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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Trail Trials: Catoctin Mountain and Cunningham Falls

This past weekend I explored the backwoods of Thurmont, MD, at Catoctin State Park. This park is approximately 8 square miles in area and contains over 25 miles of trails, some breath-taking views, and, yes, a little bit of history. It's definitely one of the most picturesque parks I've visited, especially this time of year with leaf-laden paths and little brush cover. The mountain air is crisp and cool and the visibility is at its clearest! With that said, let's delve into it and I'll give you my review on the trails!

Cat Rock Scramble

The drive into the park is arguably just as pretty as the park itself. After turning off the main highway, you wind your way through an apple orchard and then you drive alongside the rapids of Hunting Creek for a good mile or two. I parked at the Park Headquarters (there's additional parking at the Visitor's Center and along the roadside when the park gets crowded). I started my journey hiking the Cat Rock Overlook trail, a 2.5 mile out-and-back path. This trail is actually part of the Cunningham Falls State Park system, which is adjacent to Catoctin State Park. Some of the trails overlap between the two parks, so it's common to hop back-and forth between them. The Cat Rock trail wasn't strenuous...a little steep at times but very manageable. Although it was 1.25 miles (around 20-25 minutes) to get to the overlook, it felt like forever. Once I got to the top, Cat Rock was more like a rock scramble, but still with a decent view (1562 feet above sea level). I don't know why it's called Cat doesn't look like a cat. Perhaps you have to be nimble like a cat to climb up to the top of the pile? Who knows. This trail isn't as heavily used compared to the others and I can see why. The hike is OK and the view is OK, but there is no WOW-factor. It's pretty average in my opinion. Nonetheless, it was a good warm-up for the rest of the hiking scheduled for the day. Trail Rating: 6/10

Chimney Rock Overlook

Back at Park HQ, I got on the Red Blaze Trail and made my way 1.1 miles up to Chimney Rock. Of all the overlooks in the park, this is by far my favorite. You face the valley south of the mountain and can see for probably over 35 miles. The rock outcroppings are very neat as well. But hiker beware! There are deep crevasses and unstable rocks all around. I had to jump one that was five feet long and probably another 40 feet deep to get some of these pictures. Me, I like the adrenaline rush associated with a literal leap of faith. If that's your thing, too, then go for it! You'll have plenty of opportunities to do so in this park. As I said before, best view in the park and a good workout to get up there! Trail Rating: 10/10

Wolf Rock

About a half-mile down the trail from Chimney Rock is Wolf Rock. This formation is located next to a plateau of quartzite rock, remnants of an ancient mountain range once bigger than the Himalayas! This plateau makes for an easy walk across, being mindful of the gaps, of course. Wolf Rock does, in fact, look like a wolf (unlike Cat Rock). It's a really neat formation and one of the features of this park. Trail Rating: 8/10

From Wolf Rock, it's about a mile hike to the Visitor's Center. There are three other attractions the park hosts: Thurmont Vista, Blue Ridge Summit Vista, and Hog Rock. These locations can be accessed by taking the Yellow Blaze Trail. The trail is approximately 5 miles in length and is rated as moderated. This, in my opinion, is more of a nature trail than anything else. The views at Blue Ridge and Thurmont Vistas are decent, but not something I'd walk five miles round-trip to see. Hog Rock is the tallest point in the park at 1610 feet, however since it's deep into the mountains, the view there is rather obstructed by the trees. I didn't hike this part of the park in my latest visit...this is from prior experience.

Cunningham Falls

My final stop was Cunningham Falls. Now, there are a few different ways to get there. From the Visitor's Center, you can hike the last leg of the Yellow Blaze (1.2 miles) to the Falls entrance. Due to time constraints, I elected to walk back to my car (1 mile to Park HQ) and drive into Cunningham Falls State Park, which is about 3 miles up the road. Inside the park, there are two trails to take to the falls: the red Lower Trail and the yellow Cliff Trail. I elected to take the Cliff Trail, which is 2/3 mile away from the Falls. This trail gets very steep and provides hikers with a somewhat challenging terrain. But since it's a relatively short trail, you can complete it in a short amount of time. Cunningham Falls, itself, is the largest cascading waterfall in Maryland. It's a very impressive landmark. Due to icy conditions, I wasn't able to scale the falls like I have in the past [climbing the falls in not advised...but not prohibited ;) ]. In the slideshow below, I have some photos from a couple of years ago that show the falls up-close.

I took the Lower Trail back to the parking lot. It's a very well maintained, very flat 1/2 mile trail. It took me about 10 minutes to get back. If you want an easy-going trail to walk on, this is the one to do. All in all, the Cunningham Falls portion of the trip took less than 40 minutes. I highly recommend checking it out and seeing one of the most fantastic sites in the park complex. Trail Rating: 10/10

That's my experience on the trails! Now onto some of the history. Located just outside of the park stands the ruins of Catoctin Furnace. Governor Thomas Johnson--the first Governor in Maryland's history--and his brothers constructed this furnace in 1776 and started manufacturing iron. In 1780, the furnace provided Washington's Continental Army with 31 tons of iron (958 ten-inch shells). A year later in 1781, the furnace manufactured 100 tons of iron, most of which was used during the Siege of Yorktown! By the 1850s, the manufacturing complex consisted of three furnace stacks. The one still standing today was built in 1858 and is nicknamed "Isabella." The original stack built and the third stack were dismantled. During its most productive years, Isabella produced upwards of 3300 tons of iron per year! During the Civil War, the Union Army 1st Corps made its way through Catoctin towards Gettysburg. Soldiers recalled the smell of rotten eggs in the air (sulfur from the smoke of the furnace), large pits full of slag, and barren mountainsides due to the logging/charcoal industry that fueled the furnace.

Catoctin Furnace

Located a few feet away from the furnace is the ruins of Ironmaster's Estate called Catoctin Manor. The house was constructed in 1781 and overlooked the furnace and its workers, who lived in one-room homes nearby (some of which still stand today). The house site is the beginning of the Catocin Furnace Trail, a 1/2 mile interpretive trail that details the operations of the furnace and the people who worked there. Further down the path is the site of the raceway and dam which powered the water wheel of the furnace. Adjacent to that is the Bowstring Arch Bridge. This truss bridge was built in the mid-1800s and moved to its current location in 1872.

Scattered across the path are large slag heaps. Slag is the waste product of the furnace's iron production. During the heating process, the molten iron would sink, isolating the ore. The slag was removed every six hours from the furnace and allowed to harden in the ground. The pieces were later broken up and loaded for disposal. However, during its most productive years, slag removal was slower than production, which ultimately caused the excess slag to be piled next to the furnace. After crossing the footbridge over US 15, you finish the trail in the Second Growth Forest next to Little Hunting Creek.

There's even more history to be learned in Catoctin Park. I'm sure you're all familiar with the presidential retreat known as Camp David. Well, the retreat is located within the boundaries of the park! Due to security reasons, the location is not disclosed; however, a lot of significant events went down there. In the late 1930s, the land that would become Catoctin Park was purchased by the government to create a recreational facility. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was intent on creating new federal jobs to help bring the US out of the Great Depression. Three camps were constructed on the mountain: Camp Misty Mount, Camp Greentop, and Camp Hi-Catoctin. In 1942, with the gears of WWII turning furiously, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was urged by the Secret Service to choose a new location for his presidential retreat. Originally, Roosevelt would sail on his private yacht for relaxation, but with German U-Boats in the Atlantic, his safety was compromised. FDR visited Camp Hi-Catoctin and instantly fell in love with the site, nicknamed it Shangri-La, and made it his getaway location.

After the war, there was debate as to what was to become of the retreat. In 1952, President Harry Truman signed a compromise that would leave the property with the National Park Service and create a new state park--Cunningham Falls State Park--just south of its location. Shangri-La was renamed Camp David when President Eisenhower took office (named after his grandson). Some notable events that took place there are the planning of the Normandy Invasion, Camp David Accords (with Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt), and discussion of the Bay of Pigs. Camp David continues to be used by sitting Presidents and foreign dignitaries to this day.

Blue Blazes Whiskey Still

Backtracking a bit, Catoctin Mountain was also the site of some of the largest and most productive distilleries of the Prohibition Era. Whiskey and rye production had always been a part of the local economy, making corn and wheat product easier to transport and sell. With the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1919, the moonshine industry boomed on Catoctin Mountain. In late July 1929, a raid took place on the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still, resulting in the death of a deputy sheriff. Raiders seized more than 25,000 gallons of mash. The still found back then used a steam engine to distill the mash and stored the product in thirteen 2,000-gallon tanks, by far the largest operation in Frederick County, MD. Today, a smaller moonshine still marks the location of that massive one.

There are a lot of activities to do and some amazing experiences to be had at Catoctin Mountain. You can easily spend an entire day there, exploring both the Mountain and Falls parks. If you're contemplating the hike, do it sooner than later, before it gets too cold and icy! And if you have visited Catoctin Mountain, please share with us your experiences by commenting below! Thanks for reading!


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