Catoctin Mountain Park: The 8 Mile Loop

Entrance sign off of Route 77, just west of Thurmont

Entrance sign off of Route 77, just west of Thurmont

Perceptions are funny things.  This past Sunday, Candee and I went to Catoctin Mountain Park, and it was a gray and ugly day.  As we reached the top of the mountain during the several ups-and-downs, the wind howled mightily.  Brown and gray were the primary colors, and for whatever reason, I couldn’t imagine the sun ever shining on this place.  It was the kind of day where street lights start to flicker at about 4 pm, and I really did wonder what I was doing out on the trail.  In a word–yuck!  Nevertheless, I’ve always been very intrigued by descriptions of the park and nearby Cunningham Falls, and in the end I had to admit that this was a great hike with some wonderful scenery and vistas.

The park has a nice visitor center.  Being among the touristy types at heart, we had to add pins to our backpacks

The park has a nice visitor center. Being among the touristy types at heart, we had to add pins to our backpacks!

Our day started with a talk with the ranger.  She gave each of us a park map and highlighted our desired route.  We set out in what would be a clockwise direction, and the first leg of the journey was a 1.4 mile trek up and down a small hill above Route 77, with Cunningham Falls as our destination.  We took a .2 mile detour to the falls and walked on a platform designed for wheelchair access.  This viewing area isn’t quite as good as the one from the state park side, but it does connect with a handicap parking lot off of the main road, and I applaud the effort to make the view of the 78′ cascading falls (the highest in Maryland) available to everybody.  We had a long hike in waning winter daylight ahead of us, so a better view of the falls was out of the question.  In general, I’m disappointed with the pictures from this hike, but I defer to Candee’s wisdom:  pictures document the day, and with the sun failing to make even the briefest of cameo appearances, it was what it was.

The combination of low water, poor lighting, and a mediocre vantage point doesn't do the falls justice.  If you're ever in the neighborhood, it's definitely worth a look!

The combination of low water, poor lighting, and a mediocre vantage point doesn’t do the falls justice. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth a look

After returning from the falls, the trail climbs to the top of the mountain and the Hog Rock Vista.  This ascent covers about 1 mile of the hike and is described as being strenuous on the park’s website.  It is a long, uphill haul, but the trail is wide and well-maintained, and the grade isn’t terribly taxing.  Heading in this direction, Hog Rock is the first of several overlooks, and there is a .5 mile alternate nature trail at the top.  From here, the trail continues for an easy half-mile to the Hog Rock Parking Lot, which is the three mile-mark of the hike.

Heading uphill toward Hog Rock, we saw this elaborate cairn.  It seems like several people contributed to this piece of hiker's art.

Heading uphill toward Hog Rock, we saw this elaborate cairn. It seems like several people contributed to this piece of hiker’s art.

The next mile of the hike is an easy climb and downhill stretch that passes the Blue Ridge Summit Vista before heading toward the Thurmont Vista Parking Lot.  Along the way, there is a one-mile “easy out” that leads back to the visitor center. Those choosing to take the “out” cut three miles off of the hike and turn it into a five mile excursion.   Unlike many trails, there aren’t any blazes to guide the hiker, but there are signs at the trail junctions.  From the sign below, the trek toward Thurmont Vista is described as strenuous, but it is the last major uphill stretch of the hike.

Trail sign and options

Trail sign and options

The park ranger said her favorite view is at Hog Rock, but I preferred the Thurmont Vista, which looks down toward the nearby town.  At that point there are about 3.5 miles to go, and both Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock are very impressive.  We saw a number of “younger” people climbing on both rocks, but my 50 year-old knees had zero interest in traversing the crags.  Instead, we set a goal from Hog Rock to be at Chimney Rock at a certain time, and we tested our sense of adventure in a more moderate fashion.

The home stretch just beyond Chimney Rock consisted of a rocky downhill toward the park headquarters and an equally rocky, slightly uphill stretch along Route 77 to the visitor center.  The last mile appears to be relatively new and is marked by surveyor’s tape tied on trees.  After six miles of  broad, smooth  pathway, the rock hopping was a bit anti-climactic.  However, it was a good–if not barren–kind of day.  I’m left wondering how beautiful Catoctin Mountain Park might be with spring wildflowers or autumn leaves adding to the scenery, but hiking in December is kind of a bare-bones experience.  We didn’t do the place justice, but it was still a great walk in the woods.

Thurmont Vista and sign

Thurmont Vista and sign

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