Reality Camping - My Family Travels

Everything you need to know about camping with the family, and how to get started in a nearby park so you can practice before your national park expedition.

I have a confession to make. I used to love camping – the more primitive and remote, the better. But, now that I am older with children, it is becoming more and more of a challenge. Just when the children crave the experience the most, I find arranging it has become increasingly cumbersome. Traveling with your kids in general is challenging enough – but camping?

Don't get me wrong – I love sharing such experiences with my kids, but as many parents know, the primary terrors of embarking on a journey of this caliber include, but are not limited to:

• An excruciatingly long drive where an inexplicable dimensional warp causes time to pass more slowly under the asymmetric gravitational pull of hyper-undulating and compulsively arguing bodies.

• The inability to address the high-maintenance bathroom requirements of an easily soiled family with the standard array of bodily orifices.

• The inevitable absence of necessary housewares and sundries, not available within driving distance of your campsite.

I wanted my kids to have the same enriching experiences I had when I was a youth (now I know why my parents sent me camping under the care of others.) First, I reminded myself that what the kids consider camping is not the same as what I might consider camping. Put another way, one need not venture far into the wilderness or deprive oneself of civilized comforts to enjoy the woods, nature, a tent and a campfire.

Close To Home Campsites

I remembered the most popular park from my childhood, then a wilderness, was only one hour away from Washington, DC or Baltimore, ideal for a low maintenance weekend getaway. Known as the Cunningham Falls State Park and Catoctin Mountain Park, the park is now in the proximity of an interstate but has all the creature comforts while still feeling like your days away from the big city.

Although this park is in Maryland, I am confident my type of experience is available to most denizens of major metropolitan areas around the country if they know where to look.

The parks are located next to the small town of Thurmont in the vicinity of Camp David, the famous yet secretive presidential hideaway in Frederick County. Not only is this retreat thriving, but it has evolved into a flagship park of the Maryland State Park system, requiring reservations for peak summer weekends, especially for the more secluded sites. The primary camping area, called the Houck Area, is the most popular because it is sited near the manmade lake providing a self-contained fishing, boating and swimming haven with a sand beach. The summer heat is noticeable but the region is still mountain-like enough to offer some cool in the evenings.

During busy summer weekends, consider camping in the park's other more secluded camping region, the Manor Area. Although the lake is too far to walk, you will definitely savor the peace and quiet compared to the boisterous, good-natured lake crowd. Both camping areas have hot water bathhouses and well water faucets. Some have electrical hook-up for RVs. The National Park Service camping areas are a tad more rustic (not necessarily a bad thing) but reservations aren't as conveniently automated.

Settling Into Your Campsite

Once you have set up camp, your children will feel like the Davie Crocketts. If you are in the Manor Area, send the kids over to the picnic and playground area where a newly constructed state-of-the-art recycled tire playground and obstacle course will keep them thoroughly occupied while you set up camp. As a parent you will appreciate that everything you and your children need for a hassle-free camping experience is available within walking or very quick driving distance; whether it be a supermarket, convenience store or restaurant. I was able to purchase milk and fresh meat for a campfire dinner at the local grocery store instead of bringing it in a cooler and risking spoilage. In fact, most food items are best purchased locally, which makes packing and planning that much easier.

True to my earlier caveat, I realized I had forgotten to pack, of all things, the children's' sleeping bags. They were about 30-years-old and left over from my wife's childhood (she never throws anything out), so I thought I would upgrade the mysteriously musty flannel to new synthetics. Instead of mumbling epithets under my breath, I was able to drive to a Wal-Mart 20 minutes north on the interstate and purchased two new ones for $10 each. While I was there I collected a few other odds and ends, including a propane cylinder for the lantern, a bottle of wine for after the kids go to sleep and a carry-out dinner – all completed in exactly one hour. I was beginning to like camping all over again.

Spontaneous Move From Camp To Motel

Later, during a heavy rain, eating at a nearby restaurant was far more appealing than trying to grill over a campfire. When we returned to the tent, we found a leak (mandatory occurrence for any camping trip) had soaked some of the sleeping bags. Since spontaneity is the hallmark of a family outdoor adventure, we decided to sleep at a motel. This turned out to be just as much fun for the kids (and therefore us) as the camping and created another family ritual which has come to be called a "hotel party.

Your Camp As Basecamp

When the time comes to explore and enjoy the park's natural amenities, the opportunities are as convenient as they are numerous. On weekends, do not plan on driving to the lake, because there will be traffic jams. Instead, the less crowded Manor Area offers opportunities for more nature-oriented activities such as hiking the trails and exploring the streams. Some of their pools are hot tub-deep for soaking but without the "hot" which is more satiating in steamy August. Begin by walking to the new Manor Visitor Center next to the recycled tire play area and take some brochures, especially a trail map of the whole park system which provides all your points of interest, including the Houck Area and lake, as well as the National Park Service Catoctin Mountain Park area.

From the Visitor Center, walk to the end of the driveway to a loop parking area and the very comfortable Catoctin Furnace Trail paralleling Little Hunting Creek – the place to dunk yourself in the refreshing rocky pools before moving on. Proceeding farther will take you back in time one hundred years and more across an ornate, antique wrought iron pedestrian bridge over a scenic portion of the creek. Nearby are the ruins of the 200-year-old Catoctin Iron Furnace and the remnants of the caretakers residence. Partially overgrown with vegetation and accessible by boardwalk, the scene is oddly reminiscent of Central American ruins. The nearby Furnace, with a picnic area, was once a booming industrial community for Frederick County.

Details, Details

The park is easily located on a map (or the yellow page directories in the common Internet portals) and is located 20 minutes north of the City of Frederick next to Maryland Route 15, an hour north of Washington, DC and an hour west of Baltimore. For more information, contact:

Cunningham Falls State Park
14039 Catoctin Hollow Road, Thurmont, MD 21788
The web site also has maps of entire park areas and main campground.
Reservations: 888/432-CAMP (2267)

Catoctin Mountain Park
6602 Foxville Road, Thurmont MD 21788

Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo
13019 Catoctin Furnace Road, Thurmont, MD 21788


Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.