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Rocky Gap State Park sits near the narrowest part of Maryland’s left shoulder, just south of the Pennsylvania state line. It’s perched on the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, whose waters flow for hundreds of miles through the state and then out to sea. Sprawled over 3,000 acres, the park is a natural playground for hikers, bikers, swimmers, boaters, campers and others.
If you’re close to Washington, D.C., or Baltimore, this park is a peaceful escape from city life. Or if you’re further out, it’s a lovely introduction to Maryland parks and the wide-ranging Chesapeake area.
No matter where you call home, though, you’ll be struck by the sudden peace and seclusion of the park. Even on Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest times to go camping and have one last hurrah before summer began fading into fall, Rocky Gap felt like a quiet sigh, a loosening of tensed shoulders.
It takes about two hours to drive to Rocky Gap from Washington, D.C. As the miles slipped by, I wondered if we should have canceled this camping trip. After months of searching, we’d finally bought a new home a few days before. If we hadn’t planned on this camping trip for months, we would have moved in that weekend. We could be sleeping under our new roof instead of pitching a tent; we could have enjoyed our first meal out on our patio instead of stirring beans over a camp stove.
When we turned right off Route 68 and began winding down into the park, passing a scattering of charming buildings on the aptly named Pleasant Valley Road, I released a breath I hadn’t known I was holding.
To our right grew a dense thicket of trees; to our left, a 243-acre lake sparkled in the sun. We wrapped around the northern tip of the lake and found our campsite, and I began to feel the surest sign of a much-needed vacation – the sense of being transported somewhere else. Suddenly, I knew this was exactly where we needed to be – far from the stresses of buying a new home, and of moving and unpacking. It was time to relax and renew before plunging back into real life.
A contemplative moment at Lake Habeeb. Janah Maresca photo.
After we’d set up our tent, we joined the rest of the group. My husband’s extended family had traveled from all over the country to reunite under the stars, a tradition they’d had for years growing up.
We soon made our way to the private beach encircling Lake Habeeb, which some say has the bluest water in the state. Families sprawled across the beach, reading magazines and eating ice cream from the snack bar.
We spread blankets on the sand and kids and adults alike dashed for the swimming hole, which is fed by the fresh waters of Rocky Gap Run. An area of the lake is cordoned off for swimming and monitored by lifeguards in summer. Swimmers ducked and splashed in the water while kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders floated by.
A word of caution: visitors should abide by sanitation and hygiene recommendations posted at the lake.
At night, we all cooked and ate together, singing songs around the campfire. The campground caters to visitors with varying levels of outdoors experience, offering RV hookups, cabins, and level gravel pads for pitching tents. Pets are allowed on the trails in certain parts of the campground, and even in the lake, making it an ideal vacation for the entire family, not just the two-legged members.
During the day, we sunbathed and swam, played on the playground, and went for short, family-friendly hikes to spot butterflies and snakes. My brother-in-law and a cousin loaded up on water and sunscreen before heading off on a miles-long hike through hemlocks, rhododendron and mountain laurel, in search of cliffs, a waterfall and even a mile-long gorge. The park also offers a “Scales & Tales” aviary, a nature center, and canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard rentals in the summer.
But Rocky Gap isn’t only a summer getaway. It also offers a peaceful escape the rest of the year, with leaves ablaze in fall beautifully reflected on the lake’s waters. In cooler weather, a mist sometimes clings to the trees and hovers over the lake.
A few miles away, in Cumberland, visitors can walk along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, see the Alleghany Museum, hike the Great Allegheny Passage, visit the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, and eat in the downtown area.
By the time the weekend ended, my reluctance had vanished, and I found myself packing up our campsite slowly, wishing the trip were longer.
But it was time to go home.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park lets visitors explore history and the Potomac River along the 184 mile canal from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. There are a number of visitor centers and sites to visit all along the Potomac so take a look at them all.
The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad round trip excursion, originating from Downtown Cumberland, Maryland, is an exciting mix of mountain scenery and rich transportation history. It’s an entertaining and educational experience!