In the Mountains of Maryland Cabins are latest accommodation at Thurmont park

July 18, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

TURMONT — Thurmont--This is not good. Ten minutes after unloading the van, unfolding lawn chairs and lighting a table-top grill, rain drips, then cascades through the trees. Thunder and lightning follow.

We're camping among the hardwoods of the Catoctin Mountains and a thunderstorm -- welcome at my parched lawn a short drive away -- is an uninvited guest during our retreat to Cunningham Falls State Park.

Or is it?

We're staying in one of four recently built log cabins at this popular state park in northern Frederick County.

The cabins are primitive, but comfortably sleep four people in a bunk bed and a double bed. We've squeezed in a fifth. The 12-by-18-foot cabins have electricity but nothing else. This is basic camping.

But we feel fortunate. We don't have to scurry into a tent for cover. From the cabin's porch, we watch the still-green forest of chestnut oaks, hickory and black birch bear Mother Nature's trouncing.

The cabins, built by the Amish and leased by the state Department of Natural Resources, are among the new amenities being touted at the 5,000-acre park, which hugs Big Hunting Creek and winding Route 77 west of Thurmont.

In addition to the cabins and tent campsites, the park now offers five "camper-ready sites," in which a Coleman tent (which sleeps six) and a tarp (hung over a picnic table) are set up before guests arrive. Accommodations come with sleeping pads, a propane stove, a battery lantern and a bundle of firewood.

On this particular night, though, none of the camper-ready sites has been taken. But the cabins are filled.

"The cabins are booked up on weekends through Labor Day. Our camper-ready sites aren't going as well," says Bill Miller, park ranger. "They haven't gotten as much publicity as the cabins. But they're a nice idea for people who don't want to invest in equipment."

We like the cabins, even though they are not as sophisticated as others we've used in state parks in Western Maryland and West Virginia. We wouldn't have minded an indoor bathroom and shower and maybe even a table. We made do with a nearby bathhouse.

Cabins also come with a bundle of firewood. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring. The cabins are set in the park's William Houck Area, which fills quickly on weekends.

A camper-ready site would have been an advantage this evening. We didn't bring a tarp and the charcoal is barely puffing smoke. We're forced to eat wet hot dogs.

Mr. Miller says the camper-ready sites are an attempt by park officials to get more people acquainted with camping and the park, already a popular getaway for many Baltimore and Washington suburbanites.

About 850,000 people visit Cunningham Falls State Park each year, Mr. Miller says.

Beth Wehr and Todd Davis of Gaithersburg discovered Cunningham Falls State Park and the cabins while exploring the area for fishing.

"I don't have time to go camping," said Ms. Wehr. "I'm in real estate. Our tent is ruined and when we realized we could have a camping experience without it, we went for it."

Ms. Wehr, who had not been camping in about 10 years, brought her two sons, Nick, 14, and Ben, 12. The boys fished, hiked and swam in the park's Hunting Creek Lake.

Mr. Davis said the trip from Gaithersburg took 45 minutes but "don't tell anybody that. Tell them it takes forever so they don't come up here."

No matter what the distance, there are plenty of reasons to visit Cunningham Falls State Park, cousin to Catoctin Mountain Park on the opposite side of Route 77. The latter is operated by the National Park Service and is home to Camp David, the presidential retreat.

Both parks offer day visitors and campers activities including picnicking, fishing and hiking on more than a dozen trails that wind along the mountains, cross Cunningham Falls -- the highest cascading falls in Maryland -- and panoramic views of the

countryside.

Hiking trails

Trails leading to Chimney Rock and Catoctin Furnace are of particular interest. Hikers can choose either moderate or strenuous trails to reach a series of rock formations known as Chimney Rock. An easier, half-mile trail leads from the Manor Picnic Area across Route 15 (on an elevated footbridge) to the remains of the Ca

toctin Iron Furnace, which produced iron for Revolutionary War and Civil War arms.

Other trails and campground events offer interpretive programs

for young and old. Cunningham Falls recently opened an outdoor amphitheater, which serves as the site for education programs and non-denominational church services on Sunday mornings.

Swimming and boating are available only at Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park. The man-made lake features a sandy beach and a roped-off swimming area. Visitors can rent canoes or aquacycles.

If the park's offerings aren't enough, there are plenty of nearby attractions for restless campers. Adjacent to Cunningham Falls State Park is Pryor's Orchard, where visitors can pick cherries and other fruit in season.

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