- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Looking for a mountain retreat? Don't follow the herd to Virginia's Blue Ridge. Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland's

Catoctin Mountains is uncrowded, peaceful and easy to reach.

About 15 miles north of Frederick, the 4,946-acre park features shady glens, mountain streams, meandering trails and a scenic lake. Serious naturalists as well as families looking for a day away from fast food and plastic play structures will find beauty and respite within its borders.

The park is divided into two main developed areas William Houck and Manor. Map in hand, visitors can plan their day and drive from site to site.

The park's headliner is Cunningham Falls, a 78-foot cascading waterfall in a rocky gorge in the Houck area. A half-mile-long path, Lower Trail, is the shortest and easiest route to the falls. On a gorgeous autumn day, visitors from toddlers to retirees trotted along the path, interspersed with benches and interpretive signs, to reach a viewing platform at the base of the falls.

First-timers Mary Tiller and Kevin Thorpe had made the drive from Northwest Washington. "We wanted to see some changing leaves," explained Miss Tiller, an associate economist. "I looked on the Internet and checked out Shenandoah but thought it was bound to be really packed. So we came up here instead."

Miss Tiller and Mr. Thorpe said they had brought a picnic lunch and had been hiking a few hours before heading for the falls. "We don't get out of the city much, so this is a nice getaway," Mr. Thorpe said. "It's just a hop, skip and a jump from Washington."

The couple said they plan to return, perhaps to try one of the longer trails or maybe to camp.

Cunningham Falls can accommodate them. The park's trails are rated easy to strenuous and include the Catoctin Trail, which winds for 27 miles. Scores of campsites offer hot showers, tables, fire rings and parking areas. Cabins are available, and some sites feature electric hookups. Picnic areas in both the Houck and Manor areas offer tables and grills.

A pleasant day might include picnicking at the tables beneath the trees on the edge of the Houck area's Hunting Creek Lake. The 44-acre lake features a picturesque white sandy beach framed by grass. Canoes and rowboats are available for rent during the summer. Swimming is permitted Memorial Day through Labor Day, with lifeguards on duty.

When the children begin to get restless, parents can buckle them back into the car and head to the Manor area, home to the Recycled Tire Playground. As the name suggests, the wooded playground consists mostly of equipment fashioned out of old tires and features a castle, a little house, slides and swings. Judging from the excited calls, shrieks and stampedes, children love the place.

Jeff Deel and his wife, Nipon, said they bring their two small children to the park from their home in Jefferson, Md., four or five times a year. They visit the playground and take the children for a boat ride. "This park is great," said Mr. Deel, a manager at Bechtel Corp. "There's a lot to do. You really feel like you're out in the mountains."

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