In northern Maryland, just a little more than a one-hour drive outside of Baltimore, are two parks that are adjacent to each other. Catoctin Mountain Park is managed by the National Park Service, and Cunningham Falls State Park is managed, obviously, by the state of Maryland. The beautiful mountain setting of these parks provides photographers with opportunities to capture a cascading waterfall, mountain streams, beautiful rocks, scenic vistas, and captivating forests. These parks are also only about 25 south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Cunningham Falls is a 78-foot cascading waterfall that is the main feature of the state park named after it. Cunningham Falls State Park also includes a man-made lake with a small beach, and a few different hiking trails. There are multiple trails that can be used to reach the falls, and you can actually reach the falls with a hike that starts in Catoctin Mountain Park (more about that trail in a minute). All of the trails in both Cunningham Falls State Park and Catoctin Mountain Park are very rocky and uneven with changes in elevation.
Trails in Cunningham Falls State Park
The easiest way to reach the falls is to use the Lower Trail, which starts at a parking lot near the lake and leads about 0.5 miles to the base of the falls. The Lower Trail is a fairly easy hike. The Cliff Trail is a more challenging 0.75 mile hike with greater change in elevation. It also leads from the parking lot to the falls.
The end of the Lower Trail leads you on a boardwalk to a small viewing platform.
Although the falls are 78-feet high, from the viewing platform it is challenging to see and photograph the top of the falls. The falls are best photographed on cloudy or overcast days. On sunny days, like the one when I was there, the sun reflecting off the rocks and the deep shadows from the rocks and trees make it challenging to photograph.
Trails in Catoctin Mountain Park
You can also reach the falls by way of a hike through Catoctin Mountain Park. The Falls Nature Trail begins across the street from the park visitor’s center. The address of the visitor’s center is below:
14707 Park Central Road
Thurmont, MD 21788
This trail is about 1.4 miles each way. It is a pretty easy hike, but it is slightly more challenging on the way out to the falls and slightly easier returning back to the visitor’s center. This is a really nice trail through the forest, and the trail provides photo opportunities that are just as good as the falls. The only bad part is that the trail runs fairly close to Route 77, so you can see and hear the road for basically the entire hike.
Towards the end the trail you will cross the street and at this point you will be entering Cunningham Falls State Park. The last 0.2 of a mile are on a boardwalk and lead to a small viewing platform. You’ll have a different view from this platform than you will have from the Lower Trail, but the viewing platforms are close to each other (on opposite sides of the creek). From the platform of the Falls Nature Trail you will have some trees that partially obstruct the view of the falls. The platform is not extremely close to the falls, so you’ll want a lens with a focal length of at least 100mm in order to avoid photographing some ugly signs and fencing.
Catoctin Mountain Park has a lot more to offer than just the trail to the falls. There are a few other trails and several scenic vistas that give you a nice view. In my opinion, the best photo opportunity of the scenic vistas is at Chimney Rock.
To reach Chimney Rock you can take a loop trail that begins and ends at the visitor’s center. It is around a 4 mile loop hike. This trail also takes you past Wolf Rock. There is no view of the surrounding area at Wolf Rock, but it is an interesting rock formation. This is a very large rock formation with trees growing in some places.
It’s also possible to reach Chimney Rock and Wolf Rock without doing the full loop hike. There is a parking lot at these GPS coordinates: 39.625964, -77.440977
Park there and cross the street. The park headquarters is directly across the street. Instead of walking into the parking lot of the headquarters, look to your left and there is the start of a trail beside. This trail leads up to Chimney Rock, and then on to Wolf Rock. If that’s as far as you want to go, you can turn around at Wolf Rock. I think this is about a 1.5 mile hike to Wolf Rock, and then the same thing on the way back. It cuts off a bit as compared to the loop hike. The trail is uphill most of the way to Chimney Rock either way you go.
The other scenic vistas include Hog Rock, Blue Ridge Summit Overlook, and Thurmont Vista. Both the Hog Rock Trail and the Blue Ridge Summit Trail begin at the Hog Rock parking lot, which is located on Park Central Road. From the visitor’s center you would turn right (north) onto Park Central Road and drive a short distance to reach the Hog Rock parking lot. Hog Rock is about a 1 mile loop hike, and the Blue Ridge Summit Trail is about 0.6 miles round trip.
Parking for the Thurmont Vista Trail is about 1 mile north of the visitor’ center on Park Central Road (between the visitor’s center and the Hog Rock parking). It is about 1 mile out and back to Thurmont Vista, or you can take the longer Thurmont Vista Loop Trail, which turns it into about a 3 mile trail.
Aside from the trails, you can also park and photograph Big Hunting Creek, which runs along Rout 77. It’s a beautiful creek that is ideal for photographing.
All photos in this post were processed with the Landscape Legend Lightroom Presets. Learn more about how Landscape Legend can help you to save time and process your photos more effectively.
Here is a quick look at some recommended gear to have with you at Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park.
You’ll definitely want a tripod for photographing the falls. Not only will you be shooting from a shaded area, but you may also want to use long exposures to blur the falling water. Since a hike is required in order to reach the falls you will want to have a lightweight tripod that is easy to carry. Because the trails are in the forest and heavily shaded, you’re likely to need a tripod even for photographing along the trails. I use and recommend a carbon fiber tripod from Sirui.
Wide Angle Lens
You won’t need a wide angle lens for photographing the falls because the observation platforms are set back a ways. Instead, you may want a telephoto lens. I’d recommend having something in the 100-200mm range. The telephoto lens can also come in handy for photographing details of the forest along the trails.
The polarizer can help for photographing the falls, as well as creating deep blue skies with more contrast when you are photographing from the scenic vistas.
Neutral Density Filter
If you want to slow down your shutter speed to blue the water of the waterfall, a neutral density filter will come in handy. Because of the shade, you won’t need a strong/thick ND filter. Something like a 0.9 ND filter will do.
Remote Shutter Release
Anytime you are photographing from a tripod it can help to have a remoter shutter release. Even the slightest motion from pressing the shutter button can add a little blurriness to photos, but you can avoid that with a remote shutter release.
Landscape Legend Lightroom Presets
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