Catoctin Mountain Park

Catoctin Mountain Park

Natural World

Environmental Factors

There are many environmental factors, natural and human caused, that affect Catoctin Mountain Park. Situated at the tail end of the Blue Ridge mountains, the park is within 60 miles of Washington D.C. and in close proximity to other large cities. Being close to urban areas can have negative affects on the parks resources. Air and water quality has potential to be degraded from industrial pollution, smog, and acid rain. Other concerns are noise pollution and loss of the scenic night sky due to artificial lighting sources. What effect will these factors have on Catoctin’s natural and scenic environment? The National Park Service is challenged to protect “resources unimpaired for present and future generations”, so therefore must be prepared to deal with these issues. There are also many natural factors that can alter, stress, or in some instances enhance the environment. Changes in weather (droughts or floods) can stress vegetation and animals, dry up wetlands, springs and seeps. Fire can scorch acres of forest and leave behind blackened earth, but at the same time encourage tree regeneration and seed germination. Damage from storms can weaken trees, making them more vulnerable to diseases or pests. Some pests or diseases are especially problematic because they are not native to the area, but have been introduced and do not have a natural niche in Catoctin’s environment. In some cases these introduced pests, diseases, and plants must be carefully monitored and managed to keep them in check. Change is a natural part of the environment. Ecosystems must be flexible and evolve with the surroundings in order to survive. Catoctin Mountain Park recognizes this concept and is careful to allow natural processes to occur, while keeping “unnatural” occurrences at a minimum.

Nonnative Species

Alien, or exotic plant species pose a serious threat to the natural environment of Catoctin Mountain Park. Introduced here without any natural predators to keep them in check, these invasive plant species are able to outcompete native vegetation for sunlight and nutrients. Alien species tend to have abnormally rapid growth rates and can survive in less than ideal growing conditions, such as disturbed land areas or drought conditions. However, not all exotic plant species are necessarily invasive. At Catoctin Mountain Park there are over 100 known exotic plants, but only a handful of these are designated as invasive species that require management. The top invaders include:

Polygonum perfoliatum Native of India to East Asia this extremely fast growing vine uses curved barbs to climb over other vegetation. Equal-sided triangular leaves also distinguish it. Mile-a-Minute smothers plants and tree seedlings by blocking sunlight. First recorded in North America in 1890, this vine began its invasion when it escaped from a nursery in York County, Pennsylvania in the 1930’s.

Beefsteak Plant
Perilla frutescens Native of India to East Asia this aromatic plant is sold commercially for use in landscaping. It is also used medicinally to treat a wide range of ailments, including asthma and coughs. Beefsteak is tolerant to a wide range of conditions and has a high rate of maturation, making it an aggressive competitor with native plants. Park road shoulders are a common location for beefsteak colonies. In the winter you may find their dry stems left standing like skeletons from the previous summer.

Japanese Stiltgrass
Microstegium vimineum Native of India to East Asia this grass was first recorded in Tennessee in 1909. At that time the grass was commonly used as a packing material for Asian porcelain, and it is thought that escaped seeds started the invasion. Up to 1,000 seeds are produced by each plant, allowing this shade tolerant species to carpet forest floors. Growing up to 3 feet in height, this sprawling annual has long, thin leaves that alternate up its stalk. Road and trail corridors are common places to find this grass in the park.

Garlic Mustard
Alliaria petiolata Native to Europe this biennial understory herb is a member of the mustard family. The coarsely toothed leaves are triangular to heart-shaped, and when crushed give off a garlic smell. Garlic mustard is a threat because of its ability to aggressively invade woodland communities and displace native grasses, shrubs and tree seedlings. First recorded in North America in 1868 in Long Island, New York, this herb was intentionally introduced for use in cooking, erosion prevention, and medicinal treatment of gangrene and ulcers.

Tree of Heaven
Ailanthus altissima Native to Central China this rapidly growing deciduous tree has pale gray bark and alternate compound leaves of 11-41 leaflets. This tree thrives in adverse conditions and can grow up to 8 feet in a single year. It is tolerant of a wide range of ecological stresses and can even proliferate in disturbed urban areas, such as alleys, sidewalks, and parking lots. It has an aggressive root system known to damage sewers and building foundations. Though the trees can reach up to 100 feet they cannot be used for lumber due to their poor quality. It was first introduced in 1784 by a gardener in Philidelphia, Pennsylvania and is now found throughout the United States.

Multiflora Rose
Rosa multiflora Native of Japan, Korea, and eastern China this member of the rose family has hooked thorns along its arching stems. Introduced from Japan in 1866 it has been used for erosion control, ornamental purposes, and to create “living fences” to confine livestock. Despite its uses, multiflora rose is listed as an alien invasive because of its habit of spreading into fields and pastures, forming impenetrable thickets that exclude all other plants.

Japanese Barberry
Berberis thunbergii Native to Japan this low, compact shrub has small leaves of green, gold, or maroon. The small straight spines that line the branches can distinguish barberry. Introduced in 1864 as an ornamental shrub it is still a popular landscape shrub available for sale to the public. Barberry is quick to escape to the wild where it can tolerate shade, severe drought, and extreme winters. Other alien invaders include Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonicus) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense).

Exotic species in the park are mostly found alongside roads and trails. Roads and trails serve as vectors for these plants with seeds hitchhiking on car tires, visitors' shoelaces, or even attached to the fur of wild animals. Unfortunately, a few species like Japanese Barberry and Garlic Mustard have spread beyond roads and trails and have permeated into all regions of the park. Another popular place for exotic invasions is around stream corridors. Moving water quickly transports seeds downstream to infest new areas. The resource staff at Catoctin Mountain Park along, with the assistance of the regional Exotic Plant Management Team , have begun an intensive program to control the spread of invasive vegetation in the park. Infested areas have been restored by using mechanical methods, such as mowing and handpulling, combined with chemical and cultural methods when neccessary. The goal is not to eliminate exotic vegetation completely, but rather to control its spread and prevent smothering monocultures from forming.

Fire Regime

Fire is known to be an extremely important event in the natural ecosystem. Fires maintain vegetation communities, aid in forest regeneration, and are necessary for certain seeds to germinate. Historically, fires have occurred at Catoctin. Experts using dendrochronology techniques, or the study of tree rings, can date fires of Catoctin back to 1876. Since that date fires have occurred in intervals of 6 to 20 years. Some of these fires were created by man to burn areas for increased blueberry production. 

 In 1936 a 500 acre fire burned on the park’s eastern ridge. As a result, forest fire protection was increased and a policy initiated to suppress all wildfires aggressively. The suppression of fire within the park over the past 60 years has allowed a hazardous buildup of dead trees and limbs. A heavy fuel load can be dangerous because it could potentially cause a wildfire to burn hotter, longer, and more intense resulting in significant damage to large trees and human structures.

In recent years, Catoctin has experienced numerous small surface fires with relatively slow rates of spread, but due to high fuel loads the potential for an extensive fire remains high. Some plants at Catoctin, such as the Table Mountain Pine, depend on fire for their survival. These communities require high intensity fires that open the forest canopy and expose mineral soil. The current fire management plan of the park requires that all wildfires be suppressed to protect the historic camps and adjacent private landowners. Prescribed fire may be an option to reduce fire fuel loads in the park and restore some of these ecological processes. However, this requires additional research of fire history, behavior, and effects before implementation.

The park’s most recent fire occurred in November of 2001 in the Wolf Rock area. This 3-acre surface fire is believed to have been caused by human carelessness. This fire smoldered for nearly three days while firefighters worked to contain it. After the burn, vegetation study plots were placed in the area to monitor tree regeneration. Within the first year following the burn there were many tree and herbaceous species that regenerated. To learn more about fire in the National Park Service check out the National Park Service’s fire website

Air Quality

Air Quality includes three major components: visibility, ozone, and noxious chemicals such as acid rain. Visibility, often referred to as haze, is affected by a number of vectors including particulate matter, gasses, and water vapor. In general, areas in the eastern United States have a much lower visibility range than comparable areas in the west. This is primarily due to higher humidity and sulfate particles. Ozone, a major component of smog, is created when fumes from vehicles, lawn mowers, or emissions from power plants and industrial facilities react in sunlight. Ozone reduces visibility and contributes to animal and human health problems. In addition to health problems, ozone has been known to cause damage to plants at surprisingly low concentrations.

Ozone is a concern at Catoctin. In the early 1980’s, ozone was identified as a pollutant suspect of harming sensitive vegetation in the park including white pine, milkweed, basswood, and clematis. Monitoring of ozone damage to park vegetation was conducted for three years. Moderate to high damage was reported in 1983 to basswood, milkweed, and clematis. Monitoring stopped without assessment of long-term impact. In the mid-1990’s, a significant mortality of hemlock was observed along Big Hunting Creek. A definite cause has not been identified; a combination of drought, insect damage, and air pollution is suspected. Areas downwind from urban areas and in higher altitudes are more prone to high ozone concentrations. During especially hot days in the summer months Catoctin Mountain Park sometimes falls under a "Code Orange" or a "Code Red" day. These days are known as "Ozone Action Days" during which the air is considered "unhealthy" for strenuous activities.
Acid rain is composed of the noxious chemicals sulfate and nitrate. These chemicals lower the pH of precipitation making it more acidic. Rain is naturally acidic, normally measuring around 5.6, but acid rain is extremely acidic, with pH values ranging from 3-4. Certain plant species are especially susceptible to injury from acid rain. Acid rain can also alter the water quality of streams. With the explosion of growth and development throughout this region, potential for air quality degradation and detrimental impacts to park resources are increasing. Degraded air quality is also impacting the quality of the park’s scenic vistas. Catoctin Mountain Park hopes to establish an air quality monitoring station to better track changes in air quality.


Dogwood Anthracnose
Dogwood Anthracnose is a disease caused by the fungus Discula destructiva that attacks native and ornamental flowering dogwood trees. This disease was first noticed in New York in the late 1970’s. It wasn’t detected in Maryland until 1983, but judging from the existing damage to trees and its wide distribution across the state, the disease had most likely been in the state for a few years.

Dogwood trees can be affected at any time throughout the growing season, but are most susceptible to the fungus in the cool, wet seasons of spring and fall. Trees weakened by drought or winter injury are especially vulnerable to infection. Spotting on leaves and flower bracts are the first signs that a tree has been infected. These spots are tan with dark purple borders and normally appear in mid to late May. During cool, wet weather blighted gray and drooping leaves are also noticeable. The fungus then spreads into the twigs and limbs, eventually killing them. As a result of twig and limb death, the tree will produce succulent shoots on the lower trunk and main branches. These new branches are very prone to infections, which can then transport the disease into the trunk.

The origin of the Dogwood Anthracnose is unknown. Possibly it may have been introduced or was an existing pathogen that altered its host due to a change in environmental conditions. The Maryland Department of Agriculture Forest Pest Management Section is conducting long-term studies on the impact of this disease on Maryland forests.

At Catoctin, many native dogwood trees have succumbed to the Dogwood Anthracnose. This tremendous loss of dogwoods has altered the forest both scenically and ecologically. In 1991, it was estimated that 79% of the park’s dogwoods were dead, with no sign of regeneration. At this rate, dogwoods would soon be eliminated from the park. However, a few dogwood trees have been discovered at Catoctin that show resistance to the disease. Research conducted by The University of Tennessee Dogwood Research Group has produced an anthracnose resistant tree, the Appalachian Spring, using clones from Catoctin trees. Some of these disease resistant trees were planted in the Catoctin forest in 2001 in hope that this beautiful understory tree can be restored.

American Chestnut Blight
The American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) once dominated the eastern forests from Maine to Alabama and comprised 50% of the mountain forests of this country. It is estimated that if all the chestnut trees alive at that time had been in one pure stand, there would have been a forest of nearly 9 million acres. In size they were the "redwoods of the east" growing to a height of over 100 feet and a diameter of nearly 10 feet. Renowned for their weather resistant wood (many of the cabins in the park are constructed from chestnut wood) and dependable crop of nuts, chestnut was of great value to man and wildlife.

These giants are now absent from the landscape: a tragic loss which has been said to be one of the worst natural calamities ever experienced by this nation. In the early 1900's a fungus (Endothia parasitica) was accidentally introduced into New York City from trees imported from Asia. The blight quickly spread on its new host, the American chestnut, destroying it throughout its range. The disease reached the Catoctins in 1912 and by the 1940's had killed most of the large chestnut trees.
Today, chestnuts can only be found in the understory, as shoots from the blight resistant roots. By the time they reach 20 feet in height the blight attacks and kills them.

The American Chestnut Cooperator's Foundation (ACCF), is a grassroots organization that is working to defeat the chestnut blight. In the past they have held grafting clinics in the park in hopes of developing a blight resistant tree. The scionwood used in these grafts are selected in ACCF plantings of original sources of blight resistance and all-American intercrosses which had the best reaction to inoculation with the blight fungus. However, they are not immune to blight infection. Breeders anticipate that more generations of selections, including additional source of blight resistance, may be necessary to develop a blight resistant chestnut.

West Nile Virus
 West Nile Virus (WNV) was first documented in North America in late summer of 1999. It is not clear where this mosquito borne virus originated, but it is most closely related genetically to strains found in the Middle East. WNV is responsible for causing West Nile Encephalitis in birds, horses, and humans. Encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, can be deadly. The WNV is transmitted in a mosquito-bird cycle. A mosquito bites an infected bird and is now a carrier of the virus. If this infected mosquito then bites a human, horse, or bird its host will then be contaminated with the WNV. There has been no detection of WNV in Catoctin Mountain Park.

In the summer of 2001, Catoctin, along with other parks in the region, began a mosquito monitoring program. Traps were set up in “swampy” areas of the park to collect mosquitoes so they could be analyzed for WNV. All mosquitoes tested negative for the virus. Monitoring will continue at Catoctin. In 2002 WNV has moved south and west, as expected would happen due to bird migratory routes. The virus has been detected in IL, MN, NE, ND, OK, SD, TX, IO, and WV. It is predicted that WNV will reach Central and South America sometime in 2002. More information regarding WNV can be found on websites of the Center for Disease Control , United States Department of Agriculture , and the National Park Service.

Water Quality

Streams of Catoctin Mountain Park have relatively good water quality, although there is the potential for problems. There are two main streams in Catoctin, Big Hunting Creek and Owens Creek. The headwaters of Owens Creek begin inside the park and therefore have little chance of being contaminated by outside sources. However, there is a sewage treatment plant near the headwaters of Owens Creek that could threaten water quality if there is a malfunction. The headwaters of Big Hunting Creek are outside of the park, putting this creek at risk for potential problems that cannot be completely controlled by the park.

In 1978 Catoctin began a long-term water quality-monitoring program so the streams could be closely watched for signs of pollution and other problems. This monitoring program entails monthly water samples to be analyzed from eight sites within the park. These samples are analyzed in the lab for temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, ammonia, salinity, specific conductivity, turbidity, and alkalinity. Regular testing of Catoctin’s streams ensures that any water quality problems can be quickly recognized and dealt with.

Biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources have conducted macroinvertebrate sampling on Big Hunting Creek and Owens Creek since 1981. Benthic macroinvertebrates are animals that live in lakes and streams that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Included in this group are insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and annelids. Sampling these animals offers additional water quality information and can demonstrate the impacts of pollution. High diversity of these sensitive organisms has been found in both Big Hunting Creek and Owens Creek indicating that the water quality is good.

In 2002 Catoctin received funding to complete a more extensive stream water quality study. This two-year study will examine surface water and stream sediments for heavy metals, pesticides, and bacteria concentrations in five stream locations. To date, samples have been tested twice and the results have showed slightly elevated amounts of aluminum at one location. No other significant contaminations were found at the remaining sites.

Scenic Vistas

National Parks have long been known for their scenic vistas. Scenic vistas at Catoctin Mountain Park include: Chimney Rock, Hog Rock, Thurmont Vista, and the Blue Ridge Summit Overlook.

Chimney Rock is at about 1,400 feet in elevation and looks out to the east over the piedmont region. Hog Rock is at 1600 feet and can be reached by parking at the Hog Rock Area parking lot.

Hog Rock affords a view to the east of the mountains of the Weverton Formation and of the gap through which Hunting Creek flows. The Hog Rock Trail is a self-guided and the printed interpretative guide is available at the trailhead or the Visitor Center.

The Thurmont Vista, with an elevation of 1,502 feet, is a relatively short steep climb. The view here is to the east of the Frederick Valley and Thurmont.

The Blue Ridge Summit Overlook is the most accessible high vista point in the park The trail leaves from Hog Rock Parking Area and is a short, gradual climb to the vista. This vista offers a beautiful view to the north of the Harbaugh Valley and mountains of southern Pennsylvnia. The valleys and slopes seen to the north drain into Owens Creek.

In the eastern United States where relative humidity and pollution levels are high, deterioration of visibility is a serious threat. In 1986, a visibility study was conducted at Catoctin to establish baseline data on the average visible distances from three overlooks in the park. It was intended that these overlooks be monitored in future years to determine if haze and pollution are affecting the visibility. Further study is needed to determine how much visibility is being impaired.


Gypsy Moth
Since its accidental introduction in eastern Massachusetts in the late 1860's, the European strain of the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar L) has been spreading. In 1994 it was considered a permanent resident in 16 northeastern states.
The gypsy moth caterpillar can be extremely disruptive to the forest ecosystem. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of hardwood trees, particularly oak, which can result in complete defoliation of the tree. Defoliation reduces the vigor and general health of forests and shade trees, leads to tree death which can alter wildlife habitat and change water quality and quantity.

Some years the gypsy moths experience a population explosion. These natural cycles are known as outbreaks, and it is during these years that defoliation becomes a serious problem. It is said that during these peak years you can actually hear the caterpillars feeding in the forest. One resource management employee stated that "it sounds like it's raining on a sunny day" as the droppings fall to the forest floor.

Catoctin Mountain Park, like most of the Appalachian forests, has been affected by the gypsy moth. In 1981 the USDA Forest Service, Forest Pest Management staff from Morgantown, West Virginia joined with Catoctin to monitor and manage gypsy moth populations. That first year's activities included several egg mass surveys and a defoliation survey. Egg mass size is an indicator of the status of a gypsy moth infestation. Declining outbreaks are characterized by the presence of many small masses (approximately 0.5 in long) that contain as few as 75 to 100 eggs. In static or growing populations, the egg masses are fewer in number but larger (1.5 in long) and contain from 700 to 1,000 eggs. In 1981 egg mass densities exceeded 5000 per acre in certain areas. The following year marked the first time an aerial application of insecticide was used on National Park Service property to control gypsy moth.

From 1982 through 1990 treatment was continued where gypsy moth concentrations were high. This varied from as few as 300 acres in 1986 to 6000 acres in 1983. In 1987 tree defoliation was limited to only 48 acres. From 1991 through 1999 the gypsy moth population was very low and no treatments were required. However, in 2001 the population once again increased to a dangerous level requiring treatment for 800 acres on the east side of the park. This was followed by a treatment of 401 acres in 2002 located just east of the 2001 treatment area. Gypsy moth continues to be a problem that is a management priority, on the east side of the park. A total of 42 acres of forest were defoliated this year even after the previous two years of treatment.

Hemlock Wooly Adelgid

The hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) is another pest that is affecting Catoctin. Introduced from Asia in 1924 this insect primarily attacks eastern hemlock and Carolina hemlock trees. The hemlock wooly adelgid injures a hemlock by sucking sap from the young twigs causing needles to discolor and drop prematurely. Complete defoliation and tree death can occur in a few years.
An infested hemlock tree will have white cotton swab-like sacs at the base of the needles. These egg sacs are present throughout the year, but are most prominent in the spring. This insect is easily spread to uncontaminated areas by wind, birds, and mammals.

Many hemlocks in the park have succumbed to the hemlock woolly adelgid. At one time, hemlocks had shaded the riparian areas of Big Hunting Creek, now the trees are mere skeletons. The loss of hemlocks around these riparian areas could possibly change the water quality of the stream and in turn affect the native brook trout that depend on its clean, shaded waters.

Efforts have been made to control the adelgid in the park. An experimental treatment using horticultural oil was applied to several hemlocks in Camp Round Meadow in 2001. Another control effort, injecting 50 mature hemlock trees with an insecticide, was tried in 2002. Results of these treatments will be evaluated over the next two years. Another control alternative that may be applicable at Catoctin is to release the tiny black predator beetle, Pseudoscymnus tsugae. This beetle, native to Asia, is related to the common native ladybug and only preys on adelgids. Release of this beetle may save the hemlocks from total destruction. This management strategy is currently being considered by park management. Efforts to save the hemlocks are being done in conjunction with Ecoscientific Solutions

Over 750 species of vascular plants have been documented in Catoctin Mountain Park, including 60 species of trees. Although no Federally listed rare or endangered plants occur within the park, there are numerous State of Maryland listed threatened and endangered species. Many of the plants found in Catoctin are uncommon in the Middle-Atlantic States. Please remember that it is illegal to pick wildflowers or collect seeds from plants. Personal consumption of berries and mushrooms is permitted.

Mushrooms and Other Fungi

Fungi is the name of the kingdom of living organisms that includes mushrooms, molds and crusts. Lacking chlorophyll, fungi must obtain food by absorbing nutrients from surrounding soil or decayed wood in which they grow. While there are many different species of mushrooms and fungi in Catoctin Mountain Park, it is the common morel (Morchella species) that is the most well known. The morel is highly sought after both by animals and humans who considered this mushroom a “choice edible”. In the past, the common morel was abundant throughout the park, but this has since changed. Today morels are scarcely seen. Whether this is due to an environmental change, human harvesting, or a high deer population is not known. Visitors are permitted to collect mushrooms from the park for personal consumption only. It is highly recommended that while collecting mushrooms you transport them in a breathable, mesh bag (such as an onion bag) rather than a plastic or paper sack. This method allows mushroom spores to escape the bag and be distributed throughout the forest, ensuring that there will be morels for all in the future. Be sure to use caution when collecting mushrooms. Some mushrooms are extremely poisonous and eating them could result in death. Know how to properly identify mushrooms before you set out, or go with a mushroom expert.


One of the earliest signs of spring in the Catoctin forest is the blooming of wildflowers. The wildflower season begins in early April, with different plants continuing to bloom throughout the summer. Location, altitude, and weather can affect bloom times.

Wildflowers that may be seen include spring beauties, cutleaf toothwort, wild geranium, bloodroot, wild ginger, rue anemone, wood anemone, yellow violet, yellow adders tongue, cardinal flower, hepatica, jack-in-the-pulpit, several species of orchid, mayapples, and more.

Several Maryland listed endangered, threatened, and “watch list” plant species reside in the park. One exceptionally beautiful species, the purple-fringed orchid is listed as threatened by the state. The purple-fringed orchid is rarely seen in the park and it appears that their population is declining, perhaps due to over browsing by deer and lack of suitable habitat.

Special measures have been taken to prevent the loss of this unique orchid. Wire cages are placed around individual plants to protect them from deer. The Resource Management staff at Catoctin also performs yearly surveys to monitor these rare, beautiful orchids and preserve their existence. Unfortunately other orchids haven’t been as successful, such as the lady slipper orchid that was commonly found at Catoctin, but has since disappeared.

Some excellent places to look for wildflowers include Brown’s Farm Trail, roadside pull-offs along Big Hunting Creek, and the Blue Blazes Still Trail. Wildflowers can also be seen alongside most trails in the park.

Please do not pick the wildflowers! Picking wildflowers not only denies others the opportunity to admire their beauty, but it also threatens the existence of the plant, and is illegal in all National Park units. It is also illegal to collect seeds from wildflowers.

Catoctin Mountain Park offers guided “Wildflower Walks” in April and May. Check with the Visitor Center for exact dates and location.

Trees and Shrubs


The Catoctin forest is classified as a Mid-latitude Deciduous forest. This type of forest is famous for its brilliant display of vivid foliage colors in the fall. In general, the forest is an oak-hickory-tulip poplar forest. However, in a given area this may differ depending on soil type, steepness of slope, nutrients available, and moisture. The eastern portion of the park has thin sandy-loam soils that are highly permeable and therefore well drained. Tree species such as chestnut oak, table mountain pine and pitch pine can be found on the drier ridge tops. On lower slopes and ravines, where soil is richer, white oak, tulip poplar, red maple, black birch, American beech, sour gum, and eastern hemlock can be found. The western portion of the park has deeper, richer, and moister soils. Most of the trees here are larger and the forest contains more species. Trees found here include sugar maple, basswood, hickories, hornbeam, white ash, beech, and tulip poplar. In the higher ridge areas chestnut oak trees dominate. Floodplain areas contain trees that do not grow in drier areas such as elm, yellow birch, and sycamore. Acorns, beechnuts, and hickory nuts are a tasty high-energy meal for many woodland animals. Squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and birds can often be seen foraging nuts from the forest floor. Animals, especially squirrels and chipmunks, also play an important role in tree regeneration by hiding or “caching” nuts in the soil to eat at a later date. Oftentimes these nuts are forgotten about and are able to germinate under the protective layer of soil.


The shrubs are generally found in the forest understory or along the forest edge. The most common shrubs include mountain laurel, spicebush, lowbush blueberry, and viburnum. Many animals feed off these shrubs and use them for cover. Multiflora rose and barberry are two shrubs that can be found in much of the park, however they are invasive species that were introduced here by man. Spiked with thorns, these shrubs are beginning to crowd out native plants and are therefore becoming a management priority.


Ferns are vascular plants that reproduce in a very unique way. Reproduction is achieved using spores rather than seeds. Spores are usually produced on the underside of leaves in tiny of capsules called sporangia. If a fern spore lands on moist soil or another suitable moist place, it germinates. The spore sends out a short tube that divides and grows small, green, flat, heart-shaped gametophyte. This gametophye is the fern’s sexual stage and it lacks any true roots, stems, or leaves. Either male (sperm) or female (eggs) sex organs will develop on its underside. The sperm will then swim through a thin film of water to fertilize the egg. This fertilized egg will eventually form leaves and roots, becoming a new plant. This new plant is called the sporophyte and is the stage most commonly seen. Allies of ferns, which include horsetails and club mosses, reproduce in a similar manner. Over 33 different species of fern have been reported to exist in Catoctin Mountain Park. Types of ferns in the park include northern maidenhair fern, ebony spleenwort, maidenhair spleenwort, lady fern, northeastern lady fern, silvery athyrium, cutleaf grape fern, matricary grape fern, rattlesnake fern, walking fern, common bladder fern, hay-scented fern, crested shield fern, Goldie's fern, marginal shield fern, spinulose fern, sensitive fern, southern adders tounge, cinnamon fern, interrupted fern, royal fern, rock cap fern, christmas fern, bracken fern, broad beech fern, New York fern, blunt-lobed woodsia, and chain fern. Please remember that it is illegal to collect ferns in the park.

In an area of the country that is rapidly being converted to shopping centers, houses, and pavement, Catoctin Mountain Park serves as a virtual oasis for a number of animals. This 5,810 acre forested ecosystem is habitat to more than 280 species of animals. A short walk on one of Catoctin Mountain Park’s trails will take you into the forest environment. Animals you are likely to see are squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, pileated woodpeckers and wild turkey, maybe a box turtle, and if you are extremely fortunate, a black bear. A journey to one of Catoctin’s high gradient streams will reveal native brook trout. Stay overnight at Owens Creek Campground, and you might hear the duck-like cackle of the wood frog, the hoot of a great horned owl, or see bats zipping overhead in search of insects.


*** Please remember that hunting and trapping are not permitted in the park.***

Mammals found in the park are fairly typical for this region and include skunk, groundhog, squirrel, several varieties of vole and mole, eastern cottontail rabbit, opossum, raccoon, white-tailed deer, and red fox.. Recent sightings of bobcat, beaver, mink, and black bear indicate that populations of these mammals have returned to the area.

In 2001 a small mammal survey was done for the park. This survey by the Smithsonian Institute, confirmed the presence of 12 small mammals within the park. This survey also revealed a new species to the park, a coyote! The coyote was photographed using a motion sensitive camera set up by the researchers. Coyotes had never before been documented at Catoctin Mountain Park. Since then, several other coyote observations have been made indicating this species has in fact become established in this section of Maryland.

Historical records indicate that mammals such as bison, elk, gray wolf, eastern cougar, porcupine, and fisher could at one time be found in the area. However, these animals have all since been extirpated from the park as well as much of the surrounding area.

White-tailed Deer

The most abundant large animal in the park is the white-tailed deer. Deer also pose a difficult resource management dilemma. With no natural predators left and hunting being prohibited on the park, deer populations have escalated to an estimated 187 individuals per square mile in 2002. The population appears to have grown beyond available food resources, eating nearly everything on the forest floor to a browse line of four foot high. This is creating a marked change on vegetation patterns within the park. Some rare plants, such as the purple fringed orchid, have suffered from the high deer population and numerous elm trees have died as a result of bark stripping. Bark stripping is an unusual feeding behavior deer will revert to in winter when no other food sources are available.

In the mid 1980's deer exclosures were set up as part of a long term monitoring program to determine the effects of deer browse on vegetation. The plots are monitored to compare the deer browsed land to the area in the unbrowsed exclosures. Small exclosures are also placed around rare plants and trees seedlings to protect them from being consumed.

The ecological impact of a high deer population goes beyond vegetation as deer compete with other species for food. The fall mast crop of acorns and beechnuts are of great importance to raccoon, squirrels , turkey , bear, and other mammals. With "extra" deer to feed these other species will suffer.

Another indicator that a deer has exceeded the carrying capacity is the herd's poor health. The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study Unit, has performed herd health assessments on deer from Catoctin in 1988 and 2002. The assessments involve a complete necropsy, noting age-specific body weights, ovulation rates, kidney fat, bone marrow, and parasite counts. Results from both assessments indicate the deer herd has degraded health most likely due to the herd being near its nutritional carrying capacity.

Black bear

In the 1990's, black bear returned to Catoctin after a twenty year absence. The black bear is the largest animal in Maryland. Adults typically weigh between 125 and 400 pounds. Their color varies from brown to black. They have good eyesight and hearing, but rely heavily on their excellent sense of smell to locate food. Bears will eat almost anything. Common foods include berries, acorns, hickory nuts, grasses, insects, fish, and carrion. They are also attracted to garbage, agricultural crops, and bird food placed in back yard feeders. This sometimes brings bears in conflict with humans.

Bears tend to be wary of humans, and will often flee when they hear you approach.. Remember they are wild and should never be fed or harassed. If you encounter a bear, stay calm, do not approach it or run away. Avoid direct eye contact and do not panic if the bear stands on its hind legs. Remain upright, back away slowly and leave the area. Seeing a bear in the wild is an exciting experience. If you use common sense and good judgment, you can safely enjoy the natural beauty of this forest animal at a safe distance.


The hardwood forest and stream environment provides excellent habitat for many species of birds. Over 200 species are thought to occur in the park during some part of the year, including the wild turkey, which started to reoccupy its old habitat in the 1960’s. The pileated woodpecker is also abundant in the park due to the vast expanse of hardwood forest that this bird requires to live.


The group amphibian includes frogs, toads, and salamanders.The word amphibian was taken from the Greek “amphi” meaning “double” and “bios” meaning “life” which is quite fitting for the animals known as amphibians. These creatures do live a double life. Emerging from eggs that are usually laid in the water, most amphibians begin their life with gills. They soon lose these gills and metamorphose from a completely aquatic form into a more terrestrial form.To date, there are 22 known species of salamanders, frogs, and toads at Catoctin Mountain Park.
Please remember that it is illegal to collect or harm them for any reason!

There are three different types of salamanders at Catoctin: mole salamanders, newts, and lungless salamanders. Mole salamanders spend most of their time underground in animal burrows and natural underground openings. They have robust bodies and limbs with short, blunt heads. The spotted salamander is the only mole salamander at Catoctin. Newts are primarily aquatic, but leave the water after the larval stage to live up to three years on land. This sub-adult time on land is called the "eft" stage. Following this stage they return back to the water. The red-spotted newt is the only species of newt found at Catoctin. The lungless salamanders make up the largest family. As their name implies, these animals do not have lungs, rather they take in oxygen through their skin, a process known as “cutaneous respiration”. Lungless salamanders at Catoctin include the northern dusky, seal, mountain dusky, northern two-lined, longtail, northern spring, four-toed, redback, slimy, ravine, and northern red.
Frogs and Toads
Frogs and toads belong to the amphibian order Anura. This is the largest order of amphibians with over 4,000 species. They can be found on all continents except Antartica, and on most islands of the world. Primarily carnivores, frogs and toads will feed on any animal of the appropriate size. Courtship usually occurs in or near water, with the male vocalizing to attract the female. The breeding season normally begins in early spring and continues through summer. It is during this time that the calls of frogs are most noticeable. All frog and toad species have different calls, so knowing frog calls can be a valuable identification tool. The frogs and toads that can be heard, and sometimes seen, at Catoctin include the wood frog, spring peeper, pickerel frog, green frog, bull frog, northern leopard frog, gray tree frog, American toad, and the fowlers toad.


Two high gradient streams and their tributaries support 17 known species of fish. Darters, dace, sculpins, and minnows are commonly found while elusive species like the American eel often escape even the most careful observer. However, it is the park’s population of trout that most interests visitors.

Dispersed throughout the various streams of Catoctin there are brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout. In the headwaters and tributaries of Big Hunting Creek there exists a population of wild native brook trout. Brook trout are the only trout species native to this region. A wild population is one that naturally spawns in the streams and is not stocked by humans. Big Hunting Creek also contains brown trout and rainbow trout which have ben introduced below the dam to enhance the stream’s recreational fishing. Owens Creek, located on the northern side of the park, contains populations of brown and brook trout, with brook being the more abundant of the two.

Annual trout population surveys are done during the summer months through electro shocking. These surveys, performed by the National Park Service and Maryland State Department of Natural Resources, provide important information such as population size, species diversity, and overall health.

Other fish species in Catoctin’s streams include the American eel, white sucker, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, blue gill, black crappie, mottled sculpin, longnose dace, roseyside dace, cutlips minnow, blacknose dace, creek chub, common shiner, fantail darter, and rainbow trout.

Fishing is permitted in Catoctin Mountain Park. Big Hunting Creek and its tributaries are fly-fishing use only and are subject to special Catch and Return regulations. A Maryland fishing license and trout stamp are required for anglers over the age of 16. Other streams in the park coincide with the regulations set by the State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources . Fishing regulations are strictly enforced.


Reptiles are cold-blooded, secretive creatures. Being cold-blooded requires these creatures to regulate their body temperature from the environment rather than internally like mammals do. All reptiles have the distinguishing characteristics of scales, shields, or plates and have claws on their toes. Snakes, turtles, lizards, and skinks are the kinds of reptiles found in Catoctin Mountain Park. All animals, including reptiles, are protected in the park. It is illegal to collect or harm them for any reason! Snakes Of the 14 species of snakes found in the park only two of them, the copperhead and timber rattlesnake, are venomous. However, encounters with these two venomous snakes are rare due to their shy and elusive behavior. Their habitat includes rocky slopes, loose rock walls, stream areas, and abandoned buildings or woodpiles. The copperhead and timber rattlesnake differ in appearance from other snakes in the area in that the poisonous snakes have thin necks and triangular heads. The copperhead is tan, and is thus well camouflaged on the forest floor. It may bite if stepped on, but it is primarily a night stalker and is seldom seen during daylight hours. The timber rattlesnake can range in color from yellowish brown to black, with irregular black bands or diamond shape blotches. At the tail end is the rattler, the source of the characteristic high frequency hissing sound that can be heard when the snake feels threatened. The primary food of these two snakes is rodents, but birds, insects, and the occasional frog or lizard help diversify the menu. If you happen to encounter a timber rattlesnake or copperhead on the trail be sure to step back and give it plenty of space. Do not touch the snake or try to move it. These snakes are normally not aggressive and will not bite unless they feel threatened. Other snakes in the park are the northern black racer, northern ring neck, black rat, hognose, eastern milk, queen, northern water snake, brown water snake, green snake, and eastern garter. TurtlesThe turtle that is most commonly seen in the forest is the eastern box turtle. Female box turtles The box turtle reaches an average shell length of 4-6 inches. Males are generally larger than females, have red color eyes, and a concave bottom shell. Females have yellowish brown eyes and a more convex bottom shell. Box turtles feed on invertebrates and carrion as well as an assortment of wild fruits and berries. Although essentially a terrestrial animal, the box turtle enjoys soaking for hours at a time in wet mud or water. It likes moist, forested areas but does not insist on woodlands, and often can be seen on wet meadows or floodplains. During the hot, steamy summer months the box turtle actively seeks out swampy areas where it burrows in the cool retreat of logs or rotting vegetation. The wood turtle, recognized by its distinctive sculptured shell, is the other terrestrial turtle found in the park. Although omnivorous like the box turtle, the wood turtle is partial to vegetation, feeding mainly on wild fruits. Its favorite meal appears to be strawberries and low-bush blueberries. The more aquatic turtles, such as the snapping turtle, spotted turtle and painted turtle, are found closer to streams and ponds. An encounter with these turtles is uncommon because they are quick to hide in the water. Lizards and SkinksLizards make up the largest group of living reptiles, numbering about 3,000 species worldwide. However, Catoctin Mountain Park is home only to two species, the five-lined skink and the northern fence lizard. There is a possibility that the broadhead skink may be here, but that is yet to be confirmed.

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.