Hiking Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland

Some places seem to have been put on this earth for the sole purpose of regenerating our spirits and Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park is one of them. The fact that this park is the site of famed presidential retreat Camp David should tell you something about how lovely and calming it is. But it’s also smaller and lesser known than many other U.S. National Parks, which gives it a special advantage at a time when many are looking for private outdoor experiences and backcountry solitude.

Chimney Rock.
Chimney Rock. Photo credit: @thejohnnyquest.

Hiking Trails

East Side Trails of Cactoctin Mountain Park

Blue Blazes Whiskey Still Trail – 0.6 miles round trip; easy

This trail, accessed from the parking lot across from the Visitor Center,  leads to a recreated whiskey still, providing an interesting dose of history with your walk. Along the way, you’ll pass by the Blue Blazes Creek and have an opportunity to learn all about stream ecology from interpretive trail signs.

The Catoctin Mountain area was a center of whiskey production during the 1920s, so the signs also speak to the history of this industry. One of the largest Prohibition-era commercial operations in the park area was the Blue Blazes Still, which gained notoriety by becoming the target of a law enforcement raid that resulted in a shootout. Today, the site is occupied by a small moonshine still that gives visitors a sense of what the machinery looked like in earlier times.

Cunningham Falls Trail—2.8 miles roundtrip; moderate 

This is the most popular trail in the park and leads to Maryland’s largest cascading waterfall, Cunningham Falls, which drops 78 feet down a rock face in a series of steep slides. Access the trail from the parking lot across from the Visitor Center. You’ll have to navigate hills and uneven, rocky surfaces to get to the waterfall, but its cascading waters are sure to wash away any feelings of hesitancy.

Chimney Rock.
Chimney Rock. Photo credit: @thejohnnyquest.

Chimney Rock-Wolf Rock Loop Trail—3.9 miles roundtrip; strenuous with a 600 ft. rise in elevation

Extending from the river valley areas of the Visitor Center up to the mountain ridgeline, this trail leads to both Chimney Rock and Wolf Rock. This is the most challenging trail in the park, but if you take it on, you’ll be rewarded by captivating rock outcroppings and a jaw-dropping view of the surroundings at the Chimney Rock overlook.

Chimney Rock is 1,400 feet above sea level and looks out eastward over the piedmont region. Wolf Rock will have you relaxing on a quartz rock that was formed from sea bottom sand 500 million years ago, then uplifted 200 million years ago when the Appalachian mountains were formed. 

Blue Ridge Summit Trail and Overlook—0.6 miles roundtrip; easy

The Blue Ridge Summit Overlook is the most accessible high vista point in the park. Follow the trail, which is part of the much longer Hog Rock Loop Trail, from the Hog Rock Parking Area. The vista is just one short hill away. What awaits you at the mass of boulders composing the overlook: a majestic view of the Harbaugh Valley and mountains of southern Pennsylvania.

Thurmont Vista Loop Trail and Overlook—2.5 miles; moderate

On this trail, which is accessed from the Thurmont Vista Parking Area and crests the mountain ridgeline, you’ll be contending with some steep hills, as well as uneven, rocky surfaces. But you won’t regret your efforts once you reach the Thurmont Vista Overlook (elevation of 1,499 feet) and get a spectacular view of the Frederick Valley and Thurmont.

8 Mile Loop Trail—8.5 miles; strenuous

This trail, which comprises all three of the park’s major loops, lets you cover the most notable highlights in a single day of great hiking: Cunningham Falls, Hog Rock, Blue Ridge Summit, Thurmont Vista, Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock. Access the trail from the parking lot at the Visitor Center, Park Headquarters, Wolf Rock, Thurmont Vista or Hog Rock.

West Side Hiking Trail

Catoctin National Recreation Trail—26.6 miles; moderate

For a walk on the wild side, hit the Catoctin National Recreation Trail, which dominates the west side of the park and runs along the eastern-most ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The north trailhead is located within three miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and parallels the Catoctin Mountain National Scenic Byway.

This soil-and-rock trail is a boon for history buffs because it incorporates two historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places – Camp Greentop (used by the Office of Strategic Services during WWII to train Special Operations, Secret Intelligence and Operational Groups) and Camp Misty Mount (used during WWII by the U.S. military while conducting training), along with archeological sites, such as Native American flint knapping sites and Colonial-era charcoal hearths. If gorgeous vistas are more your thing than history, you’ll hardly be disappointed—you’ll see several lakes and scenic views of the Monocacy River Valley while hiking this trail. And, you can use the trail to access Cunningham Falls.

Catoctin Mountain Park Maryland.
The brilliant colors of trees changing in fall in Maryland

Camping and Cabins in Catoctin Mountain Park

If you want to overnight in the park, two campgrounds—Owens Creek Campground and Camp Misty Mount—provide easy access to trails. Both camping sites require advance reservations.

Owens Creek Campground offers 50 sites for individual, family and small group tent camping, and small RV camping without hook-ups. A brook bubbles by the primitive camping area, which is surrounded by a beautiful rolling landscape.

Camp Misty Mount, a cabin-rental facility with historic stone and wood cabins surrounded by hardwood forests, is available for individuals, families or small groups.

Reserve a camping spot at Recreation.gov or call 1-877-444-6777

Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland.
Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland.

Getting There and Things To Do

Located in Thurmont in the northwest corner of the state, the 5,770-acre park is about an hour-and-a-half drive from Washington, DC and about a half hour from Frederick and Gettysburg. So, while Catoctin Mountain Park makes for a great standalone stop, it’s also easy to combine it with a more ambitious trip involving visits to other great spots in the region.

Although the public can’t access the presidential retreat Camp David, Catoctin Mountain Park is a gorgeous National Preserve that offers an abundance of nature-immersion experiences including 25 miles of scenic and well-maintained hiking trails, as well as camping, fishing, boating, lake swimming and picnicking.

Given the park’s numerous trails and access to breathtaking scenery along them, hiking is the premier activity. The tranquil trails allow hikers to keep their distance from one another – in fact, you may not see a single person outside your own party as you hike. The settings and low density will make you feel as if you’re miles from civilization. And If you go in the fall you’re in for an indescribable blast of color.

The trails range in length, elevation change and degree of difficulty, but TripAdvisor posters who have hiked the more strenuous ones almost universally attest to them being worth the effort they put in.

Start your outing by stopping by the Visitor Center to view the exhibits and get a map and advice from the helpful rangers about which trails best cater to your interests, physical ability and available time. With hardwood forests, magnificent rock outcroppings, spectacular overlooks, waterfalls and historical sites, there’s a trail experience for everyone at Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park.

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