Cunningham Falls State Park: The Complete Guide

Cunningham Falls Cascadas in Maryland
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Cunningham Falls State Park

Address
14039 Catoctin Hollow Rd, Thurmont, MD 21788, USA
Phone +1 301-271-7574

Cunningham Falls State Park, located near Thurmont, Maryland, in the Catoctin Mountains, encompasses a beautiful 78-foot cascading waterfall, a 44-acre lake, campsites, playgrounds, picnic areas, and plentiful hiking trails. It's one of the most popular parks in Maryland and you'll find it filled with locals throughout the summer playing in the lake, wandering through the trails, or camping out with friends and family.

Things to Do

The main attraction at Cunningham Falls State Park is its namesake waterfall, the largest in the state of Maryland. You can view the falls from a boardwalk or climb up the rocks on the right side of the falls. The easy out-and-back half-mile Lower Trail from the lake leads to the falls, while the Boardwalk Trail provides access for wheelchairs. Swimming at the falls is prohibited, but you can swim at the lake located inside the park.

The park is divided into two zones: the Manor Area and the William Houck Area. William Houck is the more popular of the two and where you'll find the falls and the lake area for swimming. The Manor Area has hiking trails and the Catoctin Furnace, a historic iron forge that was used to create ammunition during the American Revolution and a landmark on the National Historic Register.

Best Hikes & Trails

There are a variety of hiking trails at Cunningham Falls State Park ranging in distance and difficulty from easy half-mile strolls to more challenging 7.5-mile treks.

  • Lower Trail/Cliff Trail: Both of these trails start at the lake and end at the falls, but the Lower Trail is an easier stroll that's just a half mile while the Cliff Trail is more strenuous and slightly longer. You can choose one trail for a roundtrip hike or, as many hikers like to do, choose one of them for the journey out and the other for the journey back.
  • Old Misery Trail: This difficult hike is two miles one way and involves a lot of steep switchbacks. But the sweeping views of the park are worth the effort you have to put in.
  • Cat Rock/Bob's Hill Trail: The most strenuous hike in the park, the combo trail crosses the mountain and passes two scenic overlooks with a top elevation of 1,765 feet. It's not a loop trail, so arrange for a pick-up at the end of the 7.5-mile trail or be prepared to walk back.

Water Sports

Cunningham Falls Park has a recreation area with a 44-acre lake called Hunting Creek Lake for swimming, boating, and fishing. You can dip in the lake at three designated swimming areas throughout the year, but lifeguards are only on duty between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The narrow sandy strip at the lake's edge and the grassy slopes leading down to it fill quickly on summer weekends, so arrive early to stake a spot. Park staff turns away cars after they reach the daily visitor limit.

You can rent boats at the boat dock during the summer months. Boaters with private crafts can launch for a small fee, but note that the park does not permit gasoline-powered motors on the lake.

Fishing is permitted in several areas throughout the park, but anyone over the age of 16 needs a Maryland Fishing License. Trout are stocked in the lake and anglers can also fish for bass, bluegills, catfish, and sunfish.

Where to Camp

There are two campsites at Cunningham Falls and both are open seasonally, usually from April to October. A small number of basic cabins are also available to rent inside the park, though they have no heat or air-conditioning and guests have to bring their own linens. Reservations are recommended for all campsites and cabins, as they generally fill up and especially so in the summer months.

  • William Houck Campground: The largest campground in the park contains 106 basic tent sites and 33 sites with electric hook-up for RVs. Each campsite includes a picnic table and fire pit. There's also a bathhouse with flush toilets and hot showers.
  • Manor Area Campground: The Manor Campground is much smaller with only 23 basic tent sites and eight sites with electric hook-up, so it's ideal for campers who are seeking a bit more solitude. Like the William Houck area, there are also fire pits, flush toilets, and hot showers.

Where to Stay Nearby

Around Cunningham Falls are several small towns with lots of charm, perfect for a weekend getaway in the scenic Catoctin Mountains. If you prefer looking for a place to stay with more options and city life, then Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are just an hour away from the state park by car.

  • Springfield Manor: Just minutes away from the state park, this building predates the Declaration of Independence. Not only is the picturesque estate perfect for enjoying the best of the mountains, but there is also an on-site brewery, winery, and distillery.
  • 10 Clarke: This boutique bed and breakfast offers historic Victorian charm but with modern amenities. It's located just 30 minutes away from Cunningham Falls in the closest city, Frederick, which is filled with great places to eat and bars to enjoy.
  • Federal Pointe Inn: For a full U.S. history vacation, head 30 minutes north across the state line into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This highly-rated inn is set in a 19th-century brick building that's been completely reformed, with easy access to all of the famous Civil War sites nearby.

How to Get There

Cunningham Falls State Park is just over an hour away from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., by car. From either city, drive toward the city of Frederick in central Maryland and from there head north on U.S. Route 15 through the Catoctin Mountains. The state park is located outside of the town of Thurmont, just a stone's throw away from the famous presidential retreat Camp David. There's a parking lot but be aware that this is one of Maryland's most popular parks and it often fills to capacity on summer holiday weekends.

Accessibility

Many parts of Cunningham Falls State Park are accessible to all visitors including campsites, picnic areas, boat rentals, the fishing pier, and the restrooms. While the hiking trails are mostly steep and narrow, there is an accessible parking lot near the waterfall with a paved boardwalk, so visitors who would have difficulty with the trail can still see the famous falls. Beach wheelchairs are also available to check out on a first-come, first-serve basis for enjoying the sandy area of the lake. Applying for the Universal Disability Pass beforehand provides free entry for visitors with permanent disabilities to all of the Maryland state parks.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Cell phones are unreliable in the park due to spotty service throughout the Catoctin Mountains.
  • Leashed pets are permitted in all day-use areas, with the exception of on the sandy beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
  • Cunningham Falls State Park welcomes visitors from 8 a.m. until sunset April through October, and from 10 a.m. until sunset November through March.
  • Maryland Park Service Season Passports can be purchased at park headquarters or at the contact station at the park entrance. You can also purchase them online.
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Cunningham Falls State Park: The Complete Guide