Catoctin Mountian Park / Cunningham Falls: Why is Everyone a Jerk?

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After a trip to southern Virginia for an overnight backpacking trip, we were looking for something a little closer to home. Catoctin Mountain National Park in  western Maryland seemed to fit that bill. We found the route, which included several overlooks and a waterfall, on Hiking Upward, a great resource for the Mid-Atlantic region. It is a popular hike and it was recommended that we get an early start. We arrived at the trailhead just after 7:00 A.M..

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The trailhead departs from the east end of the parking lot at the park visitor center. There are two parking lots – this is the one right in front of the visitor center. The trail doesn’t seem to have a name and there are no blazes, but the trails are well marked with signage. Having a map with you is not a bad idea. You can find one here onHiking Upward.

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We took the trail straight ahead toward Chimney Rock. The first mile of this route parallels Foxville Road and connects the visitor center to the Park Headquarters. Since the trail lacked a moniker, we dubbed this section “Mile-O’-Mud”. Upon reaching Park Headquarters there is a sign directing hikers to the left to begin the climb. Chimney Rock sits at a little over 1,400 feet which translated to roughly 600′ of elevation over the next mile and a quarter. Not too tough but very rocky. We called this section “Lotsa-Rocks”. When we arrived at Chimney Rock, which required a trip out a short spur, we were rewarded with some expansive views to the south and into Cunningham Falls State Park, which is separated from the national park by the Foxville Road.

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Leaving Chimney Rock, it was an easy half mile to our next destination, Wolf Rock. Wolf Rock is a massive outcropping of quartzite which formed 250 – 550 million years ago. It lies to the east of the trail and begs to be explored. We detoured onto the ledge and walked all the way out to the “Wolf Rock” which is a formation said to resemble a wolf’s head. Bring your imagination. Also bring your common sense as the outcropping is divided every which way by deep crevices that, at times, require a respectable leap to cross. If you have an affinity for petrology you will enjoy the thick veins of bright white quartz that mottle the grey rock.

Our next stop was Thurmont Vista, another mile down the trail. The trip to the vista was marked by a sharp descent from Wolf Rock which had to be regained – and then some. Thurmont Vista provided a pleasant view of the town of Thurmont to the southeast and has a bench if you need a rest. Next was the Blue Ridge Summit Overlook. This was view of the not-exactly-Blue-Ridge mountains to the west.

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Our last stop before descending towards Cunningham Falls was Hog Rock. At 1,610 feet, this was the highest point on our hike and treated us to another impressive westerly view of mountains and farmland. All of these views were perfectly agreeable but none held any real “wow” factor. They were, however, pleasant diversions on an otherwise routine hike through central Maryland terrain. The trail meanders through deciduous forest, over spur and draw, and without much scenic variety. We did pass an enormous flat rock that seemed as if it was propped against a relatively small tree. That was interesting. It occurred to Lisa and me somewhere along this route that we may be just tired of snowy winter woods and ready for spring … and some warmth and color. If it sounds like we were not overly enamored with this hike, factor in some winter fatigue when deciding if it suits your tastes! Another aspect that probably colored our attitude toward this hike was that almost no one we met was friendly. We are accustomed to finding “trail folk” to be quite congenial but most we passed on this hike did not want to make eye contact and only begrudgingly responded to, “good mornings”. That was in addition to the trail runners who felt no obligation to announce that they were bearing down on you from behind, or excuse themselves as they shouldered by us on the trail.

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A mile or so past Hog Rock the trail intersects Foxville Road again. Shortly before this junction, you may turn sharply east to return to the visitor center. Don’t do this before crossing the road into Cunningham State Park and hiking the two tenths of a mile to Cunningham Falls. Nearly all of this short stint is on boardwalk – the Park Service seems to be trying to repair the ecology around the plunge basin. Despite the signs pleading for visitors to remain on the boardwalk we observed men walking dogs and families allowing their children to romp through the woods snapping delicate branches and stomping on tiny buds poking through the humus in anticipation of spring. Perhaps my tone alludes to my attitude regarding the blatant disregard of the park ranger’s efforts. Again with the generally unpleasant people.

When we reached the end of the boardwalk we realized we were on one of two paths to the falls. The other was more to the south and seemed to provide a closer and more head-on view of the cascade. It was also packed with what looked like a tour group. We decided that the closer view wasn’t worth trying to find where that path originated and we snapped some photos and headed back.

After crossing back over Foxville Road we turned east on the trail back to the visitor center. 1.25 relatively easy miles returned us to the Catoctin Mountain Park Visitor Center, where we hopped in the Jeep and headed off to find some local chow … and some friendlier people. ♦


Catoctin Mountain Park and its southerly neighbor, Cunningham Falls State Park sit just west of Thurmont, MD and approximately 15 miles north of Frederick. Catoctin Mountain Park is home to Camp David, the country retreat for the President of the United States.


Date: March 22, 2015
Location: Thurmont, MD
Trailhead: 39.633635, -77.449332
Distance: 9.04 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,173 feet
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

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