This is truly one of my favorite trails in Maryland's Capitol Region. There are several reasons for this. First of all, there are numerous rock outcroppings affording splendid scenic views. Second, the trail is a great weekend hike, accomplished over a two-day period. Third, there are several car shuttle options with a campground located about midway enabling hikers to carry only a daypack.
This trail is 27.2 miles long, travels from Gambrill State Park, into Cunningham Falls State Park, and ends in the northwest reaches of Catoctin Mountain Park. Overnight camping is not permitted along the trail but can be found midway at Manor Area in Cunningham Falls State Park. Call 1-888-432-2267. Reservations are encouraged for these areas since they are very popular. They may be made up to a year in advance and must be made for a minimum of two nights for weekends (Friday and Saturday) and three nights for holiday weekends. Other camping options include the trailhead at Gambrill State Park, William Houck Area within Cunningham Falls State Park, and Owens Creek Campground in Catoctin Mountain Park.
Vehicle Shuttle: You may begin this trail from the Rock Run day use area of Gambrill State Park at the large multi-trailhead parking lot. Hiking north for approximately 17 miles deposits you at Manor Area. You can camp here for the night (minimum two-night stay required) and continue your northbound trek in the morning, which is about 10 miles. What most distance hikers do for Day One is set up camp in Manor Area leaving one car there. Drive to Gambrill State Park and begin the trail. On Day Two, drive the second car to the Owen Creek Campground, drive back to Manor Area and continue your northbound journey.
Much of this trail extends over public lands; however in the late 70s and early 80s, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club built additional segments for a continuous 27.2 mile hike, much of it remote but with several areas skirting developed areas. The same club maintains the trail today. The trail is blue-blazed and has numerous other trails intersecting and at times, overlapping. It is important to keep an eye on the blue blazes.
Day One begins from the large parking area at Gambrill State Park. Allow about 10 hours to reach Manor Area. Walk the road into the campground bearing right at several intersections. Take the connector trail to the Red Trail and follow it a short distance including around High Knob and across Gambrill Park Road. In less than a mile, the two trails split. Follow the blue blazes into a beautiful forest of mountain laurel, sugar maples, white oak, hemlocks, shagbark hickory and more. As you ascend northbound, the mountain laurel becomes more pronounced as well as blueberry bushes, a favorite black bear food. Nearing three miles into the hike, you'll enter the Frederick City Watershed Area. This is a hunting ground and necessary precautions should be taken during hunting season, which usually runs from late September through January. Remember that hunting is prohibited on Sundays. Hikers should wear plenty of blaze orange. Over the course of the trail, you'll cross several creeks, pass by numerous ponds and make countless ascents and descents. Remember to stay alert, always following the blue-blazed route. Wildlife reigns in the area. In addition to the usual scurrying of squirrels, take time to notice the profusion of birdlife including notables such as the huge pileated woodpecker and the rust brown towhee, usually identified by its song. The robin-size bird is usually quite friendly and will entertain you from a nearby low-hanging tree branch. Also, look for dogwoods along the trail. Not many are left in this region. Dogwoods (Cornus floria) on the East Coast recently have been struck by a bore known to suck the life out of the small tree. You'll know if they are infected by their shriveled leaves and cracked bark. In years past, a fungus has been their enemy. Several road crossings the first day include Hamburg Road, Delauther Road, Fishing Creek Road, Gambrill Park Road and Catoctin Hollow Road. As you approach Manor Area, you'll have to cross one of Maryland's most popular trout streams, Little Hunting Creek. If the Creek is too high, which is likely in spring, retrace your steps back to Catoctin Hollow Road and turn left (east) to reach US 15. Manor Area is an easy walk north on 15. If you're able to cross Little Hunting Creek, note that you must leave Catoctin Trail descending eastbound along a yellow-blazed route to reach Manor Area and your long-awaited campsite.
Day Two begins from Cunningham Falls State Park, Manor Area, along US 15. This hike is shorter than yesterday's. Allow about 6 hours. Retrace yesterday's trail along the yellow-blazed path back to Catoctin Trail. Today's trail affords several popular scenic vistas, a fabulous waterfall and some well-worn and even paved path. Expect to see more people.
At 1.8 miles into the trail, start the ascent up to Bob's Hill Overlook (1,765 feet). The peak is reached in just 0.1 mile. Here you'll find short spur trails north and south. The spur to the north offers broken views while the spur to the south offers sights of the territory you trekked across yesterday in addition to the sunken creek valley of Little Hunting Creek. Back on the main trail, you'll experience much of the same hardwood mixture as yesterday. The profusion of blooming mountain laurel in late spring brings out the hikers. At 3.1 miles, Cat Rock Trail (1,562 feet) enters from the right. Continue left and begin an enjoyable rock-strewn adventure. At 5 miles, you'll cross Catoctin Hollow Road then Hauver Branch. Just 0.5 mile further, cross Houck Campground Road. If you need a refreshment of sorts, you'll find the restrooms and camp store a mere half-mile left. Within the next mile, you'll come to the junction of Cunningham Falls Lower Trail. This is a must-do side trip. It leads to the park's namesake offering sights of a 78-foot cascading falls. Be prepared for crowds who also want to enjoy the view. At 6.8 miles, cross MD State Route 77 heading towards Big Hunting Creek. This particular creek is Maryland's birthplace of fly fishing. Be sure to stay alert to the blue blazes over the next mile or so especially as you cross Park Central Road and Manahan Road. The trail makes several sharp turns and can be confusing especially with the fact that there are a number of intersecting service roads and areas of previous development. The blue blazes eventually deposit you onto Foxville-Deerfield Road. Your vehicle is just 0.2 mile away at the Owens Creek Campground parking lot. Technically, the trail ends 2 miles north along Mount Zion Road. Note: The 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail may be reached by traveling west on Mt. Zion Road to Raven Rock Road for two miles.
Directions: From Frederick, MD, Travel north about 5 miles along U.S. Highway 41 turning right onto Gambrill State Park Road. Follow the road for a little over 1 mile to reach the designated Trailhead Lot on the right.
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Gambrill State Park, Maryland
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