the George Washington National Forest in VA, where the Old Dominion Triple Crown endurance rides are held.  I'd been told at the barn that Catoctin has some really tough horse trails, with incredibly rocky footing.

I looked up more information and Kathy and I decided to go give it a whirl. Kathy is interested in drag riding at the next endurance ride so we figured it would be good practice for Queenie. And Lily could get in a mountain workout.

We decided to arrive early since the horse trail is considered a multi-use trail and we wanted to avoid mountain bikers and people walking their dogs.

The day dawned cool, in the low 70's. The girls had their breakfast in the barn while we groomed them and got them booted up. Lily wore her Vipers and Kathy asked if I could put Queenie's Gloves on for her: Kathy's back was acting up this morning. NBD. Queenie takes size 1 Gloves all around but I noticed that the fronts slid on pretty easily. We loaded up the mares and were on our way by 8:00 am. I want to point out that Lily is officially self loading, no thanks to me. She has just started doing this on her own. In fact, she leads ME to the trailer nowadays.

To think that this is the same mare that would turn into a nervous wreck at sight of a trailer. She would load, yes, but on the way to the trailer she'd act like it was some horse-eating monster.

As has become the norm with these adventures, it would take more than one attempt to get to our proper and final destination.

Kathy had written down the directions on how to get to the equestrian parking lot from the US National Park Service's website:

The directions were absolutely correct and we arrived at Camp Greentop on the first try.

The problem was that we arrived to discover a FULL parking lot, a couple of cabins that looked inhabited, and a soccer field next to a church. The church was full of people. We couldn't see any place that looked like an obvious area for trailers to park, so Kathy turned the truck around and parked on the edge of the soccer field, about 100 feet from the church. We figured if this was not the right place, someone from the church would eventually come out to let us know.

I wa just tightening the girth on the Alta when a man comes strolling out of the church towards us. He had glasses and was wearing his Sunday best, and for a second I wondered if he was the minister himself. I had this mental picture of him excusing himself from the altar to go talk to the ladies with the horses.

"We're in the wrong place, aren't we?" I asked. "Yes," he said. The guy was really nice. He tried to figure out how we had gotten there. His group had reserved Camp Greentop for the weekend and would be there until 1:30 pm, when they would clean up and leave. It was 9:30 am. We showed him the directions we'd found, and I was going to the truck to get my phone, where I had left the park map loaded on the screen, when he just pulled out his phone and called the park ranger station. That was so awesome of him, and something that neither Kathy nor I had thought to do! The guy even had a park map with him that he let us have.

As it turns out, the equestrian parking lot is directly across the street from Camp Greentop. For whatever reason, the directions had taken us through the back part of Park Central Rd. If you come from the front, through the Visitor's Center, you actually will see the sign that says "Horse Trailer Parking." Since we had come from the back, we had completely missed the sign.

So we loaded the girls back in the trailer. Queenie was all, "That's it? Are you sure?" I left Lily's saddle on and she hopped back into the trailer without any sort of hesitation. "As you wish," Lily said. God I love that mare.

Kathy and I were giggling about the whole thing once we were back in the truck. Kathy figured the people that had reserved the camp must've been horrified at the idea of having to clean up horse poop before they could leave. I was just happy they'd been there: we'd still be looking for the equestrian trail otherwise! It is accessed directly from the horse trailer parking lot.

The equestrian lot is a fairly small grassy parking area and only a couple of rigs would fit at once. Thankfully we were the only ones there, so Kathy was able to turn around and park already facing the exit. I let Lily eat from her alfalfa haynet while Kathy finished getting Queenie ready.

Since I knew we would be walking most of the way, I tacked up Lily with ALL of her saddle bags. I was carrying my full set of Gloves in the cantle pack just in case, but also to add weight and give her more of a workout.
The trail was easy to find from the parking area. Actually, this is one of the BEST-marked equestrian trails I have been on since moving to this area from FL. They did a really good job. There were small signs at horse shoulder height periodically along the trail, and I was telling Kathy that it was about as well-marked as Ride Between the Rivers had been.

The trail started out easy enough.

You can barely see them in this photo, but there were logs inserted width-wise in the trail as it started to wind down the mountain to create steps of sorts.

We rode downhill for a ways. And then we arrived at a Forest Service road. The trail didn't continue on the other side, so we weren't sure if we were supposed to go left or right. This was the only section that wasn't immediately clear where we should go. I pulled out the map that the nice guy from the church had given us and figured out that, based on where we were located, we should turn right. 

So we rode on the FS road for a bit, still going downhill around the mountain. Less than 1/4 mile down, we came upon this sign:

That brown sign on the left was a large sign that said "Horse Trail" with an arrow indicating where it was located. It wound around the barrier you can see there on the left.
Yup, we had made the right choice!

The trail was beautiful and actually not rocky at all for the next mile or so.

I told Kathy, "If it's like this, then this is not comparable to the George Washington National Forest AT ALL."

And then the trail started to climb. And it slowly started to get rockier.

And rockier.

My phone was having a really hard time with the changes of light in the woods. All the gray spots are rocks.
The climb got steeper but it honestly was not that bad because the trail switchbacked across the mountain. You'd get a steep climb for 20 walk strides or so, then the trail would switchback and level out for a ways (maybe 20-30 walk strides) before you had to climb again. I would have loved to have tackled these at a trot or canter and felt that Lily would not have had any kind of issue with them, but Queenie was huffing and puffing and tripping occasionally.

There was one part of the trail that was quite literally all rocks, but it was not a long section and the rocks were not huge. Lily skipped over the rocks and we paused to wait for Queenie.

Queenie says, "Are we there yet??"
We soon came upon this section of trail, which was my favorite:

More "stairs" leading up the mountain this time!

The trail eventually leveled out, and we started seeing a lot of stone walls, most likely remnants of the Civil War. They are very common in this entire area.

We stopped for a quick potty break and the mares got to have a very brief snack in the meantime.

"Okay. You can stop taking pictures now."
I tried getting Lily to tail me up the slight incline in this section but she kept trying to turn around to me. "What? Drag you? Why? Just get on already," she said. Sigh. Alright Lily. So I got on again. We'll need to work more on the tailing at home. Gracie caught on to it quickly but Lily will get it easier if someone else is leading her the first few times.

We started climbing again and the trail got pretty rocky once more.

Queenie says, "I'm done with these rocks!"
Photos really don't catch inclines well at all.
Lily says, "Why are you stopping me to take more pictures? I wanna CANTER THE HILL! What rocks?"
It was here that I looked back at Queenie and realized her right front boot was hanging from the gaiter. I got off to replace it for Kathy. Kathy ended up dismounting also so she could hold both horses. Queenie's right front boot had lost one of its screws and that's why it had slipped off. I replaced it with one of my spare boots, a 0.5. I figured it would fit: the size 1 had slid on easily back at the barn. I was right: my spare fit just fine. Kathy started to walk over to a tree stump on the other side of Queenie, going around the mare's hind end, and I asked Queenie to move one step forward so she'd be better aligned. Queenie took 2 steps forward so I asked her to back up a step. The redhead took 3 steps back and I heard a "thunk". Alarmed, I looked behind Queenie: Kathy had been walking behind her just as Queenie stepped back and Kathy had been bumped. She'd fallen backwards in slow motion. "Are you okay?" I asked. Kathy burst out laughing. "Yes! I'm fine. It just seems like every time I fall when horses are involved, I'm never actually on the horse!" We were both still giggling even after Kathy was already back on Queenie.

The trail signs had given us two options: the short horse trail loop or the long horse trail loop. We took the signs for the longer loop and it wasn't long before we realized that the long loop was more than 6 miles. Not a problem though: we had all day and we had come across only one hiker during all of this time.

So pretty
There is a way to make the trail a loop, but we ended up doubling back on ourselves.

The red + yellow trail is the equestrian loop.
What we actually rode.
This rocky creek was a good example of what the rockiest sections of trail were like:

We cantered up the last 3 inclines on the way back, and Queenie was all, "Are you kidding me?"

We made it back to the trailer uneventfully, completing 8.6 miles in 2.5 hours.  Poor Queenie. She got a real workout on this day. Lily wasn't tired in the slightest. She could have gone out and done the whole thing again at trot/canter.

Lily had her beet pulp + Senior mash, which she slurped up happily, while Queenie just stood around in a sort of daze, seeming to enjoy the fact that she didn't have to climb anymore. Once Lily was finished eating, they were loaded up and we drove back home.

Conclusion: if you are an endurance rider living in Maryland and are aiming for the Old Dominion rides, you know how hard it is to find real mountains to climb here. All rolling hills but no real altitude gain for training. I truly recommend Catoctin Mountain for practicing climbing! It is easy to reach and is not ridiculously far: it was a little over an hour's drive for us with the trailer from Montgomery County. It's about 30 minutes north of downtown Frederick. There is a decent elevation gain on the trail and you get to practice both going up and down hills. You will encounter steeper and longer climbs in the George Washington National Forest, but this really is great practice without having to drive a couple of hours south to VA. If your horse can negotiate this trail at speed, you're set. The Catoctin equestrian trail is totally trottable for the most part and there are several sections with smooth earth where you can canter or even gallop; there were very few sections where I really would have felt I absolutely needed to slow down to a walk if we'd been working at speed. Very well-marked trail and I will also point out that it drains well: we had had heavy thunderstorms the night before and the trail, while wet in the dirt areas, was not muddy. I also never lost phone signal: I have Verizon. It was nice to be able to keep track of the mileage with MapMyRun throughout. We would have been second-guessing ourselves on this longer-than-expected ride otherwise!


  1. It's awesome that you found a great place to train! And those muscles on Lily! Wow!

  2. I loved those rock walls of the East. Sure wish we had a big hill here!

  3. So, that truck you have? Time for a trailer and a 1x weekly ride here! lol!! How awesome a space though!