Don’t make the mistake of underestimating Maryland’s mountains. Catoctin Mountain is essentially one 50-mile-long ridge in the eastern Blue Ridge Mountain Range, and home to several protected areas for hiking, biking and camping. It is also home to the state’s largest cascading waterfalls, the 78-foot Cunningham Falls. This makes the region a popular attraction for outdoor enthusiasts looking to get some quiet time in the forest.
See Maryland’s Natural Side at Cunningham Falls
There’s a reason the picturesque Catoctin Mountains are such a great getaway—including for the President. Camp David, the presidential retreat first build by President Eisenhower, is located among these forested ridges. Thankfully, Cunningham Falls State Park isn’t affected by presidential travel-related closures.
If you’re looking to camp at Cunningham Falls State Park, you’ll have the choice between two distinct areas. The William Houck Area, located three miles west of the town of Thurmont, includes the famous waterfalls and the lake area. This is a popular site for families looking for easy hikes, swimming options and complete amenities.
A 20-minute drive from the Houck area will get you to the Manor Area, located three miles south of the neighboring (and quaint) town of Thurmont. While the Manor Area is smaller of the two campgrounds, it boasts an aviary and access to the historic Catoctin Iron Furnace. While it might be a bit further from the falls, it’s a good chance to hike the 6.5-mile scenic trail from Catocin Furnace to Cunningham Falls.
5 Ways to Make the Most of your Cunningham Falls Camping Trip
While there is great hiking in the NPS park across the road, Cunningham Falls State Park offers many more amenities. It includes a 48-acre, man-made lake for swimmers and paddlers of all kinds, miles of hiking trails and two campgrounds. This makes Cunningham Falls State Park one of state’s most popular parks and destinations for camping in Maryland.
1. Prepare for Crowds
Cunningham Falls State Park attracts big crowds, especially during the summer weekends. Because of its limited capacity, the Houck area will often close its doors to further visitors, turning away cars at the entrance. This means that during peak season in the summer, the park will often close to visitors before noon. The park always fills to capacity on long weekends like Fourth of July weekend and Memorial Day weekend. The state park keeps visitors abreast of the latest closures on its Twitter account. Those with camping reservations will still be able to get in.
The popularity of the park also means that you should get your camping reservations in early. Because of its proximity to the waterfalls and the lake, the Houck area tends to fill up more quickly than the Manor area.
“Nestled away in the Catoctin Mountains, it lands further away from Camp David, so the likelihood of it being negatively affected during dignitary or presidential visits is slim. This is a very busy campground and I was advised it normally sells out on weekends, so securing a site in advance is wise.” —The Dyrt camper Dave V.
2. Plan for a Dip in the Lake
The lake is clean and is surrounded by amenities, including a perfectly manicured lawn for lounging and sun-tanning and a lakeside cafe selling fries and sodas. The lake has a shallow, roped-off swimming area perfect for kids. It also offers a bathhouse, boat house and boat launch, which you can use to launch your own canoes or kayaks, or find rentals nearby.
For those looking for a different kind of water fun, you can fish nearby in one of Maryland’s premier trout streams, Big Hunting Creek.
“Great campsite, with a small lake with beach the kids can swim at. Only thing is there is a steep hike back and forth from campsite to beach, we ended up driving to beach area after our first attempt to walk to beach with all our gear, as an excuse we did have a 7 year old with us.” —The Dyrt camper Tom C.
3. Walk Up to the Waterfalls
Cunningham Falls themselves, also known locally as McAfee Falls, are just a short hike away from the parking area. The one- or six-mile loop takes you past mossy rock formations and leafy trees on a gradual incline, and places you at the bottom of the falls.
There are a few viewpoints on gangplanks at the bottom of the falls. The state parks asks that people do not swim or climb the waterfalls, because every year people get injured from falling from the slippery rocks. Visitors can take an inclined walk to the top of the falls, where the creek widens and produces a stunning view of the rocks below.
“The lake is nice, and the falls are beautiful. The hike up wasn’t too strenuous, either; my husband, dog, and 5-year-old handled it just fine. Overall, this is a great park.” —The Dyrt camper Jen V.
4. Explore the Tranquil Area Around the Park
The good thing with such a centrally located, popular camping area is the multitude of nearby activities. The state park itself offers nature programs during peak seasons. The Manor area has a nature center and aviary with turtles and birds of prey. It’s also close to the Catoctin Furnace, a massive stone furnace in the forest constructed in 1774 and produced ammunition for the Revolutionary War.
Nearby, Thurmont is one of Maryland’s most charming small towns. It has a cute, historical Main Street perfect for strolling and shopping, and annual events like a Halloween in the Park and the Catoctin Colorfest, a popular arts festival.
The surrounding area is dotted with orchards, vineyards and farms. One of the most popular outings among campers at Cunningham Falls is the family-operated Misty Meadow Farm Creamery, northwest of the park. The scenic dairy offers delicious ice cream, perfect for a stop on the way in or out of the campground.
“I have camped here many times with family and friends, and am looking forward to going back soon! It’s also just down the road from Pryor’s Orchard, where you can get fresh fruit, corn, comb honey, and jarred jams, jellies & fruit butters (McCutcheon’s)” —The Dyrt camper David A.
5. Watch Out for Future Renovations
The park started some major renovation projects in the fall of 2018 that might further limit capacity in the summer and increase area closures.
According to the park’s communications, construction at the Houck Area will include “the replacement of one bathroom, renovation of the Houck Nature Center, improvements to the South Beach swimming areas, upgrading South Beach picnic pads, expanding the entrance station, updating the exterior and interior of the camp store and improving storm water management.”
If you’re staying at the Mason area, take note that there is also ongoing renovation work at the furnace, spearheaded by the Friends of Cunningham Falls and Gambrill State Parks, Inc.
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