Suggested Trip

Hiking Through the History and Geology of Catoctin Mountain Park


Years ago, when our daughter was very young, we would spend our summer vacations in a log cabin at Camp Misty Mount, one of the many delightful reasons to visit Catoctin Mountain Park. Misty Mount is an enclave of rustic cabins built in 1937 by Works Project Administration workers out of chestnut trees killed by the blight that ravished the Appalachians in the 1920s.

The park, with  5,872 acres of forest, rocky overlooks, valleys and plummeting streams, was meant to create an outdoor recreation industry in an area ravished by the Great Depression, when other economic mainstays of the region – farming, logging, an iron smelter, tanneries, and even the world’s first lucifer match factory – had declined, and the only other dependable way to make a living was cooking moonshine in a secluded still. The new park was a success, attracting tourists from nearby Washington, D.C. and Baltimore who arrived in their automobiles.

Catoctin’s beauty and, more importantly, its proximity to D.C. also attracted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who created a presidential retreat at the top of the mountain in 1942 and called it "Shangri-La." Dwight D. Eisenhower renamed the camp in honor of his father and grandson, both of whom were named David.

I visited Catoctin Mountain Park over the summer with my rescue retriever, Millie. Since Misty Mount only allows service animals in the cabins, and also since we were not on the current president’s guest list, we opted to pitch our tent at Owens Creek Campground.

We camped right next to an exhibit of a restored, water-powered sawmill. The original appears on an 1857 map of this site, but it might have been in operation decades earlier. You can still see the trench of the old mill stream that diverted water from the nearby creek. There’s a quarter-mile, accessible boardwalk that runs across the creek and out to the main road.

Sawmills produced planks for construction, but most of the forest was cut to provide fuel to smelt iron in the Catoctin Furnace on the other side of the mountain. There’s an exhibit in the park devoted to the industry of the collier – men who felled trees by the thousands, and burned them in huge piles to make charcoal.

There are several marked trails on the west side of the mountain. We took off in the morning for the Deerfield Nature Trail that loops around the top of Owens Creek for about a mile and a half. Markers identify key features, like the rhyolite rocks that American Indians quarried here to create spear points, arrowheads and tools. Such points and tools have been unearthed 100 miles away in an archeological dig at Pig Point on the Patuxent River in Anne Arundel County; some of them have been dated more than 10,000 years old.

Archaeologists have found evidence of ancient American Indian villages in the Monocacy River valley near Frederick, but none up on the mountain. The mountain was a place for hunting, fishing, and quarrying rhyolite. Archaeologists have found quarries where artisans chipped pieces of stone from the outcrops and boulders. According to a study posted on the park’s website, these quarries are identified by the piles of discarded stone that accumulated around them.

The good pieces of rhyolite were then chipped down to tool size, usually at a nearby camp workshop. This process generated small waste flakes that archeologists call “debitage.”  Few actual tools or points have been found, probably because they made their way to places like Pig Point where they were put to use.

According to one of my favorite reference books, The Place Names of Maryland: Their Origin and Meaning by Hamill Kenny, the name Catoctin could be interpreted as “Speckled Mountain.” Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capital has columns of speckled rock from Catoctin Mountain.

The trail loops from the Owens Campground and back again, a very pleasant stroll through the woods. You can hop across the creek near its source. We stopped at a footbridge that spans the creek as it broadens further downstream. Millie poked among the rocks, trying to get her nose pinched by piqued crawfish.

Owens Creek starts with this trickle on the west side of the mountain, then flows north and cuts through the mountain in a deep valley to join the Monocacy River. This valley constitutes the northern border of the park and has provided a highway through the ages for Indian hunting parties, frontier settlers, and later a railroad. J.E.B. Stuart led his cavalry through here on his retreat from nearby Gettysburg.

The next day, we tried something a little more challenging, climbing up to Chimney Rock on the east side of the mountain. This is one of several outcrops of quartzite rocks formed 500 million years ago, and harder than the other rocks that have eroded around them, leaving these picturesque pinnacles. There are a number of approaches to the peak, but we chose to start from the park headquarters on Park Central Road at an elevation of 840 feet above sea level.

The trail follows the contour of the mountain, rising nearly 600 feet over the course of a mile. It was a weekday and we met up with only a couple of other hardy hikers. Millie has spent most of her life at sea level, but I was impressed with how she took to this trail like a mountain goat.

When we got to the top, at an elevation of 1,419 feet, I had a nice view of the far side of the valley. I was actually looking across the southern boundary of the national park at Cunningham Falls State Park, which separated from Catoctin Mountain Park in 1954.

If you follow the trail westward, you’ll reach another outcrop called Wolf Rock about a half mile away. I had been there recently and was disappointed by the lack of a view. When we used to climb up there 30 years ago, the tree canopy further down the mountainside was low enough that you could see down over the forest into the Monocacy River valley a thousand feet below. Now, of course, everything’s grown so tall, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Other outcrops are easier to reach. Both Thurmont Vista looking east and Hog Rock looking south are just a half mile from the main road, and each one provides a splendid short walk with a satisfying vista at the end. More experienced hikers can link several of these trails together for longer treks.

There are a number of sites nearby worthy of a visit while you’re at Catoctin Mountain Park. Cunningham Falls is a popular destination, the Catoctin Furnace at the base of the mountain has the remnants of an historic iron foundry, covered bridges in the Monocacy River valley, and the towns of Emmitsburg, Thurmont and Frederick, not to mention Gettysburg.

Catoctin Mountain Park

With 25 miles of trails winding through Catoctin Mountain Park, a variety of experiences are available ranging from easy to strenuous, many leading to outstanding scenic vistas.


Jefferson Holland celebrates the history and culture of the Chesapeake Bay through articles published in regional newspapers and magazines, as well as in the original songs and poetry he shares in live performances and recordings. Jeff has served as the director of the Annapolis Maritime Museum and as the Riverkeeper for the West and Rhode Rivers. He lives in Annapolis with his emotional support spouse, Louise White.

November 3, 2021

Main image: The author scanning one of the beautiful Catactin Mountain Park vistas. All photos by Jeff Holland.
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