I've heard about "Singles Groups" and, no offense, even though I'm single, trying one out wasn't topping my "to do" list. But since I am constantly hearing laments from lots of people about how difficult a dating city Washington is, I figured I'd be up for being the test subject. I tried one (of the many) so I could ease the burden for the rest of you out there.

A new singles excursion company called "Learning Escapes" seemed to be right up my alley. The proposed excursion included this agenda: Go hiking, eat a gourmet dinner and -- oh, yeah -- meet some new people. Sounded cool.

So, off I went in my station wagon on a near perfect summer day a few weeks ago to Shenandoah National Park to hike Old Rag Mountain. After zipping past signs touting "Rabbits for Sale," "Pick Your Own Blackberries," and "Oasis Vineyards," I could feel my stress begin to evaporate.

What's the premise behind Learning Escapes? Portrait artist Carol Vogel has been bringing down groups of painters to her teaching studio in Rappahannock County for the last five years. She says it occurred to her that setting up similar activities might be a nice way to bring single people together. So, she and Christy Waters came up with Learning Escapes just a few months ago.

"I found the `meat market-bar scene' very unreal. To have so much focus on physical appearance and to never get to know the person on the inside, you could be missing some great people," says Vogel.

With Learning Escapes, she says, they wanted to create a warm, friendly atmosphere where people could connect with no pressure.

The reaction? "It's been very positive. It seems people are looking for this kind of thing, where there is an adventure activity with the combination of socializing," Vogel says.

Anyway, I arrived at the designated meeting place (a local bed and breakfast), and found a group of folks -- six women and seven men -- waiting for other people to arrive.

To properly set the scene: Think back to the first day of summer camp, where you don't know anyone, you are silently cursing your parents for sending you and, like you, everyone else is glancing around nervously, making little eye contact, where even gregarious types are shy. Well, it also happens when you're an adult.

Once we hit the trail, all shyness seemed to evaporate, though, especially after multiple water stops that naturally evolved into social stops. The group was friendly and communal, with people offering to share their water and trail snacks with the others.

I asked 34-year-old Diane Rosenberg, an attorney from Bethesda and one of the pretzel sharers, why she and her friend signed up for the hike.

"It's something different," she said. "A lot of our friends were saying to us, `Tell us about it.' So we're the guinea pigs."

Her friend, 32-year-old Ilene Becker, a telecommunications engineer from Alexandria, agreed.

"I love the outdoors and would do this anyway," said Becker, "so I figured it would be a good way to meet people."

Well, unfortunately, while I am athletic, I don't go hiking that much, although after this field trip, I'm going to try to reverse that pattern.

Participants should be prepared for some serious aerobic activity. Just about everyone was panting and dripping in sweat as we hiked up the mountain, with Christie as our guide.

Almost everyone interviewed said they signed up for both the athletic and social aspects of the outing. "Hiking is a cooler thing to do than hanging out in a bar, plus hiking is a good thing to do with a group, and we figured if we didn't like the people, the hike would still be fun," said Todd Ensminger, 27, an attorney who lives in Takoma Park, D.C.

Bill Merchant, 43, a database administrator from Reston, says he tried it because it was "a great way to meet different people."

It was a diverse group -- lawyers, engineers, consultants -- and there was no pressure to get anyone's number, although a few people exchanged cards and e-mail addresses at the day's end.

We reached one of the main summits by mid-afternoon. Some of the group lay down on the rocks and rested, while others decided to forge on and hiked further up. Later we regrouped and everyone hiked back down. The trek took the full afternoon.

Learning Escapes doesn't just do hiking. Another group of older singles had selected a day of wine-tasting instead of trail-blazing, and we met them back at the bed and breakfast. So how was that excursion?

"It was a very fun group," said George Jocher of Potomac, "all low-key, a very pleasant get-together."

We chowed down on a dinner -- steak or salmon with a yummy butter sauce -- plus appetizers, salad, drinks and desert, then called it a day.

Were there any Learning Escapes love connections that day (or any other)? "We don't have any romance stories yet," says Carol Vogel.

The Old Rag trip cost $49. For upcoming events, including a fishing trip ($229), whitewater rafting ($68), horseback riding ($68): Learning Escapes, www.learningescapes.com