Catoctin Mountain Park

Catoctin Mountain Park


Natural Features & Ecosystems

There are many unique natural features that can be discovered within the boundaries of Catoctin Mountain Park. Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Catoctin supports outstanding examples of fresh water streams, eastern hardwood forest, and geologic formations. Continue further to learn more about the natural features of the park. 

Wetlands, Marshes and Swamps

Wetlands are areas that are periodically saturated with water. Commonly referred to as marshes, swamps, or bogs these areas are a transition between terrestrial and aquatic systems. Wetlands serve very important functions. They provide habitat for wildlife, assist in flood and erosion control, and recharge groundwater and stream flow. Their vegetation filters out impurities in water and traps sediment that could choke out aquatic life in streams. To qualify as a wetland under federal regulations, a wetland must meet three criteria. First, it must have hydric soils. Soils exhibit hydric characteristics when they are waterlogged for at least one to two weeks per year. Second, more than 50% of the area's plants must be designated as wetland plants. Third, it must possess signs of hydrology. Hydrology signs include drift lines, flow patterns, or debris in trees as a result of flooding. The presence of water within 18" of the soil surface is also a indicator of hydrology. At Catoctin there are 18 wetland areas covering nearly 143 acres of the park. Most of these wetlands are located alongside, or in close proximity to, streams.

Lakes and Ponds

Due to the lay of the land, there are no natural lakes or ponds at Catoctin Mountain Park. Some areas adjacent to streams support small intermittent ponds, but these have a tendency to disappear during drought conditions. Adjacent to the park is Hunting Creek Lake. Managed by Cunningham Falls State Park, the 75 acre man-made lake is a popular place for swimming, boating, and fishing.


The soils of Catoctin have been characterized in the Soil Survey of Frederick County as primarily rough, stony land. In general, they are well drained, poorly developed soils containing numerous stones and boulders throughout their profile. The soils in the eastern portion of the park are thin, sandy loams formed from the erosion of the Weverton quartzite. They are highly permeable and well-drained. The soils of the western side of the park were derived from metavolcanic rock and are deeper, moister, and contain more nutrients.

In 1998 a comprehensive soil survey was done by USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service . This survey was accomplished by digging small holes to study the soil profile, which is the sequence of natural layers, or horizons, in a soil. Soil textures, color, particle size, and other features also helped classify the soil types. Each kind of soil is associated with a particular kind of landform or with a segment of the landform. By observing soils and their relationships with the landforms the scientists were able to develop a model that would predict, with a considerable degree of accuracy, the kind of soil at a location. This method allowed nearly 5,810 acres of soils to be surveyed, classified, and mapped in a relatively short time.

Geologic Formations

Catoctin is part of the ancient Appalachian Mountains that were formed 250 million years ago. Geologically speaking, these mountains are very old and worn due to erosion over time. Most of the rock visible in Catoctin dates from the Precambrian or Cambrian times (500 million years ago or more) and was formed from a lava flow of molten rock. This cooled and was then covered by sea-bottom sediment. Next, the heat and pressure of mountain building changed the original lava into a metabasalt.Younger rocks were once present, lying on top of the rock we see today, but over millions of years they have been eroded away by wind, rain, running water and ice. A few thousand feet below Catoctin remains an intrusive granite basement rock that is over one billion years old. Rough outcrops of weathered metamorphic rocks, primarily Weverton quartzite and Catoctin Greenstone, typify the geology of Catoctin. These tough materials provide a protective cap for the mountains, and can be easily viewed at Chimney Rock, Wolf Rock, and Hog Rock. In the eastern half of the park at Chimney Rock and Wolf Rock, the rocks have been metamorphosed into a hard, weather-resistant rock called quartzite. This area is part of the Weverton Formation. The Weverton Formation, named for its formation near the town of Weverton, is the main ridge-making formation in the eastern mountains in Maryland. The formation is composed of quartz cemented together by a secondary, less developed quartz. At Chimney Rock there are also numerous joints (fractures) in the rock. Melting water that filled spaces then froze and expanded breaking away pieces of rock, a process known as frost wedging, formed these joints. At Hog Rock, located in the center of the park, the Catoctin metabasalt formation is the bedrock. This metabasalt is dark greenish-gray metamorphosed igneous rock, which is highly resistant to weathering. It is known as the Catoctin Greenstone. Thurmont Vista is a good place to observe a geologic occurrence in the landscape. More than 180 million years ago a great border fault occurred when the area now occupied by the valley slid down about one mile, probably over millions of years, from the area now occupied by the mountain top. The Loudoun formation lies between the Weaverton and Catoctin formations on the slope to the east of park Central Road and Catoctin Hollow Road. This formation is composed of conglomerate (a sedimentary rock of irregularly sized gravel) and phyllite (metamorphosed shale). The Loudoun formation is less resistant to weathering and has worn away to create a valley between the two hills of more resistant rock. Park Central Road north of the Visitor Center, follows part of this eroded valley. Catoctin's geology was of great importance to Native Americans and early European settlers. Running through the western portion of the park is a zone of metavolcanic rock called metarhyolite. This dark blue-gray rock was used by Native Americans for creating projectile points and tools. Tools made of Catoctin metarhyolite have been found as far away as the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Iron ore was found at the base of the mountains by early settlers. Between 1776 to 1903, the Catoctin Furnace heated the iron ore along with charcoal and limestone to produce nearly pure iron. This was the first important industry in the Mechanicstown, or Thurmont area.


he park is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains which are part of the larger chain of mountains known as the Appalachain Mountains. The Blue Ridge Mountains stretch 500 miles from Georgia to a point just north of Catoctin Mountain Park. Catoctin Mountain Park, along with neighboring Cunningham Falls State Park, Gambrill State Park, and Frederick and Thurmont Watersheds, are part of the area known as Catoctin Mountain. Catoctin Mountain forms the easternmost section of the Blue Ridge and extends 50 miles from Emmitsburg, Maryland to Leesburg, Virginia. The mountainous terrain of the park makes for several steep, strenuous trails that offer rewarding views to those that are up to the challenge. High points within Catoctin Mountain Park include Thurmont Vista, Chimney Rock, and the highest overlook, Hog Rock.

Catoctin Mountain Park lies within the mountainous area known as the Blue Ridge Province. This 5,810-acre hardwood forest park with its refreshing streams and scenic vistas, offers a rare haven in a rapidly developing area of the country.

However, Catoctin Mountain Park hasn't always looked this way. In the 18th and 19th centuries the land now known as Catoctin was extensively logged to support local agriculture practices and to produce charcoal for the nearby iron works furnace. In 1933 the land was set aside as the Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area with its purpose being to rehabilitate "sub-marginal" farmland.

In 1954 the Recreation Demonstration Area was divided, with half of the area becoming Cunningham Falls State Park and the remaining half becoming Catoctin Mountain Park. This venture, known as the Catoctin Project, was an example of a cooperative effort between State and Federal officials. Since then, the land has rejuvenated itself, transforming a disturbed environment into an excellent model of a second growth forest ecosystem.

Today, a mixed hardwood forest covers nearly 95% of the park. Catoctin Mountain Park is also part of a larger forested public lands complex that includes Cunningham Falls State Park, Frederick and Thurmont Watersheds, and Gambrill State Park. Many plants and animals, including several Maryland Threatened and Endangered species, thrive within this forest sanctuary. The high gradient streams, Big Hunting Creek and Owens Creek, run clean and support healthy populations of brown and brook trout. Catoctin Mountain Park is a very diverse place that offers respite to the plants and animals that depend on its existence. Its peaceful environment also provides a needed escape from the everyday hustle and bustle of city life for all people, including, on occassion, the President of the United States.


Nearly 95% of Catoctin Mountain Park is covered with forest, but this hasn't always been the case. Before this land became part of the National Park System it had been extensively logged for agricultural and charcoal making practices. The mountains were interlaced with logging roads-Park Central Road follows what used to be an old logging road. Frank Mentzer, former superintendent of the park, said “In 1936 there was barely a tree over the size of a fence post.” When this area became a park and these practices stopped, the forest was allowed to regenerate. Natural tree regeneration was helped by the Civilian Conservation Corps who planted more than 5000 trees in 1939 and 1940! Today’s forest at Catoctin is a secondary succession forest. This means that the forest is still regenerating towards a climax, or final, old growth forest. Most of the park’s area contains a mixture of oaks, hickories, maple, and tulip poplar. Officially, the forest is classified as a Mid-latitude Deciduous Forest. This type of forest is relatively rare in that it turns beautiful, vibrant colors and sheds its leaves in the fall, then bursts forth with new growth in the spring. At one time the American Chestnut tree was a dominant tree found in the Catoctin forest. Unfortunatly, in 1906 a fungus was acccidentaly introduced from eastern Asian infested chestnut trees into the New York City area. The fungus spread quickly and attacked American chestnuts throughout the country. The disease reached the Catoctins in about 1912 and by the 1940's had killed most of the large chestnut trees. Today chestnuts exist only in the forest understory, primarily as root shoots. By the time they reach about 20 feet in height the blight attacks them. Other types of trees that can be found include cherry, ash, sassafras, elm, butternut, locust, walnut, hemlock, white pine, and table mountain pine.