Hiking: Cunningham Falls State Park

Posted By BrokenClaw on August 24, 2004

Cunningham Falls State Park is located in the scenic Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, adjacent to the Catoctin Mountain National Park. Cunningham Falls was named for a local photographer who made the area popular with his postcard photography. The park is a fine family outing destination. There are several easy to moderate trails for family walks, but for serious hikers, the 27-mile Catoctin Trail winds throughout the region.

The main family attraction at the park is the Hunting Creek Lake in the Houck Area, which has protected swimming with complete bathhouse, boat rentals, refreshments, and tables for picnicking. Like most Maryland state parks, there is a day fee for entrance to the facilities. On summer weekends, expect to spend some time backed up in your vehicle at the entrance to the Houck Area. It took us about fifteen minutes to get through the gate on a Saturday in August.

The trails to the falls begin at the top of the hill above the main picnic area at the lake. There is a separate parking lot at the trailhead, but it fills up quickly on busy weekends. The walk up the hill from the lake to the trailhead is probably more strenuous than the actual “hike” to the falls. From there, you choose between two trails. The Lower Trail (red blaze) is the easiest and quickest way to the falls. Only a half-mile long, the trail is maintained with crushed stone for good footing. We’ve been to the park several times, and we usually take this leisurely walk. There are a few ups and down, but it is quite suitable for young children. However, I would still recommend that all walkers wear sneakers, rather than sandals or flip-flops.

The Cliff Trail (yellow blaze) is just a bit longer, about three-fourths of a mile, and it is more suitable for hikers, or for those who want a brief experience of real hiking. The trail climbs up above the Lower Trail, through some rock outcroppings, and then comes back down to rejoin the Lower Trail at the base of the falls. We saw several deer along the ridge. While children can certainly take the Cliff Trail when accompanied by an adult, I wouldn’t recommend it in beach footwear.

Cunninghan FallsThe official visit to the falls is just that — a visit. There is a platform with a couple benches to relax and view the 78-foot high falls. There are signs which warn against climbing on the falls, but in reality, climbing on the falls is the main attraction. I took this photo in August, in the midst of a drought, so the water coming over the falls was little more than a trickle (seen behind the fallen log in this photo). In order to climb the falls, the first obstacle is to cross the rock swamp between the viewing platform and the foot of the falls. You can see some of those slippery rocks at the bottom of this photo. Every time we have been here, someone inevitably slips and falls into the shallow water… splash! The next obstacle is the large rockface at the bottom. You can’t really tell from this photo, but that rockface is nearly vertical, with few footholds to help you scramble up. Once you make it up that first rock (again, easier with sneakers), the rest of the climb requires much less effort. On busy summer days, dozens of people enjoy the sun and scenery from the face of Cunningham Falls.

Now here’s the real secret: You don’t have to climb that big rock at the bottom to get to the top of the falls! All you have to do is make your way through the trees up the hill on the right. There’s no real trail there, but you can’t really get lost. Just keep the falls on your left as you hike up the hill, and you’ll soon be able to turn left and walk right out onto the high rocks, without any scrambling. Nevertheless, climbing anywhere on the rocks is still dangerous. Although there are no vertical drops, any casual slip and fall will probably result in skinned knees and elbows.

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