Nature’s Water Parks Offer Cool, Scenic Hikes
Despite TLC’s warning, many outdoorsy folks do find themselves chasing waterfalls on hikes, bike rides and other nature exploration. (That TLC was explicitly using waterfalls as a metaphor for relationships is inconsequential. Work with me here.)
Frederick County residents are lucky, with the gorgeous Cunningham Falls (the tallest waterfall in the state) located near Thurmont, making it easy to access tumbling waters. If visiting it has you itching for more waterfall action, rest assured there’s plenty more options within a day’s trip.
“Waterfalls are always cool,” says Kat Johnson, organizer of Mid-Atlantic Hikers and Climbers, a Middletown-based group that arranges trips to hike, bike, camp and kayak through the region. “It always attracts a huge crowd when you run a group trip—you put in a picture of a waterfall and the RSVP number goes way up. It can be kind of problematic because we’re very strict on ‘leave no trace,’ which means small groups and packing everything out. We do a lot of trail maintenance in our group. If you get a lot of people out it causes all sorts of erosion and other issues.”
There are two types of waterfalls: cascading and free-falling. Most in the immediate area are cascade waterfalls like Cunningham, where water doesn’t lose contact with the underlying rocks as it falls, as opposed to free-falling waterfalls that you often see in travel advertising.
First, a word of caution. While waterfalls seem romantic and beautiful (and they certainly can be), reality is often quite different from fantasy. Water isn’t the only thing that falls in a waterfall — rocks, branches and other debris can fall too, so exercise caution if you do decide to get near a waterfall, or in the water in any unmonitored area.
“In general, in Maryland state parks we encourage people to swim in designated swimming areas,” says Andrew Hangen, manager of Rocks State Park and Susquehanna State Park. “We allow people to swim in other areas if there’s not a known hazard, or safety issues in the past.”
Additionally, moving water is often cold, even in the dead of summer. OK, let’s be honest—it’s usually very cold. Like, plunging-your-hand-into-a-cooler-while-digging-for-a-beer-and-losing-feeling-in-your-fingers cold. This is Elsa-creating-ice castles cold or Han Solo-slicing-open-a-Tauntaun-to-save-Luke Skywalker cold. Well, you get the picture, or maybe you don’t. Just be prepared to get a bit chilly if you’re going to hop in the water.
But whether you want to hop in or just take in a great view, here are five great waterfalls to check out this summer.
FALLING FOR IT
If you want easy access, try Kilgore Falls in Rocks State Park. (A 28-car parking lot is at 1026 Falling Branch Road, Pylesville.) The 17-foot-high Kilgore Falls is Maryland’s second-highest vertical drop waterfall and is one of the easiest to get to; it’s just a short half-mile walk from the parking lot. Near the falls is some shallow water to wade in, as well as plenty of rocks upon which to take a seat and relax.
It’s become such a popular destination for waterfall seekers that reservations and a free parking permit will be required for summer weekends and holidays. Reservations are for either 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. to sunset; call 410-557-7994, Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to noon, to reserve a spot.
“In Rocks State Park, Kilgore Falls is one of the top draws,” Hangen says. “It’s pretty and the pictures attract a lot of people. People come from quite some distance—New Jersey, New York, Virginia. Social media has kind of spurred its popularity, as well as lots of news articles, so we’ve done this to kind of manage the visitation and the visitor experience. We don’t like turning people away at the front gate.”
If you are looking for a real challenge, seek out Cedar Run Falls in Shenandoah National Park. The falls are accessible via several trails, but all offer challenges in the form of big elevation changes, making for a strenuous hike (and a nice reward, even with chilly water). The Cedar Run Trail also offers additional fun in the form of a natural waterslide carved into the rock.
If you want to take a dip, visit Gunpowder Falls State Park. (Parking is available on both sides of U.S. 1 near 10092 Belair Road, Kingsville). While this may be a bit of a stretch of the definition of waterfall (as it’s mostly a cascading river), its location adjacent to a fabulous swimming hole makes it perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day. This spot offers multiple options for hikes, with varying lengths and levels of difficulty, ranging from as short as two miles to nearly six. All of them offer beautiful views of lush forest scenery along the way. Check the trail map in the parking lot to plan your route and keep an eye out for the colored trail blaze marks to find your way.
If you’re seeking big-time free-falling water, head to Muddy Creek Falls in Swallow Falls State Park. At 54-feet, it’s the largest free-falling waterfall in the state, and makes for some pretty, breathtaking images. The park is about two-and-a-half hours from Frederick, but offers enough for a packed day trip, or even a whole weekend of fun outdoor activity.
“Swallow Falls is phenomenal,” Johnson says. “It’s a really pretty scenic trail, and you can climb out onto the rocks. It’s almost like Great Falls [in McLean, Va.]—the water is going really fast as it goes down.”
If you want the most bang for your buck, visit Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania. While it’s a bit of a trek — about three hours away — the Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen State Park features a whopping 21 waterfalls if you do the full 7.2-mile loop (a shorter version of 3.2 miles is still full of waterfalls), including some you can wade near.
“It’s the Grand Canyon waterfall of this area,” Johnson says, meaning it’s a crown jewel for waterfall enthusiasts. “Every waterfall is different: you have tiny dripping ones and really tall ones, but every one looks different.”