Length: About 170 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Best between May and October.
Not to be missed: The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, from Cumberland to Frostburg and back.
Nearby attractions: Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Harpers Ferry, WV. City of Washington, DC.
Further information: Allegheny County Visitor Bureau, Madison St. and Harrison St., Cumberland, MD 21502; tel. 800-508-4748, www.mdmountainside.com
1. Swallow Falls State Park
Lured a century or so ago by blue-green mountains, cool forests, and swift, icy rivers, the well-to-do of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., built grand homes in and around Oakland, where the drive begins. Here they lolled away the summers with chilled lemonade and leisurely strolls. Many of their opulent homes still stand—mostly gingerbread Victorian in style—east of Oakland in the little town of Mountain Lake Park.
To get a sense of the unspoiled territory that first attracted these urban bluebloods, meander northwest from Oakland on Herrington Manor Road to Swallow Falls State Park. In the midst of this leafy paradise, serene Muddy Creek splashes over a rock ledge framed by mountain laurels, maples, hickories, and rhododendrons. Trails wander along sandstone cliffs beside the furious Youghiogheny River, whose rapids—with such knee-knocking nicknames as Triple Drop, Meat Cleaver, and Double Pencil Sharpener—are to many rafters a dream come true.
2. Deep Creek Lake State Park
Heading east on Swallow Falls Road, follow signs to Rte. 219 and then motor north to Deep Creek Lake, tucked among steep, forested slopes. This outdoor wonderland—and the 1,800-acre state park that lines its eastern shore—beckons sailors and water-skiers. Anglers come to entice walleye, and hikers tromp along trails that wind through groves of cherries, oaks, and sugar maples. In winter cross-country skiers glide beside the frozen lake past ice fishermen bundled up against the cold.
3. The Cove Overlook
Passing the high-steepled church in the town of Accident, Rte. 219 comes upon a picturesque pocket of farmland surrounded by the Alleghenies. Stop at The Cove Overlook to savor the tranquillity of this fertile valley fenced in by mountain peaks. Once reaching as high as the Alps, the Alleghenies—part of the Appalachian chain that stitches the eastern coast from Quebec to Alabama—are now relatively modest in size, softened and rounded by the elements over millions of years. The road winds north among these ancient mountains to the rugged summit of Keysers Ridge, where Rte. 40A veers east to Grantsville beneath the branches of oaks, hickories, and birches.
Chestnut-colored horses pull sleek black carriages through the streets of Grantsville, a mountain village populated mostly by Amish and Mennonites since the 1800s. A walk through the pleasant downtown brings you to the Casselman Hotel, a historic roadside inn with gleaming woodwork, a fireplace in every room, and the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from the inn’s on-site bakery.
Nearby at Penn Alps, a center that encourages local craft traditions, Amish people clad in black and white sell handwoven baskets, homemade apple butter, and colorful patchwork quilts. Next door at the Spruce Forest Artisan Village, a renowned whittler turns chunks of wood into graceful bird carvings that, from a distance, look like they just might fly away and join their real-life counterparts.
5. New Germany State Park
Farther along on Rte. 40A, a turn to the south leads to New Germany State Park, a comely patch of wilderness—with winding trails, hilly woods, and a trout-stocked lake—that showcases the seasons to perfection. In summer an emerald canopy of cherry, oak, and hickory trees shades these gentle slopes, until the days begin to shorten and gold and scarlet spread like wildfire across the hillsides. All too soon, an icy, arctic breeze blows the last leaves off the trees, a prelude to the blizzards that roar across the silent land, dumping so much snow—over 100 inches a year—that it lasts well past winter. Only in April or May do the rhododendrons and mountain laurels begin to show their pink and white blooms, acknowledging the arrival of spring.
6. National Road
All the way to Cumberland, Rte. 40A traces the well-trodden route of the old National Road, an ancient footpath first forged by Native Americans, then traipsed by explorers and militiamen into the unmapped lands beyond the Appalachians. This historic route was designated a National Scenic Byway in 2003. In the early 1800s the government—wanting to open up its untamed western territory—widened the path, paved it with broken stone, and dubbed it the nation’s first federal road (it was generally known as the Pike). In no time long lines of covered wagons, their holds chock-full of pioneers yearning for a better life, churned westward toward Oregon and Santa Fe, joining herds of teamsters and stagecoach riders on the slow, bumpy trek. Mementos of that era include the crumbling stone mile markers scattered here and there along the roadside, the tiny village of Frostburg—which grew up around a cluster of taverns, smithies, and inns that served travelers plying the National Road—and in the town of LaVale, an old brick tollhouse.
Beyond La Vale the road squeezes between the sheer 1,000-foot bluffs of Cumberland Narrows, then slides into Cumberland, an alluring town of historic red-brick buildings nestled in the mountains. Here in the early 1750s, George Washington, as a young lieutenant in the French and Indian War (his cabin stands in Riverside Park), dreamed of a magnificent canal that would carry goods between the frontier and the coast. He never had the chance to build it, but the idea took form in 1828, when President John Quincy Adams broke ground (and, some say, the shovel) in Washington, D.C., and work was begun on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal operated for nearly a century, its husky mules plodding beside the waterway with low-slung boats in tow. But the mules and canal boats were no match for the sleek engines of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (the nation’s first), which came barreling up and over the mountains and eventually signaled the demise of the canal in 1924 after parts of it fell victim to flood damage. Today, the last lock to be built before all hopes for the canal were dashed stands down by the Potomac in Cumberland and has been transformed into Canal Place, commemorating the C & O Canal’s terminus. It also has been designated Maryland’s first certified heritage area. Throughout the summer season, here you’ll be able to participate in a variety of activities including canal boat replica tours, scenic rail excursions, and festivals, culminating in the largest: CanalFest. It’s also a welcome boon for the hikers, cyclists, and joggers who swarm to its scenic towpath—now part of a national historical park that meanders for more than 180 miles, all the way to Washington, D.C., along the old, leaf-shaded waterway. Plans in the future call for restoring a section of the canal itself and offering boat rides from the rewatered terminus of the C & O canal.
8. Sideling Hill
From Green Ridge State Forest, the drive follows Rte. 40A to the town of Piney Grove, where it joins Rte. 40/68 and heads into Sideling Hill. When road workers blasted into the hilly landscape here in 1984 to make way for the highway, the resulting gash revealed eons of geological history. Among the lessons imparted here is how the mountain came to be—how, 230 million years ago, the continental plates of North America and Africa rammed into each other like a slow-motion car crash, their impact crumpling the land to create a mountain range. Also discovered here were the fossil remains of brachiopods left behind by an inland sea, and traces of swamp ferns dating from the days of the dinosaurs. These and other treasures are on display at the three-story exhibit center.
Ahead, the mountains melt into hills as the road enters the heart of Maryland’s farm country. Old stone houses and classic red barns dot the velvet-green fields, and the hillsides are clad with fruit trees.
9. Fort Frederick State Park
Reached via a short side trip on Rte. 56, Fort Frederick is the sole survivor of a long line of sturdy forts that were sprinkled along the length of the Maryland Panhandle in the 1700s. Their purpose was to keep encroaching French colonists and their Indian allies away from the settlers trying to carve homesteads out of the wilderness. Fort Frederick, a great stone structure poised above the Potomac River, has massive walls 17 feet high and 4 feet thick. Inside the barracks uncomfortable iron beds and plain stone walls evoke the nearly monastic austerity of a soldier’s life in the old days. The fort—serving variously as a strategic supply base, a refuge for settlers, and a prisoner-of-war camp—figured in three major conflicts of U.S. history: the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.
To continue the drive, take Rte. 56 west and then turn north at Big Pool to Indian Springs. From there take Rte. 40 east through rolling green countryside and pastures to Hagerstown.
More than two centuries ago, a young, starry-eyed German named Jonathan Hager followed his true love (so it is said) across the Atlantic Ocean to America. They married and settled in the middle of the wilderness in a limestone house with a great stone fireplace. Young Hager named the village that grew up around them Elizabeth Town, though everyone else called it Hager’s Town. Their old house—furnished with buffalo hides, split-oak baskets, and other frontier decor—still stands today as a reminder of the depth of the region’s historic past.
Several miles east of town—via Rtes. 64 and 77—lies Catoctin Mountain Park, which harbors one of the nation’s most carefully guarded enclaves—Camp David. Unless you’re the president, you probably won’t visit this secluded mountain retreat, which Franklin D. Roosevelt christened Shangri-la. But you can still enjoy the dense woods, intriguing nature trails, and trout-filled streams, and feel the cool breezes that surround it.
From Hagerstown the drive rambles south on Rte. 65 past farms, hollows, and waving fields of corn to Sharpsburg, a friendly village today that abuts a grim reminder of the Civil War.
11. Antietam National Battlefield
Wooded hilltops and murmuring streams belie the horrors that unfolded on this notorious battlefield throughout the hours of September 17, 1862—the bloodiest day of conflict in any American war. On that fateful day, during the first Confederate invasion of the North, forces of the North and South clashed at three different sites: in a cornfield, along a sunken road (later dubbed Bloody Lane), and on a graceful bridge. The confrontations resulted in no tactical gain or loss for either side—no loss, that is, except for the 23,000 men who lay dead or wounded around the smoldering, smoking battleground. You can learn all about the somber event at the modern visitor center and perhaps take a driving tour of the historic battlefield.
From Sharpsburg follow Rte. 34 northeast to Crystal Grottoes, a cavern with walkways that snake through intriguing underground limestone formations. Boonsboro, a bit farther along Rte. 34, is said to have been founded by relatives of Daniel Boone. From the center of town, Rte. 40A leads southeast to Washington Monument State Park.
12. Washington Monument State Park
Somewhat obscured by foliage and squat in shape, this Washington Monument looks to some like an ugly stepsister of the tall, sleek obelisk that graces the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But the juglike stone structure that sits atop South Mountain in Washington Monument State Park nonetheless boasts a distinction: it was the first memorial ever built to honor the nation’s first president, and it embodies the pride and patriotism of an entire town and its surrounding region. On the Fourth of July in 1827—51 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence—nearly every citizen of Boonsboro marched two miles up the mountainside and, one by one, laid each stone in its proper place. An inner staircase climbs the 34-foot tower to a marvelous perch that takes in miles of gentle hills and valleys. You can enjoy a picnic in the park or hike on one of its trails before continuing east on Rte. 40A into the historic city of Frederick; the Appalachian Trail passes through the park, part of a path through many of the Eastern states.
Rolling farmland surrounds the city of Frederick, a bustling commercial hub and college town with gracious Federal town houses and spired churches that exude an appealing, old-fashioned charm.
On tree-shaded West Patrick Street, you’ll find the old red-brick home of Barbara Fritchie, the fiery, then-95-year-old patriot who, legend says, defiantly flew the Stars and Stripes in the face of the invading Southern general Stonewall Jackson and his rebel horde in 1862. Her actions on that day were imortalized in verse, according to poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who gave voice to Fritchie’s fervent exclamation:
“ ‘Shoot if you must this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.”
Visibly shamed, Jackson then shouted to his soldiers:
“Who touches a hair on yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!”
Today Barbara Fritchie’s spirit is also memorialized in a museum displaying her furniture, quilts, china, and other relics that evoke life in 19th-century Maryland.
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