Fall is always beautiful in Northern Virginia, and one of the best ways to appreciate the colors is on horseback. But by November--during the last remains of colorful foliage, and before the weather turns too cold--it's usually a "now-or-never" thing.

So another round of glorious weather brought a group of us together last weekend at Sky Meadow Park, near Paris, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. All tacked and ready to go, we were surprised to be the only people enjoying the perfect day to ride.

Generally, a good trail ride is led by a quiet horse that will steadily pursue the designated path.Our group was made up of racing and eventing horses of all ages, with one trusty fox hunter to help keep us in line. Unfortunately, several of the horses in the group desired to take the role of fearless leader, so there was a lot of spinning, scattering and jigging when we began.

The trail, well-marked by horseshoes nailed to posts, started out rather flat and grassy as we made our way toward the woods. Once there, we began climbing rather steeply, and the going became quite rocky. Our group had intended to stay at a walk, and for the most part, the trails were too rocky to do anything else. We found the effort of climbing soon took the exuberance out of our mounts, which was a welcome relief to all.

Even though the trees mostly were bare on the side of the hill, we couldn't get a good look at the countryside below us. Fortunately, there are two viewing areas on the trail.

Winding our way back down the side of the mountain, the trail soon opened up to rolling hills and grass again, and we enjoyed a leisurely walk back to the parking area. The whole loop took about an hour and a half to complete, with a few choice photo shoots included.

When we returned to the trailers, a well-behaved dog belonging to one of my employees was let out of the truck to get some fresh air--although we knew dogs are not allowed on the trails and must be leashed in the parking area at all times. At the exact moment the dog came out of the vehicle, a park ranger came by and cheerfully gave the owner a ticket and fine for having the dog off a leash. It is definitely a good idea to leave the dogs at home when enjoying Sky Meadow Park.

Of course, the best part of the ride was the picnic afterward. Each of us had brought something to eat, as well as a birthday cake for one of the riders. We soon found ourselves eating large quantities of junk food, drinking some sparkling cider, with all of the horses quietly standing on the trailers munching hay. Being a group of horse enthusiasts, we found ourselves laughing at the fact that we were content to be sitting between piles of horse manure and old hay on a paved parking lot. We also soon came to the conclusion that this was a highly recommended way to spend a beautiful day in Virginia.

Open at 8 in the morning and closing at dusk, Sky Meadow Park welcomes all riders on its trails. A small parking fee and a negative coggins test are required, and maps of the trails are available.

Questions, comments or suggestions? E-mail Julie Gomena at jagomena@crosslink.net