Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Cunningham Falls State Park: Lower and Cliff Trails (Blog Hike #439)

Trails: Lower and Cliff Trails
Hike Location: Cunningham Falls State Park
Geographic Location: west of Thurmont, MD
Length: 1.25 mile
Difficulty: 2/10 for Lower Trail; 9/10 for Cliff Trail (Easy/Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2013
Overview: Two trails, one easy and one difficult, to the tallest waterfall in Maryland.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 15 and SR 77 in Thurmont, drive SR 77 west 2.7 miles to Catoctin Hollow Road; a state park sign marks this intersection.  Turn left on Catoctin Hollow Rd.  Drive Catoctin Hollow Rd. 1.3 miles to the park entrance station on the right.  Turn right to enter the park.  Drive the main park road 0.6 miles to the signed trailhead parking on the left, where you should park.  If this lot is full, you can park at the larger and nearby beach parking area and walk to the trailhead.

The hike: The history of Cunningham Falls State Park is inextricably tied to the federally owned and maintained Catoctin Mountain Park directly to its north.  In 1936, the federal government purchased 10,000 acres in the area to form the depression-era Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area.  Other depression-era federal agencies including the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) spent time here, building many of the structures you see today.
            In 1954, the land was divided with the federal government keeping the 5000 acres north of SR 77 and the state of Maryland regaining the 5000 acres south of SR 77.  The federal piece forms Catoctin Mountain Park, while the state’s piece forms Cunningham Falls State Park.  The state park consists of two areas: the Houck Area accessible from SR 77 and the Manor Area accessible from US 15.  The park’s namesake Cunningham Falls, the tallest waterfall in Maryland, remains the centerpiece of the park; it is located in the Houck Area.
            Many hiking trails go through the Houck Area, but only two of them lead to the waterfall.  The 0.5 mile Lower Trail offers an easy/moderate firmly packed gravel route to the falls, while the 0.75 mile Cliff Trail offers a more difficult and rocky route that gains about 200 additional feet of elevation.  To obtain maximum variety, this hike will go out on the Lower Trail and return on the Cliff Trail.
Trailhead for Lower Trail
            Starting at the trailhead parking area, pick up the wide gravel Lower Trail, which is blazed with plastic red right triangles.  For its entire distance the trail travels through magnificent mature maple/beech forest with a grassy understory layer.  Interpretive signs describe the surroundings.  Most noteworthy among the surroundings are the large number of greenstone rock outcrops.  Greenstone is igneous rock spewed out by ancient volcanoes.  This rock dates to the formation of the Appalachian Mountains, and it is among the oldest exposed rock in the world.
            The trail climbs in fits and starts on a gradual to moderate grade with an occasional descent in between the climbs.  The trail surface is good enough to support a wheelchair, but some of the grades are much too steep.  At 0.5 miles, you reach a wooden platform at the base of Cunningham Falls.  The falls stand 78 feet high as a moderate flow of water in an unnamed creek tumbles over several ledges of rock.  Unfortunately the viewing platform is located behind some trees that prevent a completely clear view, and large boulders around the platform make getting around the trees difficult.  Many people attempt the boulder-hopping anyway, but be aware of the risk if you choose this option.
Cunningham Falls
            If all you want to do is view the falls, then the easiest route back to the trailhead is to return the way you came.  To increase the scenery and the difficulty, backtrack a short distance and turn right to leave the gravel and begin the Cliff Trail, which is blazed with plastic yellow right triangles.  The Cliff Trail is very rocky, but except for two brief sections that pass through breaks in cliffs, the grade is quite manageable.  On the other hand, the two bits through the cliffs may require use of hands depending on your flexibility and fitness level.
Rocky Cliff Trail
            0.75 miles into the hike, the Cliff Trail reaches its highest point as it intersects the blue-blazed Catoctin Trail, which goes right and left.  The Cliff Trail turns left here as it heads southeast.  For the next 0.25 miles the Cliff and Catoctin Trails share a treadway with the steep hillside falling to the left.  After the rocky climb, the nearly flat single-track dirt trail seems like a breeze.
Cabin-sized boulder beside trail
            At 1 mile, the Cliff Trail continues straight where the Catoctin Trail turns right.  Watch for the yellow blazes and a wooden post to make sure you do not miss this turn.  The last 0.25 miles of the Cliff Trail comprise a steep descent over a large number of logs that serve as waterbars.  Cabin-sized boulders sit beside the trail, and I felt very glad I was descending rather than ascending.  The trailhead and parking area lie at the bottom of the hill, thus signaling the end of the hike.

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