Catoctin Scenic Loop
Highlights: This is your chance to travel not just along The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, but into it—into the mountains, that is, to enjoy stunning views of Frederick County. Follow a leafy drive through the Catoctin Mountains to the famed Cunningham Falls and the historical exhibits at Catoctin Mountain Park, then on to historic Thurmont for lunch and the Camp David exhibit at Historic Cozy. From there, spend time exploring Catoctin Furnace before a scenic return to Frederick via a covered bridge.
Distance: About 35 miles
Leaving historic downtown on Patrick Street, then following Route 144 a mile from town onto Route 40, pass through the mile-long commercial stretch and stay right where Alternate Route 40 bears left. A quarter mile further, the giant candy cane marks the spot. You don’t really have to look for it; you’ll see it on the right.
Breakfast at Barbara Fritchie “Candy Stick” Restaurant. No need for faux nostalgia here; this place is what those modern diners are trying to emulate. It’s a family-run business that’s been dishing up home cooking and baking since 1910. Breakfast is available all day. So is pie. 1513 W. Patrick St.; (U.S. Route 40); (301) 662-2500.
From the Candy Stick, turn right and climb into the hills. Go about five miles, then turn right onto Gambrill Park Road. The road winds into mountains, entering Gambrill State Park. At the top of the hill, you can pull into High Knob picnic area for spectacular views from the pavilion, then continue north. The Catoctin range is a kind of Central Park for Frederick County, with some twenty thousand acres of parks and forest stretching from Route 40 more than twenty miles north—almost to the Pennsylvania line. Stay on Gambrill Park for several miles until the junction with Tower Road. Go left here—if you want to climb a lookout tower for more great views, detour right on Gambrill Park Road for a half mile. Stay on Tower Road for one mile, then turn right onto Mink Farm Road. A mile further, Mink Farm Road ends at Catoctin Hollow Road. Turn left and drive through the forest, coming to Cunningham Falls State Park. Follow signs for Falls parking. Cunningham Falls. At seventy-eight feet, this cascading waterfall surely ranks as one of the great natural features along The Journey Through Hallowed Ground. What’s more, its location only three miles from Thurmont makes it one of the most accessible ones as well. Parking and picnic tables are located at Hunting Creek Lake. There also is a handicap-accessible lot on Route 77.
Turn east (right) onto Route 77 toward Thurmont, and travel one mile to the Catoctin Mountain Park visitor center.Catoctin Mountain Park. In the 1920s and 1930s, most eastern mountain ranges were nearly treeless. Timber harvesting and charcoal production had led to soil erosion into creeks and streams. So launched the era of national and state forests and watershed reserves. In the Catoctin Mountains, the federal government started an ambitious demonstration program to regenerate the forest. This is also the time that President Roosevelt established the presidential retreat in these mountains—today’s Camp David. The plan was to turn over all of the federal land to the state of Maryland for parkland. Whether Roosevelt just fancied the land as a national park or whether creation of the presidential retreat created security issues is a matter for historians to debate. But the result is two fine parks, one state and one national, split by Route 77. The visitor center at Catoctin Park houses a modest but informative display on the natural and cultural heritage of the mountains. You can drive up Central Park Road to a short trail interpreting the charcoal operations that dominated the mountain and provided fuel for Catoctin Furnace. There is a bookstore that carries maps and local histories; there also is a restroom.
Continue east on Route 77 into Thurmont, a historic Maryland Main Street community. You can stroll the entire town before lunch.
Heading south, Frederick Road becomes Catoctin Furnace Road. The furnace is only a mile from town.
Catoctin Furnace. Catoctin Furnace is part of Cunningham Falls State Park. Only one blast furnace and the ruins of the manager’s residence remain. Storyboards describe the iron era history of the region and the Civil War action that took place nearby. It’s a fifteen-minute stop that will greatly enlarge your view of the surrounding landscape.
Head back into Thurmont and turn right onto Main Street, Route 77. At the eastern edge of town, bear left to stay on Route 77, now Rocky Ridge Road, and enjoy the scenic valley. In two miles, reach Old Frederick Road. Turn right to reach the covered bridge. Loy’s Station Covered Bridge Park. Constructed in 1848, the bridge has been rebuilt but its original timbers are in tact over the ninety-foot span across Owens Creek. There are picnic tables in the adjacent park.
Continue south on Old Frederick Road, which rejoins Route 15 just north of Frederick.