Catoctin Park

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Catoctin Mountain Park

(Gambrill State Park, MD; Cunningham Falls State Park, MD)-

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Catoctin Mountain Trail, July 15, 2001

 The first insight into our true physical conditioning, or lack thereof, became apparent when we did the Catoctin Mountain Trail in Northern Maryland. We left our car at the visitor center at the trailhead and began an immediate ascent straight up the side of the mountain for what seemed like ten miles. We quickly came to appreciate the numerous switchbacks built into the trail because it was the only time we could rest from what seemed like a walk up the side of Mt. Everest. We quickly made a mental note: “Work on leg and lung strength.” And all of this was with a simple daypack. Coming down was not much better. Another mental note: “Work on knees.”

 One important realization we came to, and one that we have used to our advantage ever since, was that Georgia struggled going up hill and I had major problems coming down. Going up, I would get into a mental zone, take longer strides and just kept going until I got to a spot to take a brief rest. The problem with this, as my wife repeatedly pointed out, was that as soon as she caught up to me at the spot where I was resting, I would take off again giving her no opportunity to rest. We resolved this issue by letting her take the lead going up all the hills and it has worked out very well for both of us. It allowed her to set a continuous, slower and less strenuous pace for both of us and it forced me to take more rests as we went up. Going downhill was my nemesis; my knees just could not take a fast pace going down any steep incline. So when we started to descend, I took the lead and set the pace. Note: Find out early each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work around them to your mutual benefit. This also minimizes those lengthy moments of angry silence around the campfire at the end of the day.

 Despite our physical weariness, the hike offered some spectacular views from the overlooks at both Chimney Rock and Wolf Rock. We had heard stories about the beauty of Cunningham Falls which lies at the bottom of the trail so when we finished the trail we hiked to the falls to see what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, a long drought had left the falls with but a trickle of water. Hoping this would be the highlight of our day, to say we were disappointed, was an understatement.

 After some additional conditioning to minimize the types of physical problems we incurred on the Catoctin and a few shorter, less demanding day hikes, to give our confidences a boost, we decided it was time to start section-hiking the A.T. in Maryland. It was time to try an overnight hike to test our endurance a bit more and to get acquainted with some of the new gear that we had yet to use. We decided that we would plan several one, two and three-day hikes to completed all of the Maryland section of the AT before the end of 2001.


 I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you... we are in charge of our attitudes.


Catoctin Park / Cunningham Falls State Park / Gambrills State Park

August 8-15, 2004

  Well, some three years later we returned to the scene of our first “real” hike at Cunningham Falls State Park. It has been a long time and a lot of miles had been logged by this time and we were in much better shape physically and mentally than we were the first time around. We felt confident that this time would be more enjoyable than when we first attacked the trail to the Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock overlooks. We were so confident that we included the 27 miles of the Catoctin Trail in our itinerary.

 On Sunday afternoon we arrived at the PATC cabin in Catoctin Furnace, MD and what a pleasant surprise! Though the cabin itself dates back to the 1800’s and served as housing for the workers at the Catoctin Furnace up the road, it was fully outfitted for comparative luxury, by trail standards. We had a full kitchen complete with utensils, plates and pots and pans, bath (with shower), a wood stove and a fully furnished living room complete with radio and games. This would be our home for the next week and we were thankful for people like James Booker who oversees this cabin and keeps it a pleasant oasis for us hikers. After unloading our gear and getting settled in, we walked up the street to the ruins of the historic Catoctin Furnace. This little village served as one of the largest suppliers of “pig iron” during the Civil War and was the center of life in this small town. The workers did not get paid but received credit to be used at the town’s general store, which still stands across the street from our cabin. We took a brief side-trip from this site, through the woods, and discovered the ruins of the “ironmaster’s” home. It obviously was a palatial estate and along route 806, which runs through the village, is a huge stone wall with an arched entryway that led up to the estate. We traveled along this trail a bit further and viewed slag heaps made of the slag from the smelting process and continued until we got to the bridge that crosses Rte 15 over to Catoctin Park. We called it a day and went back to the cabin to take photos of our lodging and some of the other buildings in town. After a relaxing dinner and a few hours of reading we called it a day at the uncharacteristic hour of 9:00 p.m. Interestingly enough, this became our bed time the rest of the week.

 On Monday we started early, up at 6:00 a.m., and arrived at the Catoctin Park visitor center parking lot a little before 8:00 a.m. We started the 1.2-mile trek to Cunningham Falls to see if there was more water than the last time we were there during a drought. It was somewhat better but still did not impress us as “awesome”. Well, maybe another day. We left the falls and headed up the Hog Rock Trail back to the visitor center (5.1 miles) The first part of the trail was steeply uphill but our conditioning kicked in and we found it to be quite an enjoyable walk. We took a quick side trip on the Hog Rock Nature trail where we met a few other hikers who had come in from the parking lot at the top of the mountain. We made it back to the Visitor Center at about lunchtime so took the opportunity to grab some lunch. We then decided to take a drive and do some “recon” for our hikes later in the week. Unfortunately, as you will see later, we took the wrong vehicle!

 We drove out to the AT trailhead at Wolfesville Road and did a quick hike into the Ensign Phillip Cowell shelter where we took a break and then headed back. Georgia decided we should go to Gambrill State Park and scope out that area; locations of trail heads, road crossings, parking spots for our 2nd vehicle, etc. We took Gambrill Park Road in order to find the trailhead at Hamburg Road, which would be our termination point the next day, and our take-off point on Friday. Before we knew it we were in the Frederick Watershed Area and what was once a paved road was reduced to gravel, loaded with potholes and the PT Cruiser was taking a beating! How we wished we had the Jeep! I have to admit, we grew more and more concerned as the road went on and on and got steadily worse but it was too late to turn back. We kept going, praying that the car would not bottom out any more and finally reached Mountaindale Road which was again paved but out in the middle of nowhere. It is not often that we get concerned that we are lost but this was one of those rare times; we had no idea where we were. However, since Georgia’s idea of being lost is if we are out of gas, we weren’t really lost because we still had a full tank. We finally made it back to route 15, keeping the afternoon sun at our backs to keep heading east and headed for the cabin. The drive was more tiring than the hike was! Having heard so much about the Cozy Inn, in Thurmont, we showered and headed there for a delicious dinner. 9:00 p.m., and bed, could not come soon enough.

 Tuesday was a new day and we were at the trailhead of the Yellow Trail in Gambrill State Park at a little before 8:00 a.m., prepared to take on this 4.6-mile section. We decided to leave off the additional 1.5-mile loop this time around. It was a picturesque walk with several overlooks looking out over Thurmont to the north and Frederick to the south. We named this trail the “Electric Fern Trail” because of the numerous fern fields we walked through that all seemed to thrive underneath the numerous power line easements that we crossed. Every time we saw these ferns, we knew that power lines were not far away. As we walked, we were repeatedly amazed by the fact that mountain bikers regularly rode this same trail even with its very narrow sections and unbelievably rocky surface. They must all be nuts to ride bikes here! But, then again, they probably think we are nuts for walking it. We arrived at the Frederick Overlook at about 10:30 and the view was spectacular! We took a snack break, laid down on the stone wall that bordered the overlook and just took in the fragrance of a beautiful day and location. As we left to complete the trail, we stopped in at the visitor center, took a much-needed potty break and picked up a Gambrill State Park map and some other information. Then, we were off to finish up and then do the 1-mile White Oak Nature Trail before stopping for lunch.

 The White Trail section was a relative “piece of cake” and before we knew it we had arrived at the High Knob Scenic Area where we visited the rustic tearoom, and the nature center. Even if you are not an avid hiker, this is a beautiful place to visit, take in the spectacular views and have a nice picnic lunch, which is exactly what we did at the Middletown Overlook. Since it was too late to start another decent length hike, we decided to hop in the car and check out the lake at Cunningham Falls State Park and did a bit of fishing. Well, it wasn’t really fishing. We simply drowned a lot of worms. Georgia did catch one sunfish. Thank God we were not relying on our angling prowess to supply us with dinner. We would have starved to death. On our way back to the cabin we stopped at the Cunningham Falls Visitor Center and then paid a visit to the wonderful aviary they have there.

 On Wednesday we began our daily trek at the Catoctin Visitor Center and headed up to the  Thurmont Vista at 1,499’ then on to Wolf Rock at a mere 1,401’ and then  Chimney Rock at 1,419’. At each location we were treated to magnificent views, though the weather had become a bit humid. We headed down from the mountain, following the trail to the Crow’s Nest camping area and then along the river to Catoctin Mountain Park headquarters. The walk along the river was just wonderful, with multiple waterfalls and a trail lined with deciduous tress. This relaxing jaunt was short-lived as we headed back up the mountain for 0.9 mile and then immediately back down 0.9 miles to visitor center. In total, we covered  6.2 miles and were quite satisfied with our physical conditioning.

 Thursday, the weather took a bit of a turn for it was overcast and the humidity had increased significantly. High humidity always makes for a strenuous and exhausting hike, no matter what the temperature. We left parking lot at Gambrill Park at about 8:07 and did a quick 5.5 miles to the parking lot at Hamburg Road. It was a beautiful walk, with many rigorous up and downs but it was a bit odd that we neither heard nor saw any wildlife. At 2.3 miles, as we headed down a steep incline and across one of the many narrow streams we would encounter on this trip, two trail runners blew by us like we were standing still. We were simply amazed at how sure-footed they were on the muddy trail and wet rocks. They were dressed in competition running outfits that gave the appearance that they were training for the Olympics. We were feeling just great at it was hard to believe that we completed this 5.5 miles trail by 11:30 a.m. It appeared that we were getting our mountain legs and lungs back. As is so often our routine when doing a new trail, we took a drive to find the trailhead at Mt. Zion Road for our last 10-mile section on Saturday. But before this section, on Friday, we would do the 10.6 miles from the Hamburg Road to the Manor area at Cunningham Falls State Park.

 Friday morning was overcast but there were indications that it would soon clear, so we hit the trail early. Except for a few steep ascents, most of this trip was level and we enjoyed some easy walking. However, this section is the most poorly blazed we have ever been on. It was easy to get lost with because of all the maintenance roads that intersect the trail. Oddly enough, despite the elevation of this trail, we came upon a number of beautiful ponds that are part of the Frederick Watershed area. The most spectacular one came out of nowhere. We climbed a rather steep incline that had steps made out of logs and, as we looked up, we got the impression that we were coming up to a ridgeline. As we hit the top step, boom!, there was a pond not 5’ from the top of the last step. If you walked up these steps in the dark, it would be quite easy to hit the top of these steps and walk right into the pond; it was that close! The only other disheartening thing about this section of trail, other than the lack of blazes, is that this area is frequented by hunters and off-roaders who use the sides of the trail for a trash can. The amount of junk along the trail was overwhelming.

 The last stream that we needed to cross was Hunting Creek, which is right in the park. Because of the rain the night before, the water was higher than usual so it took us a while to find a place where we could safely cross without getting our feet wet. Once we had crossed Hunting Creek, we could see the Visitor Center in the near distance and we could have simply walked on the access road the short distance to our car. But Nooooooo….! I insisted that we continue following the blue blazes up the mountain and back down to the parking lot. Little did I know that this was a 1-mile hike and that it was going to be the most strenuous part of the entire day. With a mere 100 yards completed, I was getting rather irate looks from Georgia and I immediately realized that I had made a grave mistake in choosing to be a hiking purist.) 

 Finally we reached the intersection of the “Yellow Trail” that took us back to our car. Before we left, however, we once again stopped in at the visitor center to spend some additional time at the aviary looking at all the beautiful owls and hawks there. While in the center, we could not help but notice all the handouts for the campers. This handout was one alerting them to the fact that there was an impending hurricane, named Charlie, which was predicted to wreak havoc on the East Coast late on Saturday.

 The prediction was for heavy rain, flash floods and devastating winds so the last 11 miles of our hike, on Saturday, were now in doubt. We had to laugh because it now seemed that we have this thing with hurricanes! Last year our week long hike on the C&O Canal was cut short by Hurricane Isabel. This was not going to happen to us again if we could help it! We decided to wait until morning to make our decision whether to finish or not.

 We drove back to the cabin, a bit discouraged by the fact that Mother Nature may once again foil our plans to complete a much-anticipated hike. But, we were excited about the fact that my son, Travis, was going to be stopping by for dinner and to spend the night on his way Harrisburg, PA to a party for one of his friends. While we waited for him, we did some “trail maintenance” and cleaned out the porch gutter at the cabin, which was just full of leaves and walnuts. No wonder the rains earlier in the week overflowed the gutter.

 After having listened to the radio and heard that the hurricane would not hit till later in the day, we set out early Saturday morning to complete our 27 mile journey of the Catoctin Trail. Our hope was that if we left early enough and made good time, we could be back at the cabin before the storm hit.

 The first 1.3 miles, to Bob’s Hills Overlook, was virtually straight up; a rough way to start a day where we knew we had to make great time to beat the storm. But after that initial climb, it was relatively easy going with only a few steep, but short, climbs. We stopped at a large rock outcropping for lunch under increasingly cloudy skies so we did not rest as long as we normally would and regretted it somewhat as we headed back out. The rest of the trip was quiet and relatively uneventful but we did meet Dave, a trail overseer, out cutting back weeds along the mid-section of the trail. Catoctin Park had really taken a beating from Hurricane Isabel and all of the trail overseers in this area had their work cut out for them removing the numerous “blow downs” and brush left behind. We chatted for awhile and let him know we appreciated his, and all the other trail maintainers’, dedication to keeping the trail in great shape for all us hikers.

 At about 2:30 p.m., we finally emerged from the woods onto an old road that is used for horses and tractors. The road ran alongside a beautiful set of open fields, ending at the trailhead parking lot. As we changed out of our hiking boots, took a rest and “high-fived” each other for completing our objective for the day, we noticed a family working in the field next to our car. As we watched them work, we got the distinct feeling that we had somehow traveled back in time. To a time when families worked their fields by hand and everyone, from the youngest to the oldest family member pitched in to do their part. Here was a family harvesting potatoes from a field about an acre or two in size. What struck us the most was a  young girl, possibly 8-9 years old, in a white muslin dress, barefoot, walking through the field with a large bucket full of potatoes. The bucket, full, had to weigh as much as she did. Just sitting and watching was a fitting way to end the day and we had beaten the storm.

 The rest of the day was spent just relaxing, awaiting the hurricane and having a wonderful meal of spaghetti and wine. As the sun began to set, we started the process of gathering up and packing our gear and preparing to bid a fond farewell to our home for this past week. It was a truly wonderful and relaxing week and we hated having to go back to the traffic, noise and stress of our “regular” lives. It was a week we would not soon forget filled with beautiful scenery, fresh air, and peace and quiet.

 On Sunday morning we left our abode and made one stop on the way home to attend church at Frederick Christian Fellowship. It is a wonderfully friendly and worshipful church and we enjoyed the service immensely. It was a great way to cap off a great week.

 Whether you are single, a couple or an entire family, we highly recommend visiting this area to hike the many trails, swim or fish in the lake or just camp at the beautifully maintained facilities. It is only a short drive from the congestion and hectic pace of the Washington, DC area and is a wonderful way to spend a day or a week. It is one of our favorite places and one that we get to as often as possible.


 “Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.”
- Margaret B. Runbeck




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