This time of year brings back fond memories of end-of-school trips during my daughter, Rachel’s middle school years. For three years we have always chosen Cunningham Falls State Park for tent camping, swimming, hiking, climbing the falls, and having interesting encounters with deer, raccoons, and other wildlife. . The cast was still me as the single parent, Rachel, and the school friend of her choice that year. (My wife touted this arrangement as a bonding experience, and it was, in fact. But we also suspected she wanted to avoid the tent.)
Over the seasons and years there have been many family day trips to Cunningham Falls and our family’s “sacred mountain” in adjacent Catoctin Mountain Park. Like most Marylanders, we viewed the two parks as one entity, but the state park offers abundant blessings in its own right.
Cunningham Falls is open 8:00 a.m. until sunset through October (10:00 a.m. until sunset November through March). The park advises entering before 10 a.m. on peak days before parking areas fill up and people have to be turned away. The William Houck area is accessible via State Route 77, the Manor area via US Route 15.
Day admission fees for the Houck area, Memorial Day through Labor Day, are as follows: weekends and holidays, $5 for residents of Maryland, $7 for residents outside of ‘State ; weekdays $3 for Maryland residents, $5 for out-of-state residents. For the Manor area, the fee is $3 per vehicle for Maryland residents and $5 per vehicle for out-of-state residents.
On entering the William Houck area there are two demarcated areas for swimming with sandy beaches with firm, sandy bottoms. There are public baths for changing, a playground and other amenities. Lifeguards are on duty from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Picnic tables, grills and open grassy areas are available on a first-come, first-served basis for picnicking near the lake in the Houck area. Food trucks are sometimes available.
Picnic tables and grills are also available in the Manoir area. A picnic shelter that can accommodate up to 150 people is available by reservation.
The 43 acre lake is easily accessible. Before entering the Houck area along Catoctin Hollow Road just off Route 77 you can park at the Dam Overlook Lot on the right and fish from the shore along the base of the dam and a little along the eastern shore. A little further down this road is the entrance to a parking lot with a boat launch and an accessible fishing pier. Almost any small Coast Guard-approved 3-chamber boat, canoe, kayak, paddleboard, or inflatable can be launched for an honor system fee of $3 per vehicle for residents of Maryland, 5 $ for non-residents. Electric motors are permitted; gasoline engines are prohibited. Again, inshore fishing can be found in this area.
Once you enter the Houck area, other shore fishing spots are available, but fishing and boating are not permitted in the park’s swimming areas.
Good trout trout fishing occurs with heavy stocking of trout in early spring. Bait fishing and trolling various small lures and flies are the preferred methods. As the waters warm, the surviving stocked trout move to deeper, cooler waters and can be caught with deep fished lures and bait, but the lake is reverting to standard fishing for the largemouth bass, bluegill / pumpkinseed including some heavy shellfish, crappie and catfish. It’s my favorite bluegill lake, and now it’s prime time.
I caught some good surface lures for bass fishing, spinnerbaits and plastics from the shore at the base of the dam. This area also offers good spring fishing for bluegills using fly rod poppers and tiny jigs under a float.
But most inshore fishing is restricted by shrubs, so smaller craft, including floats, provide access to more waters and fish. I like to fish the east shore from the ramp to the dam and along the base of the dam using a kayak or rowboat and cast bugs and harlequin flies under the overhanging trees. I recommend a 5-6 weight fly rod with float line to fish these lures, but light tackle with a casting float will also work.
Trolling, rowing, paddle, electric motor or breeze fishing is an ideal way to spot and capture all species here. You can effectively cover the entire fishing area of the lake by drawing breaklines from the shores to the center of the lake. Use small to medium crankbaits, jigs with curlytail plastics and fitted beetle spins to run just above bottoms and over sunken weed beds. These weed beds can be particularly productive. Stop and fancast where you get the action.
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Camping is available until October. The William Houck area contains 106 basic tent sites ($21.50 per day), 33 electrically hooked up sites for RVs ($27.50 per day) and a small number of cabins with limited amenities (50, $50 to $65.50 per day). The Manor area offers more solitude with 23 basic tent sites and eight sites with electric hook-ups for RVs. Both sites have fire pits, flush toilets and hot showers.
One must reserve. Call 888-432-2267 or go online at: parkreservations.Maryland.gov.
There are hiking trails throughout the state park and even more in Catoctin categorized by length and difficulty. Take these assessments seriously and know your limits. And take plenty of water.
Cunningham Falls (aka McAfee Falls):
Even in a summer drought, the 78-foot cascading Cunningham Falls are worth the short hike from the William Houck area. A boardwalk accessible from Route 77 goes directly to the base of the falls.
Visiting the park last Friday, I was delighted to see a father-daughter tradition continue.
See more details at: https://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/Pages/western/cunningham.aspx