It seems that just when I think I’ve covered all I can about the W&OD, something else comes up. Often it’s a comment from a reader, which I think is great, as it makes this column somewhat of a conversation, rather than simply me putting out my thoughts.
The latest issue comes from a reader, an avid cyclist who I know to be a reasonable person and a true advocate and ambassador for cycling. They brought to my attention a recent interaction they’d had on the gravel path that parallels the paved trail, an incident which pointed out both how different users perceive things and also the somewhat ambiguous nature of the rules of the trail.
I have to confess to having never really given a lot of thought to there being any distinction between the paved and unpaved trails, aside from one being easier to travel on wheels than the other. However, a recent interaction my reader had with another individual on the unpaved path brings up the question of appropriate use of the gravel path.
He was cycling on an unpaved part of the trail -- officially known as the bridle path but more often called the "horse trail" -- and was accosted by someone walking by him, who took him to task for riding a bicycle in the area.
This individual seemed adamant the unpaved path was an “equestrian trail” and intended solely for the use of horses (and apparently walkers, since she was not riding a horse) and that cyclists should stay off. My reader attempted to point out that there shouldn’t be a problem with well-behaved users of ANY kind using any part of the trail, but the walker remained unconvinced, and seemed adamant that bicycles should not be on the unpaved path.
Like my reader, I have cycled portions of the gravel (or dirt) path just to throw a little variety in my rides. It’s nice to get into some less traveled areas, and there’s a different set of riding skills involved in riding on a loose, bumpy surface. I am by no means a “mountain bike rider” in the typical sense, and when I do this sort of riding one sidepath on the W&OD, I am on one of my road bikes, so I’m not doing crazy downhill tricks or anything. Rather, I’m carefully picking my way over a tricky path and enjoying the quietness and relative solitude. On the rare occasion I encounter another trail user, I slow down and warn them and pass safely and sanely. But have I and my reader been wrong all along, and is the unpaved path truly “just for horses?”
I turned to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and the Friends of the W&OD for enlightenment. It turns out there’s nothing in writing that specifically spells out any sort of restrictions of use on the unpaved path at all. Where I think the confusion lies, however, is in the fact that there are numerous references to it as a “bridle path” in the official information. While it seems the goal was to create a “hoof friendly” path parallel to the paved trail for horseback riders, there is no indication that ONLY horses are allowed on those portions of the trail, and in fact, the Friends site specifically makes reference to “mountain bikers on the bridle path” in their safety guidelines.
"The bridle path (I call it the horse trail) can be used by anyone," Park Manager Karl Mohle told me in an email. "It is open to all and the same trail etiquette applies on the horse trail as it does on the paved trail."
So, given that all are allowed to used BOTH paved and unpaved portions of the trail, what can we do to get along? Well, pretty much the same things I’ve laid out here on several occasions, starting with simple courtesy and common sense.
- On the dirt path, if you’re riding along, please, please slow down for others, give warning, and pass safely when you do pass. And be polite, ok?
- If you do come upon a rider on horseback, please remember that horses can be easily startled and behave unpredictably when startled. Give a calm clear, spoken warning to the rider as you approach, approach SLOWLY, and only pass when the rider on horseback tells you it is safe to do so. They need some time to get their mount collected for your passing, so it is in everyone’s best interest for you to give them that time.
- It’s a very good idea to check out the Friends of the W&OD guidelines specifically about horses, located here.
We see fewer and fewer horses out there on the trail, and they tend to be at the further reaches, as suburbia has inexorably spread, but some folks do still like to enjoy the trail with their four-footed friends. Let’s all do all we can to help make their time out there enjoyable as well. And remember, the trail is for everyone, and we all need to learn to share.