Several miles east of Thurmont, Md., a man is studying a topographical map. The map is tacked to a wall in the visitor's center at Catoctin Mountain Park, a unit of the National Park Service. The man wears tight shorts and a T-shirt and his socks are pulled up high. His jaw hangs a bit slack while he looks at the map of the park. He is, perhaps, plotting a hike or searching for a picnic area when he notices something strange on the map: a central swath of park marked "Do Not Enter." An unbroken black line surrounds this area. It seems that neither trails nor roads pass through it. The man asks a nearby park ranger what this means. Her response is short and mechanical: "I can't tell you that." The man seems content to have his curiosity overruled. He leaves without another word.
I'm a bit more intrepid, so I soon press a different park ranger. "Why is that area restricted?" She answers that all she can say is that it's a "military installation." Camp David, the official presidential retreat, is known to be somewhere in these low hills, some 60 miles northeast of Washington. I ask the ranger point-blank: "Is that Camp David?" Citing security, she declines to answer.
The presidential retreat Camp David lies at an undisclosed location in Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park.
(Courtesy Of National Park Service, Catoctin Mountain Park)
Catoctin Mountain Park and the adjacent Cunningham Falls State Park are a perfectly lovely, perfectly normal patch of Appalachia -- except for the whole presidential weekend home thing. And don't worry. That "X-Files" black patch in the middle of the map leaves plenty of room for unrestricted fall rambling, even for Washingtonians who want nothing more than to avoid the trappings of federal power.
Catoctin's presidential history dates back to at least 1935, when the National Park Service acquired more than 10,000 acres that today make up the two parks. By then these hills had been mostly logged to fuel the ironmaking furnaces that operated in the area from colonial times until the early 20th century. As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration replanted the forest, built trails and constructed mountaintop camps.
One of those camps, originally called Hi-Catoctin, became Roosevelt's retreat during World War II. He renamed the camp Shangri-La, after the mountain kingdom in James Hilton's 1933 book "Lost Horizon." Later, President Dwight Eisenhower changed the name to Camp David, in honor of both his grandson and father.
Even in Roosevelt's day, the existence of the presidential camp was supposed to be "top-secret, except among the suspicious residents of nearby Thurmont, who told stories of automobile entourages speeding through town at 1 a.m. and of military guards standing beneath bridges," writes John Means, author of the book "Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Parks."
Thurmont still quietly delights in its proximity to relaxing chief executives. Indeed, the venerable Historic Cozy, a sprawling restaurant and inn, is packed with presidential memorabilia. The rooms and cottages are named after various presidents and supposedly decorated according to the style of their namesakes. The Clinton Room, for example, boasts a waterbed and mirrored Jacuzzi. A brochure advertises it as the "perfect room for a 'Cozy' rendezvous." The food is surprisingly good, making it worth a stop after a day of presidential-retreat hunting.
Ultimately, of course, it is probably unwise (and illegal) to really try to find Camp David. There are accounts of lost travelers accidentally wandering too close to those black lines on the map and receiving coarse greetings from tight-lipped Secret Service agents and heavily armed Marines. John Q. Public is better off indulging in Catoctin's more civilian pleasures.
One of the greatest attractions in the Catoctin Mountain parks, if measured by the volume of visitors, is Hunting Creek Lake. An earthen dam that blocks Big Hunting Creek forms this 43-acre body. Mercifully, gas-powered boats are prohibited, although this doesn't inconvenience the fishermen. On a sunny Sunday morning in late summer, there were dozens of anglers paddling canoes and trying to capture a variety of resident species: bass, bluegill, sunfish, crappie, catfish.
Less than a mile from the lake, at the end of a gently ascending path, Big Hunting Creek cascades over 78 feet of sloping rock as Cunningham Falls. Technically, this is Maryland's tallest waterfall, two feet higher than the Great Falls of the Potomac. But don't be fooled. Cunningham Falls is not memorable for its thunder. In fact, it's almost timid, which is often true of hyped waterfalls. "Few have seen a celebrated waterfall without feeling something akin to disappointment," wrote the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Although several roads transect both Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park, the best mountaintop vistas are accessible only by foot. Some 25 miles of trails crisscross the parks. Many ascend to spectacular rock outcrops that overlook forested valleys and hillsides. Most autumns, these are prime perches for looking out across large tracts of colorful foliage, but this season -- with lackluster leaf viewing across the region -- Catoctin's mountaintops have not been ideal. One local suggested that the higher elevations have been exposed to unusually high winds that prematurely stripped the trees of their leaves. Fortunately the lower parts of the forest still offer worthwhile splashes of deciduous color.
Chimney Rock, my favorite place in the parks, lies at the end of a nearly two-mile hike that begins at the visitor center. It is perhaps the quintessential Appalachian rock outcropping: subdued in size, quiet in grandeur. Its high point is a massive boulder that rests precariously atop the other rocks. To reach it you have to be willing to risk a leap across a small but perilous crevasse and then scramble and climb your way up.
But it's worth it. The southerly view gazes over the valley separating the national and state parks. I had heard that on a clear day from Chimney Rock one can just barely see the toothpick figure of the Washington Monument. But when I arrived, the air was thick with haze. I couldn't see the Washington Monument. I couldn't see Camp David. But I knew both were out there. Somewhere.
GETTING THERE: In light traffic, driving to Maryland's Catoctin Mountains takes just over an hour from Washington. Follow Interstate 270 north to Route 15 north. Exit Route 15 in Thurmont, following Route 77 west. There will be signs for Catoctin Mountain Park and its twin, Cunningham Falls State Park.
STAYING THERE: Cabins at Catoctin Mountain Park (301-271-3140 or 301-663-9388, www.nps.gov/cato) start at $35 per night; camping is $16 per night. Cunningham Falls State Park (301-271-7574, or 888-432-2267 for reservations, www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/cunninghamfalls.html) also has drive-up campsites and cabins. These popular areas are sometimes reserved a year in advance. Presidential rooms at the Historic Cozy (103 Frederick Rd., 301-271- 4301, www.cozyvillage.com) in Thurmont run between $52 and $146 per night.
EATING THERE: Despite the garish atmosphere, food at the Historic Cozy is shockingly delicious. Marinated portobello mushroom burgers on freshly baked tomato basil bread?! Same location as the inn.
INFO: Tourism Council of Frederick County, 800-999-3613, www.fredericktourism.org.
NOTE: Hunting is permitted in Cunningham Falls State Park Nov. 29 to Dec. 15. Be sure to dress brightly if you hike in the forest at that time.