Catoctin adventures invoke the (inner) child in visitors
In the 1980s and 1990s, my family and I lived at the very edge of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a mere five miles from the northern reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In Walkersville, MD, just outside Frederick, we were close enough to a portion of the Blue Ridge — Catoctin Mountain — that we could see it in gaps between the neighbors’ houses across the street. And from the roof of our house, where the occasional whiffle ball or Frisbee would get stuck, I’d get an even better view of that long forested wall to the west, stretching north toward Pennsylvania.
In those days, we visited Catoctin many times. We picnicked there, camped there and explored the trails. We swam in Hunting Creek Lake at Cunningham Falls State Park and, at the cascading rock waterfall that gives the park its name, we clambered on giant rocks and splashed around in cool water.
So it was a blast from the past when I returned there this summer, accompanied by my daughter Joy and her two children, 8-year-old Frankie and 5-year-old Grace. We hiked, we camped (well, we rented a cabin; I’m no longer a fan of sleeping on tree roots), we swam in the lake and, good citizens that we are, we did not clamber on rocks and splash around at the foot of Cunningham Falls. Rather, we watched from the end of the new (to me) elevated boardwalk as nearly everyone else who came along clambered and splashed — blithely ignoring the signs that now prohibit it, for the sake of both conservation and safety.
We started day one at the Catoctin Mountain (national) Park visitor center, where we collected maps and trail guides. We also asked for advice on the best trails for a party of four that included a 5-year-old and her Pop Pop, who sports a pair of aftermarket hips.
The rangers suggested either Thurmont Vista Trail or Hog Rock Trail, each about a mile round-trip and each having an overlook with sweeping views of the rolling land to the east. We chose Hog Rock, not only because it has the park’s highest elevation overlook but also because Pop Pop is a tree enthusiast and Hog Rock is a tree identification trail.
Before leaving the visitor center, we browsed the exhibits, lingering at the taxidermic display of creatures representing Catoctin forest’s most prevalent residents: red foxes, squirrels (gray, fox and flying), minks, opossum, raccoons, woodpeckers, wood thrushes, hawks, owls (great horned, screech, barn and barred), hornets and rattlesnakes.
That latter critter curled menacingly on the floor of the display. A park ranger joined us and explained that there are also copperheads in the park, quickly adding that we were not likely to see them on the trails. They tend to hide themselves in leaf litter and rock crevices. And, he said, copperhead venom is relatively weak, and fatal bites are extremely rare. OK then. Comforting. Sort of.
Then we were off to Hog Rock Trail, which begins off Park Central Road about a mile and a half uphill from the visitor center. There, after a shady lunch at the trailhead picnic area, we struck out on the trail — uphill most of the way, but manageably so. Much of the way up, Frankie and Gracie focused mainly on finding the perfect walking stick.
Joy kept one eye on them while gamely tolerating my obsession with trees. I was a touch disappointed with the promised tree identifiers along the trail — seven or eight large wooden signs pointing out mostly familiar trees, such as red oak, white oak, beech, sugar maple, hickory, sassafras, dogwood, tulip poplar, grape vine… Wait, grape vine? I’ve learned something new: Right here in our backyard, we have wild grape vine, known as fox grape, cousin of the Concord grape.
After enjoying the view from Hog Rock, through the gap carved by Big Hunting Creek Rock, and out across a flat patchwork of farmland and woods to the east, we headed back down the trail. Our next stop would be to scout out the state park’s 40-acre Hunting Creek Lake, where swimming is allowed.
After suiting up in the dressing rooms and showers on site, we staked out a spot on the beach and spent the balance of the afternoon... well, frolicking. Underwater summersaults were popular, as was chasing the pockets of comparatively warm water that drifted randomly through the roped off swimming area. We called these “hot tubs.”
As the sun fell behind the treetops, we headed back to the national park and Camp Misty Mount, a lovely and hospitable clutch of 30 historic cabins. It’s also a historic district, built in 1937 by President Franklin Roosevelt’s most famous job-creating New Deal programs — the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.
As with the three other camps built at what was then the 10,000-acre Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area (later divided nearly equally into the national and state parks), Camp Misty Mount’s cabins were built with logs and lumber mostly from the dead American chestnut trees that littered the mountain. At the time, there were still many living chestnuts, but so many had succumbed to the infamous fungal chestnut blight imported from Asia decades earlier, that very little harvesting of live trees was necessary. Once accounting for nearly half of the wood mass on Catoctin Mountain, to say nothing of the billions of trees in the Eastern United States, the American chestnut was virtually extinct by 1950.
The other camps built in that era were Camp Round Meadow (a dormitory-style camp that Joy remembered from a childhood school trip), Camp Greentop and Camp Hi-Catoctin. In 1942, the latter became Shangri-La, a favorite retreat for President Roosevelt. Then, courtesy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it became Camp David, named in honor of the president’s father and son, and it continues to serve as a presidential retreat.
Meanwhile, back at Misty Mount and Cabin 46 — perfect for our party of four with its single room and four bunks — bedtime came early. That was partly a matter of routine for our younger explorers, partly because the cabins have no electricity (and I had neglected to bring a lantern), and partly because I had worked like a dog trying to whip up a fire for roasting marshmallows. “My kingdom for a bellows!” I had wheezed, while blowing mightily on the embers. In the end it was not the roaring campfire we had envisioned, but it was hot enough to melt marshmallow.
Lying in my bunk that night, as I pondered the sturdy and rot-resistant chestnut logs that sheltered us, my thoughts turned to a more contemporary tree tragedy: that of the eastern hemlock. I’ve associated this gorgeous conifer with Catoctin since my earliest visits because it grows along the creeks, which in turn are closely followed by the roads, and so it seemed to be everywhere in these mountains.
No longer. The eastern hemlock has been nearly wiped out, here and elsewhere, by two invasive insects: primarily the aphidlike woolly adelgid and to a lesser extent by the fiorinia scale, or elongate hemlock scale. In a 2015 National Park Service survey of the park’s hemlock stands, only 20 percent of the hemlocks counted were alive, and more than 60 percent of those were infected by one pest or the other. I took this loss personally because for the last 20 years those tranquil, deeply shaded hemlock stands were exactly what I pictured when I thought of Catoctin.
In the morning, after a dip in the camp’s sweet little swimming pool, we headed back to the state park for the aforementioned hike to Cunningham Falls — about a mile round-trip from the lake. Afterward, as rain began to fall, we drove south for our last stop of the trip: Catoctin Iron Furnace.
Lying at the foot of the mountains, which supplied both iron ore and timber, the blast furnaces here cranked out iron from the 1770s to the early 1900s. This attraction features a reconstructed stone blast furnace named Isabella — apparently iron furnaces had names — tucked deeply into hillside just off the road.
Joy and I marveled that, according to one placard, it took an acre of timber a day — for 125 years — to keep the furnace going. Little wonder, we agreed, that there’s virtually nothing left of the old growth forest that blanketed the mountain for millennia. Frankie and Gracie, meanwhile, discovered a passage that led into and out of the furnace. Picture a narrow stone-walled stairwell, but with a mud ramp instead of stairs, then a short, muddy path behind the furnace, and finally a steep and even muddier path to the top of the hill. Joy and I tried it once, and we have the muddy T-shirts to prove it. Frankie and Gracie circled back to climb it again, and again, until we corralled them back to the car.
It was time to head back to Walkersville, where Joy is now raising her own family. Their new house is still under construction, but I’m hoping that, once they move in, they can look out a window and see the long forested wall of Catoctin Mountain.
Explore Catoctin Mountain
- For information on Catoctin (national) Mountain Park, go to nps.gov/cato or call 301-663-9388.
- For information on Cunningham Falls State Park, call 301-271-7574 or go to dnr.maryland.gov and click on “Parks,” then “Find a State Park.”
- Entry into both parks is free. Most cabins at Camp Misty Mount in the national park rent for $50 per night. Entry to Hunting Creek Lake in the state park is $3 per car occupant but free for children in car seats.
- If you plan to visit the lake on summer weekends, call ahead to make sure the lake hasn’t reached capacity.
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