One interesting aspect of living near Washington, D.C. is the sense you have of sharing many of your day-to-day experiences with the political elite. I’ve shopped at the same Target as Michelle Obama. I’ve shared early morning jogging routes with heads of state. I’ve eaten at restaurants favored by several of the less gastronomically discerning presidents.
For the Engineer and me, a day spent at Catoctin Mountain Park, located 75 miles from Alexandria in north central Maryland, evoked this same feeling of our lives intersecting with those of the politically powerful as we explored the rugged forested trails of the park that also contains Camp David, the mountain retreat of presidents from FDR to Obama.
Like Prince William Forest Park, 100 miles to the south in Virginia, Catoctin Mountain Park began its public land existence as a federal Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA). In addition to providing work for some of the armies of unemployed, and recreation opportunities for urban dwellers, the RDA program had an additional goal, born of the Farm Crisis, of moving farmers off submarginal and unproductive plots so the land could be reforested and returned to a more healthy state.
The Catoctin Mountain area, with its beautiful mountain scenery and close proximity to several large urban centers, was a prime candidate for the RDA program. Poor farming practices, excessive timber cutting, and chestnut blight had all ravaged the land that would eventually make up the park. The closure of the nearby Catoctin Furnace in the early 1900’s and the crackdown on illegal stills in the 1920’s left a populace in need of work to supplement the subsistence farming that occupied so many. Accordingly, in early 1934, federal officials began working to acquire the land.
Despite initial, and often lingering, suspicion on the part of many locals, the government was eventually able to acquire, through purchase, lease, or occasionally, condemnation, enough land to begin construction on the RDA, and the first of three cabin camps, Camp Misty Mount, was completed in 1937. The second camp, Camp Greentop, which was one of the first handicapped-accessible facilities in the country, was finished in 1938. One year later, the final of the original camps, Camp Hi-Catoctin – later to become Camp David – was completed.
Camp Hi-Catoctin was initially used as a low-cost family vacation spot for D.C. based federal employees. However, in 1942, the camp became the private retreat of President Roosevelt, as a sort of compromise to satisfy both his doctors, who recognized that his failing health demanded periodic escapes from the stifling D.C. summers, and government officials who wanted to ensure that the President remained in close proximity to the Capital during wartime.
FDR toured several potential sites in the mountains west of Washington before ultimately choosing Camp Hi-Catoctin for his alpine refuge. He soon came to love the peaceful beauty of the camp and the surrounding hills, and called it “Shangri-La”, after the fictional oasis described in the book Lost Horizon. President Eisenhower gave the camp its present name, “Camp David” in honor of his grandson. All Presidents since FDR have enjoyed the peaceful respite offered by Camp David, and it has been the site of several historic strategic and diplomatic meetings, as well as countless quiet family weekends.
We began our hike at the park’s visitor center. We stopped in the small rustic building, and took a quick look around the exhibits which consisted mostly of natural-looking dioramas full of stuffed wildlife specimens posed in very unnatural proximity to each other.
Leaving the visitor center, we proceeded to the trailhead at the east end of the parking lot. For the first mile, the trail closely parallelled state route 77. Between the rocky surfaces and recently fallen leaves, the trail was nearly invisible. Fortunately, there were blue ribbons tied around tree trunks at regular intervals to keep us on track. As further insurance that we would not lose the trail, the Engineer had not only loaded the hike track onto my smartphone that morning, but had helpfully enabled a feature called “waypoint alarms,” a fact I discovered when the phone suddenly announced our GPS coordinates 1/4 mile into our walk.
Startled, and slightly annoyed by this unexpected electronic intrusion into the peaceful woodland ambience, I handed the phone to the Engineer and asked him to turn off the voice. He poked and jabbed at the phone screen for a minute or two before handing it back to me with the assurance that the voice had been silenced.
Slipping the phone into my back pocket, I resumed my peaceful reverie as the Engineer and I picked our way along the rocky path for another 3/4 of a mile at which point the trail split, with one branch continuing along the valley floor, and the other turning to climb to the top of the ridge. As we paused for a drink of water before taking the path up the hill, the electronic voice in my back pocket suddenly spoke up again informing us, gratuitously, that we were at 40 degrees north and 77 degrees west.
Somewhat addled, I pulled the phone out of my pocket and handed it back to the Engineer. He poked and swiped at the screen again and then handed it back to me with a rather vague suggestion that the voice should really be off this time. I returned the phone to my pocket, and we began hiking uphill towards the long uneven rampart that marks the summit of Catoctin Mountain.
As the trail climbed north towards the ridge, we walked through a beautiful forest of birch and chestnut oak. The foliage was taking on its autumn colors, and the sunlight filtering through the leaves lent a warm golden hue to the surroundings. After climbing for a mile, we reached the top of the ridge and shortly thereafter, arrived at Chimney Rock, the first of many vista points on our circuit. We sat atop the imposing grey outcropping and enjoyed the view of thickly forested hillsides gently descending into the Piedmont region of central Maryland.
Leaving Chimney Rock, we walked northwest along the ridgeline. After a short distance, we encountered a woman hiking in the opposite direction. As she passed us, the indomitable electronic voice in my pocket suddenly piped up from the vicinity of my right buttock to proclaim “39.63 North; 77.43 West!” I smiled self-consciously and mumbled something about my phone. The woman gave me a decidedly unfriendly look and continued past without uttering a word.
Exasperated, I handed the phone to the Engineer one more time. A few more swipes and pokes, along with some choice words, and he handed the phone back. This time, he promised, the voice was definitely off. In the spirit of “trust but verify” I turned the volume all the way off before returning the phone to my pocket.
We continued hiking along the forested ridgetop. To our right, an embankment of square grey rock marked the edge of the ridge. After 1/2 mile, we arrived at Wolf Rock, which offered the second major vista of the day. Wolf Rock is a massive protrusion of the quartzite Weverton Formation which was formed hundreds of millions of years ago when Africa and North America collided and the Appalachian mountains were born. As the softer rock layers have eroded around it, the hard quartzite that makes up Wolf Rock has held solid, resulting in a plateau of rock, approximately the size of a football field, rising 15 feet from the surrounding forest floor.
We spent a little time climbing around and admiring Wolf Rock, and reading the interpretive signs that explained the geology of the area before continuing on our way. By this time, we were encountering quite a few people as the trail took us past stunning vista after stunning vista, each of which was attainable via short ambles from conveniently situated parking lots. However, everybody was happy and considerate as they enjoyed the delightful weather and the splendid views, so the crowds were not bothersome.
Just past the Blue Ridge Summit vista point, we found a picturesque and secluded spot to sit and eat our lunch. As we ate we became engrossed with the travails of a hickory tussock moth caterpillar as he made multiple failed attempts to summit a moderate boulder in his path. While I admired his determination, I had to wonder why he didn’t just go around the obstacle. Perhaps he recognized that conquering this particular boulder on this crisp autumn afternoon was his one shot at pedate greatness before the irresistible force of biology led him to a lonely winter of cocooned encasement, never again to enjoy the simple pleasure of a multi-pedal stroll through the leaf litter. Or perhaps he just didn’t possess the brain power to recognize that there was an easier alternative. Whatever his motivation, he was still doggedly persisting as we finished our lunch and prepared to continue our hike.
Returning to the trail, we carried on our ridge-top ramble. We soon arrived at a road crossing and a large parking lot. From the parking lot, we followed a short trail which brought us to Hog Rock, the final vista point on our circuit. A 10 year old boy who arrived at Hog Rock simultaneously with us looked around for a few seconds, and then announced to his parents “This view is boring!” Personally, I found the view to be quite lovely and not at all boring, but I did concede that the crowds at every vista point were becoming a bit tedious.
After a short obligatory stop to enjoy the view at Hog Rock, we left the nature trail and the crowds and began our steep descent to the Big Hunting Creek valley some 800 feet below us. The path led through a forest of tulip poplars towering over an understory of hickory and fiery maples. Despite the beautiful scenery, there were very few people on this section of trail, presumably because it lacked sweeping vistas and the attendant parking lots that were so ubiquitous on the mountain top.
After descending for slightly less than a mile, we crossed State Route 77, leaving Catoctin Mountain Park and crossing into Cunningham Falls State Park for a short side trip to see the 78-foot cataract that is the largest cascading waterfall in Maryland. After crossing the road, we turned on to a well-maintained boardwalk which led to the Falls.
Arriving at Cunningham Falls, we found all of the crowds we had previously left behind, plus some. The boardwalk ended at a good-sized viewing platform surrounded by 3-foot railing designed to encourage people to stop and enjoy the view without trampling all over it. In case the railing proved to be too subtle a message, there were also numerous yellow signs posted along the railing and in the ground beyond the platform imploring visitors to stay on the boardwalk in order to protect the Falls and the sensitive surroundings.
Unfortunately, most of the visitors that arrived at the end of the boardwalk were apparently either too dim-witted or too selfish to heed the signs, and people covered the sensitive landscape in every direction. The Engineer and I stood by, dumbstruck, as a mother pushed in front of us and then helped her three small children clamber over the railing – inches from a yellow sign that suggested they not do so – in order to join the teeming hordes that swarmed everywhere beside, below, and even in the Falls.
We stood and watched the scene for a few indignant moments before turning around and heading back across the highway to the relative peace of Catoctin Mountain Park.
Shortly after crossing the road, we turned right to follow the flat and forested Falls Nature Trail for the final mile of our circuit. Arriving back at our car in the late afternoon, we agreed that, despite the unruly throngs at Cunningham Falls, all in all we’d had a splendid day taking in the dazzling views and uncommon geology of Catoctin Mountain Park.