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April 24, 2021 / mws

Catoctin Mountain Park

On one of the first lovely Spring days in April 2021, a day trip to Catoctin Mountain Park was on the agenda. There were still some limits and extra regulations due to COVID, but since it was a Tuesday, there were very few people in the park and we had no difficulty with social distancing.

Nestled within the mountains of Western Maryland close to Thurmont, MD, Catoctin Mountain Park offers wonderful outdoor experiences as well as history and cultural delights.  Catoctin Mountain Park is also part of a larger forested public lands complex that includes Cunningham Falls State Park and Gambrill State Park. From Maryland Route 15 there are marked exits to the park.

We started at the Cunningham Falls area reached by William Houck Drive. There is an entrance fee of $5 for out of state vehicles. Cunningham Falls is a Maryland State Park within the Catoctin Mountain Park. It is a bit confusing for the first time visitor, but we managed to figure it out! There are multiple hiking trails to Cunningham Falls. We parked in the day use lot and from that location there were two trails. The Cliff Trail is a 3/4 mile trail with rough terrain and is considered strenuous.

Lower Trail to Cunningham Falls
Lower Trail to Cunningham Falls

We chose the Lower Trail and followed the red blaze. This easy to moderate trail is the shortest and easiest access to the Falls. Early Spring was evident along the trail. The rapid flowing stream was just below as we made out way to the falls. Along the way, there were lots of opportunities for nature photos. After 1/2 mile we arrived at the falls.

In April the falls were freely flowing and did not disappoint. There are several sections to the falls with an upper falls and a stronger lower falls. Cunningham Falls is the largest cascading waterfall in Maryland with a 78 foot cascade.

From the day use parking area, we continued on to the lake area. Adjacent to Catoctin Mountain Park is Hunting Creek Lake which is managed by Cunningham Falls State Park. The 75 acre man-made lake is a popular place for swimming, boating, and fishing. With the Spring redbuds and the trees just starting to bloom, it was a nice time to walk around the lake and enjoy the cool air.

We traveled about 3 miles south to find the Catoctin Furnace Trail. Access is at the lower day-use parking in the Manor Area. The Catoctin Furnace Trail is a self-guided trail which leads to Catoctin Furnace Historical Village. The trail crosses US Route 15 via an elevated foot path with 46 steps up and down the other side.

The trail was a scenic stroll along a lovely stream with lots of photo opportunities. Early Spring flowers were blooming along the trail and we looked for animals, and finally found a box turtle! The elevated foot path across Route 15 is unusual. At the top as we walked across, we were sighted by some drivers who let us know by blowing their horns! At the end of the out and back trail is the Catoctin Furnace Historical Village.

Hematite ore was discovered in the Catoctin Mountains in the 1770’s by Thomas Johnson Jr., who later became the first governor of Maryland. Thomas Baker and Roger Johnson constructed the Catoctin Furnace to produce pig iron. Iron from this furnace was used in the manufacture of car wheels and for foundry rolling mill purposes. During the Revolutionary War, cannonballs were cast at the furnace for George Washington’s Army when the Johnsons owned the furnace.

An iron furnace needed workers with many skills. Among these were the charcoal makers; miners who dug the iron ore, founders who operated the furnace, and molders, who cast the hot iron into stoves, pots and other objects for sale. Every furnace was headed by an iron master, whose managerial skills were needed to ensure a successful operation. The remains of the iron masters house can be seen close to the furnace. After changing hands several times, the Catoctin Iron Furnace was operated for the last time in February 1903 when technology and the economy moved forward.

It was a great day trip to Catoctin Mountain Park. We discovered that there are many more trails to be explored and the picnic areas looked inviting also. So I predict a return trip to check out more trails!

Hunting Creek Lake
Hunting Creek Lake

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