It’s been a few weeks since I left the beautiful Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park. I’m now in Maryland (yes, the opposite side of the country) doing some research for a little over a month before my next semester of school starts. Although the “mountains” here pale in comparison to those out west, it’s still nice to get out and hike them!

View on Map

Catoctin Mountain Park is located near Frederick, Maryland. The park itself contains several large quartzite ridges left over from long ago when the Appalachians were much larger. Quartzite is harder than the surrounding soil and rock, so it erodes more slowly and ends up jutting out of the ground in interesting formations. One of these formations is called Chimney Rock. When I was younger, I remember hearing stories about pilgrims moving west across the US using a rock called “Chimney Rock” as a landmark. At the time that seemed completely reasonable, but since then I’ve visited a lot of the US and have to wonder how anyone could figure out which chimney-shaped rock is the landmark… There are tons of them!

catoctin mountain park ground dirt earth

The forest floor

There are several trail loops through the park, and they all connect, so I choose to take the longest possible route without repeating sections of trail; the route ends up being 8 entire miles! I have my camera (of course), two water bottles, some food for lunch and snacking, bug spray, sunscreen, and my wide-brimmed hat. The trail starts out pretty flat, and there is some nice diffuse light coming through the scattered clouds and leaves, which makes for some nice photos.

catoctin mountain park trail

A pretty spot on the trail

Unlike the mountains in Yosemite, there are no magnificent, sweeping vistas to photograph here. Instead, there is a never-ending forest with interesting sights in hidden corners. There’s a lot of quartz just hanging out, which is awesome. Why don’t people make more jewelry and pretty things out of quartz? Maybe they do and I just don’t know about it.

catoctin mountain park chimney rock

“Chimney Rock” in Catoctin Mountain Park.

A few miles into my hike, I arrive at Chimney Rock. I hop across a few 20-foot-deep chasms to reach a nice ledge that looks out at chimney rock and the surrounding country. The chasms are only a few feet wide and logically I know I can cross them, but it sure gets my heart pounding to jump over the gap.

catoctin mountain park quartzite chasm

One such deep chasm in the quartzite

Despite my mockery of these “mountains,” the trail does have some steep elevation changes. The humid air makes the ascent feel much more strenuous than it would be in the cool, dry mountain air. There are even a few switchbacks! For the most part, however, the trail is level and the hike is easy. I meet a few trail runners on my way around the park. One couple hails from Philadelphia; they’re doing the same 8-mile loop as me, but in the opposite direction and much more quickly. Running these trails would be a fun workout! Perhaps I’ll try that one of the next few weekends.

I stop for lunch at a little overlook. There are some farm houses in the distance, but the view is obscured by haze and there isn’t much else to see. This morning I didn’t meet many hikers, but the number of people on the trails has steadily increased throughout the day. It’s also getting warmer, which only accentuates the humidity. Yuck. At least I’m in the shade under the leafy trees.

In the fall, the forest here must be gorgeous! The outlooks would have much more to offer too since you’d get a view of miles and miles of colorful trees.

catoctin mountain park forest trail

The trail cutting through the woods

Cunningham Falls State Park is right next to Catoctin Mountain Park, and the falls are practically on my way back to the Visitor’s Center, so I stop by to check them out. With an entire park named after them, I expect the falls to be pretty incredible, but… like the mountains, the waterfall is much smaller than its western brethren. It’s more of a cascade, really, like the ones I saw in Yosemite. Lots of people are wading around in it, despite the large “No Swimming” signs posted all around. I wonder what this place looks like after a big rain storm?

I arrive back at the Visitor’s Center at 1:30 and spend a few minutes looking through their exhibits; it was closed when I arrived. They have some cool photos of local wildlife, including several species of foxes. I’d like to try my hand at wildlife photography sometime; foxes, in particular, are really pretty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the wild though!

catoctin mountain park forest

The trees go on, and on, and on… This would be an excellent shot at dawn/dusk with some fog!

It was nice to get out and spend a day in the outdoors again. My job keeps me parked in front of a computer all day and I enjoy the change of scenery. A coworker recently lent me his copy of a hiking guidebook, so hopefully, I’ll have more interesting stories and photos to share.

Andrew Cox