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Water Powered

At Cunningham Falls State Park, if the lake doesn't cool you off, the cascades will.

By Andrea Sachs
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 5, 2000; Page C02

On the first Code Red day of the season, while most sane Washingtonians holed up in air-conditioned rooms to escape the ozone, my friend Glenn and I holed up in an air-conditioned car. Our mission: to find cool water and clean air. Rolling up the windows, we headed 90 miles west to Maryland's Cunningham Falls State Park, where just the thought of a 78-foot waterfall seemed to lower the temperature by at least 10 degrees.

The park, in the modest Catoctin Mountains, has the longest cascading waterfall in Maryland. Because the water flows in gentle, lazy folds, it lacks the surge and thunder of, say, Garrett County's Muddy Creek Falls, the state's longest rushing waterfall. In fact, the park is quite coy about its natural treasure: You can't see the falls from the parking lot or hear it from the trail. But there are hints of it along the way--slippery mud as gooey as toffee along the path and kids hiking up the trail, soaking wet and smiling.

The easiest, quickest route to the waterfall is the Lower Trail, a half-mile hike that can throw even the most agile hiker off-balance. Though for the most part smooth, the trail descends into rocky outcroppings and short drops before you reach the small bridge leading to the falls. The route is pretty straightforward, but if you're not paying attention, you can end up far from any drop of water, in a forest of hemlocks and hickory.

Just ask John from Silver Spring, whom we ran into after our two-hour hike up to, over and around the falls. John, in flimsy footwear, was counting his paces from the trail head to the falls. After a half-hour of arduous hiking, he was beginning to wonder if he had taken a wrong turn. And so he had: He was on the 27-mile trail to Frederick. We turned him around before he got even more lost, leading him back to the key fork in the path.

Many visitors don't even make it that far, seduced instead by the 43-acre lake just off the parking lot. We waited almost 30 minutes to enter the park, idling behind cars packed to the roof with beach toys, coolers and kids. Moms with toddlers in their arms and children carrying plastic rafts walked along the road toward the lake while the husbands stayed behind the wheel. But once inside, our impatience melted away, becalmed by the royal-blue expanse of lake.

Hunting Creek Lake was built in the early 1970s, about 25 years after the former Indian hunting grounds were divided into Catoctin Mountain Park, on the north side of Route 77, and Cunningham Falls State Park, the 4,940 acres to the south. To complement the falls, the park carved out a giant crater, added a dam and, with a little help from Hurricane Agnes, a lake was born.

Today hundreds of visitors from Washington and beyond flock there to swim, canoe, rent sparkly green paddleboats or fish for trout, bass, catfish or crappie in the stocked lake. The lakeside scene harks back to an era when "multitasking" was not in the lexicon. Along the shore the day we visited, families grilled burgers, kids built sand castles and teenagers flirted.

There was less activity at the falls, where we spent half an hour scampering about. Most of the parents and children congregated beneath the falls in a shallow pool of water. Higher up, some second-generation hippies were sunning themselves on the edge of a fat slab of rock, smoking and staring. At the top, the people thinned out and the water slowed to a garden-hose trickle.

Cunningham Falls, named after a local photographer, is no Victoria Falls. In truth, I've seen more arresting waterfalls in hotel pools in Ixtapa, Mexico. But this was Maryland and it was hot outside, so I was content to climb until I found the most gushing part of the falls--to dip my fingers, wet my face and soak my head (swimming is prohibited).

As we scaled the smooth boulders, our palms flat against the hot rocks, we dallied at the various tiers of water--some drips, others like sheets of rain--to rinse off the grit and sweat. At the biggest spurt, midway up, I crept to the edge, knelt as if in prayer and dunked my head. The burbling water shot down my back, blessedly cold, before the sun dried it all up.

To leave the falls, you can go back the same way--a rugged uphill battle if you have wet feet--or be a pioneer and scout out a new route. The park map illustrates nine main trails, ranging from the easy Catoctin Furnace Trail, which leads to a former iron furnace where shells were made during the Revolutionary War, to the more strenuous Old Misery Trail.

The longest route is the 27-mile Catoctin Trail, which runs from Gambrill State Park through the Frederick City Watershed and ends in Catoctin Mountain Park, with nine miles crisscrossing Cunningham Falls park. We followed the blue marker, more or less.

Wandering through the benevolent woods, we were oblivious to time and place. No other hikers were about. The largest critters were chipmunks. The loudest sound was Glenn's breathing.

The most startling intrusion was a warning that crashed through the forest: "Move your car, or we'll have to tow." Yes, we had walked smack onto Route 77, which demarcates the two parks. The woods were alive with rangers toting bullhorns.

Back in the car and on the road, we went foraging for something cold and sweet to eat. In Thurmont, a tiny town made even smaller by the mountainous backdrop, there aren't many options: iced coffee at the Sheetz mini-mart or snowballs at Mom and Pop's Ice Cream Shop, which serves 19 flavors including bubble gum, egg custard, papaya and Martian meltdown.

For a dollar, I got a heap of shaved ice drowning in treacly watermelon and strawberry syrup. I ate it on the drive back to Washington, with the AC turned off and the windows open.


GETTING THERE: Cunningham Falls State Park is about 90 miles from the Beltway, a 1 1/2- to two-hour drive. Take I-270 west to Frederick, then Route 15 north to Thurmont, Md. Follow the signs to the park. For the waterfall, park in the Houck Area: Go west on Route 77, about four miles to Catoctin Hollow Road.

BEING THERE: Park fees are $3 per person on weekends, $2 on weekdays. You can rent a canoe for $5 per half-hour or a rowboat or paddleboat for $10 an hour. Put-and-take trout fishing is allowed in Hunting Creek Lake for anglers with a Maryland fishing license. The lake is also stocked with bass, bluegills, sunfish, crappie and catfish. There are also nine hiking trails for a range of abilities. (Handicapped access to the falls is closed for repairs until September.)

WHERE TO STAY: From May 14 through Oct. 29, the park provides 145 campsites ($20 per night, $5 for electricity hookups) and four cabins ($40 per night) far enough from the main area that you can't hear a single splash from the lake. The simple shelters have only beds inside and a grill, fire ring and table outside. Communal showers and toilets are a few feet away. Call 888-432-CAMP for reservations.

Thurmont also has some standard lodging, including a Super 8 Motel (301-271-7888; doubles from $67), Rambler Motel (301-271-2424; $58-$78) and the Cozy Country Inn (301-271-4301; $54.50-$137), which offers rooms and cottages fashioned after presidents and dignitaries who have slept in--or swept through--Thurmont on their way to Camp David.

WHERE TO EAT: A lakeside concession stand serves typical Americana summer fare: hot dogs, burgers, fries, soda, etc. You can also grill your own food, and there is an on-site convenience store in case you forgot the relish, chips or charcoal. For post-hike nourishment, pick up some fruit at roadside stands off Route 15.

For heartier meals, the Cozy Restaurant has a weekend dinner buffet for $13.99. And if the heat of the day isn't hot enough, visit the Wall of Fire & Hot Spot Sampling Station, with more than 200 spicy sauces you can taste. For the ultimate coolant, however, get a snowball (19 flavors) at Mom and Pop's Ice Cream Shop (301-271-7800), which also serves Muddy Sneakers ice cream (Heath Bar and caramel) and banana splits.

INFORMATION: Cunningham Falls State Park, 301-271-7574.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company