EVERY AUTUMN when the weather begins to cool and fewer bugs are around, getting away from Washington to enjoy the mountains is a must.
Shenandoah National Park in Virgina is a popular fall tourist spot among area residents, who flock to Skyline Drive on weekends to view the park's breathtaking vistas from dramatic overlooks. But my wife and I were looking for someplace closer and not quite as well known.
We chose Catoctin Mountain Park, a small national park in western Maryland near the town of Thurmont, about an hour's drive from Washington. The delightful park may lack spectacular scenery (its highest elevation is under 1,900 feet), but its pretty canopied trails and tranquil overlooks surrounded by wooded mountains and rolling farmland offer a peaceful beauty .
Bordering Cunningham Falls State Park, Catoctin Mountain Park offers camping for tents and trailers up to 6.7 meters long through the third weekend in November. Cabins may be rented until Nov. 1, with prices ranging from $28 to $45 per night.
When we pulled into the park's visitors center on a Saturday, a sign saying "campground filled" left us momentarily dismayed. A ranger told us that in order to secure a campsite during the popular autumn season, it is best to arrive by Friday afternoon.
We decided to investigate the park's campgrounds anyway. We passed Campsite No. 3, with its closed gate and several signs warning us not to enter -- the mysterious campsite is actually the presidential retreat, Camp David.
We continued on until we reached Owens Creek campground, located in the northwestern part of the park near an old reconstructed sawmill. Fortunately, we found one of two remaining campsites that had apparently been vacated earlier that day.
I raced back to the campground entrance to reserve the site by filling out a form, which included a $6 fee, and slipping it into the registration box. All I had was a $10 bill but I didn't mind contributing an extra $4 to the National Park Service.
That night after we'd cooked dinner on the site grill, a ranger stopped at our campsite. I thought we were in trouble, but he only asked if I was the guy who had paid $10.
"Yes," I said. "It was all I had."
"Well, it only costs $6," he replied, handing me $4 change.
The park has 25 miles of nature trails and a 10-kilometer riding trail for equestrians. During our exploration we saw some deer and walked beneath the changing colors of tall oak, maple, beech, chestnuts and other trees. The park also includes outdoor exhibits. In addition to the sawmill, there is a restored charcoal-making site, which was in operation during colonial times and a whiskey still that has been rebuilt since revenue agents destroyed it in 1929.
Just outside the park is Big Hunting Creek, a trout stream with a catch and release policy for fly-fishers only, and across Route 77 in Cunningham Falls State Park are the falls themselves, equipped with a handicap-access trail. The falls drop 28 feet and are banked by rocks that can be easily climbed. Like Catoctin, Cunningham Falls State Park offers camping facilities.
After a brief visit to the state park, it was time to head home. We were reluctant to leave; colorful Catoctin Mountain Park was so relaxing that we wanted another night in the woods, cozy by a warm fire, sleeping under the trees in the cool, fresh air. With no alternative, I told my wife that at least we could come back next week -- we're only an hour away.
CATOCTIN MOUNTAIN PARK -- Thurmont, Md. 301/663-9388. Take I-270 north to Route 15 north to Thurmont. Oct. 13 and 14 the park celebrates Catoctin Colorfest. Park rangers will hold seminars and lead nature hikes, and nearby Thurmont will hold a massive craft festival; call 301/271-4432.
These are some other nearby mountain parks to camp in:
CUNNINGHAM FALLS STATE PARK -- Thurmont, Md. 301/371-7574. Follow directions for Catoctin, approximately one hour from Washington.
GREENBRIER STATE PARK -- 301/791-4767. Take I-270 north to I-70 west past Myersville, Md. Approximately 70 minutes.
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK -- 703/635-3566. Take I-66 west to Front Royal and head south on Skyline Drive. Approximately 75 minutes.
SKY MEADOWS STATE PARK -- 703/592-3556. Take I-66 west to Route 17 north to the park. Approximately one hour.
GEORGE WASHINGTON NATIONAL FOREST -- 703/433-2491. Take I-66 west to I-81 south to Harrisonburg and take Route 33 west to park. Approximately two hours.