June 2004: Catoctin Mountain Park


Thurmont, Maryland

It took an offer of 200 acres of land rent free for three years and a penny an acre thereafter by Lord Baltimore to lure settlers into this remote region of what is now western Maryland. When they finally came so much wood was cut for charcoal, tanning and lumber that eventually people left the mountains. This time there was no effort to populate the region and in 1935 over 10,000 acres were acquired by the Federal Government and developed as the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area. The land regenerated into an eastern hardwood climax forest looking again as it did before the original European settlement.

You could fill up a day of canine hiking at Catoctin Mountain Park just by checking off the many easy self-guiding interpretive trails as you learn about mountain culture and forest ecology. There is plenty of more challenging fare in the park as well. Three of the best vistas - Wolf Rock, Chimney Rock and Cat Rock - are connected by a rollercoaster trail on the eastern edge of the mountain. There is little understory in the woods and views are long. Many of the mountain slope trails are rocky and footing can be uncertain under paw on climbs to 1500 feet.
In the western region of Catoctin Mountain, near the Owens Creek campground, are wide horse trails ideal for contemplative canine hiking. The grades are gentler for long hikes through mixed hardwoods of chestnut oak, hickory, black birch and yellow poplar. Dogs are allowed in the campground and on all national park trails but not across the road in the popular Cunningham Falls area.

The forests deep in the rugged Catoctin Mountains provided ideal cover for a whiskey still, made illegal by the onset of Prohibition in 1919. On a steaming July day in 1929 Federal agents raided the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still and confiscated more than 25,000 gallons of mash. Today the airy, wooded Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail along Distillery Run leads to a recreated working still and interprets the history of whiskey making in the backwoods of Appalachia.

How would you like to hike with your dog where Presidents hike with their dogs? When an American President leaves the White House for the presidential retreat of Camp David, there is almost always an eager dog in tow. Franklin Roosevelt's Scottish Terrier Fala was the first in a steady procession of Presidential dogs to romp in the woods of Camp David. President Reagan once complained that when he took a break at Camp David, his dog Rex would beat him to the window seat in the helicopter
Everyone has heard of Camp David but where exactly it is? Surprisingly it is located right here in Catoctin Mountain Park. When you take your dog there, you will never see Camp David or any evidence that the presidential compound is hidden among the trees but the trails you can hike on are of Presidential quality nonetheless. Just don't expect to see President George W. Bush and Spotty. 

The Visitor Center, where you can pick up many of the park trails, is on Maryland Route 77, west of US Route 15 in Thurmont.