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Winter Wonderland

Herrington Manor State Park's 20 cabins, some of them built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, can accommodate from two to six people.
Herrington Manor State Park's 20 cabins, some of them built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, can accommodate from two to six people. (By John Dater For The Washington Post)

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By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

It didn't initially feel like a winter wonderland when my friends and I spent a weekend in a cabin at Herrington Manor State Park, way at the western edge of Maryland. Instead of snow glistening in the lane, there was unrelenting rain. The cozy cabin in the woods was a little too cozy for all five of us. Then there was the chocolate-loving mouse, not to mention nearby gunshots. It had all the elements of a disaster, which made overcoming them something of a triumph.

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My friends and I were trying to keep alive the Cabin Weekend tradition we'd started five years ago, when we were all recent college grads looking for a quick group getaway. Once or twice a year, we pick a cabin, pack plenty of groceries and head to the woods for a weekend of hiking, board games and big homemade meals. This year, two new significant others rounded out the pack.

Three of us packed the car with Trader Joe's bags and set out on the four-hour drive late on a Friday evening. Rush-hour traffic had long since petered out. When we stopped for coffee in Cumberland, about two-thirds of the way there, the hilly old mill town was just empty streets and blinking traffic lights.

Cabin 17 was just as quaint as I'd imagined, even in the rainy midnight haze. It looked like a Lincoln Log house tucked into the woods, with dark wood beams, a welcoming front porch, a shed full of firewood and a handy side door into the kitchen. And the main room had just what we craved: a tiny fireplace. Perfect for late-night conspiring!

We unpacked the groceries and dug into our late-night snacks. The last two members of the gang pulled in a little after 3 a.m., having gotten lost in the wilds of West Virginia. (Thanks a lot, Google Maps.) We greeted them with cheese and crackers and glasses of Three Buck Chuck.

Herrington Manor's 20 cabins, arranged in a loop, range from tiny, two-person cabins to more expansive ones, like ours, designed to hold up to six. Ten were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and all of them feature log-cabin-style construction and spartan furnishings.

On our first full day we all slept in late, then feasted on French toast before setting out to explore. The rain had let up temporarily, and we explored the trails leading to the 53-acre lake, where there's swimming and boating in the summer, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

It was too cold for boating and too warm for snow, but it was just right for shooting deer, apparently. The few critters we saw gave us suspicious looks, as rifle shots rang out from the nearby Mount Nebo Wildlife Management Area. More than once, I wished I had an orange hat.

Also near Herrington Manor is Swallow Falls State Park; a 5 1/2 -mile trail connects the two (hunting-free) parks. When it's snowy, the falls are said to be spectacular, the Youghiogheny River glistening with ice. Overall, the parks throughout the area are fairly level, which means few breathtaking vistas but also easy meandering -- more "walking in a winter wonderland" than strenuous uphill climb.

That night, while roasting marshmallows in the fireplace, the boys beat the girls in Cranium Pop 5, due to my embarrassing failure to identify my teammate's hummed version of 50 Cent's "In Da Club." Later on we conspired our way through a cutthroat Scrabble game, then, as the song said, dreamed by the fire.

The dream ended when I went to make coffee the second morning and discovered telltale bite marks on a Hershey bar we'd left on the kitchen counter the night before: A mouse had been stirring in the night. Was I in the wrong Christmas carol?

Looking back on our getaway, I realize that although it would have gone against tradition, we should have rented two or three cabins instead of having all five of us crammed into one. With better planning on our part, accurate directions and with a dusting of snow -- and in post-hunting season -- Herrington Manor could be the perfect "Winter Wonderland" getaway: long walks in the woods, curling up by the fire, heck, even building a snowman in the meadow across the road from Cabin 17.

For us, it was another in a long line of cabin weekends, which are getting more and more infrequent. Until Parson Brown comes to town and marries us all off, I'll take a cabin in the woods whenever I can.

Herrington Manor State Park, 222 Herrington Lane, Oakland, Md., 301-334-9180, http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/herringtonmanor.html. Cabins are $80 to $100 per night. Snow sports equipment is available to rent daily from 8:40 to 4: Skis (including skis, boots and poles) are $15 per day, $13 for half a day; snowshoes $15/day, $13/half day; sleds $6/day, $3/half day. Go to http://www.garrettchamber.com for snow condition reports.


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