Which unit in the national park system (other than those in Washington, D.C.) has received the most visits by presidents and other heads of state? Here are two clues: An answer to the question, "Where in blue blazes…" can be found in this park, and in years past Shangri-La was just up the road.
A park publication provides a little background:
"Catoctin Mountain Park was originally submarginal land purchased by the government in 1936, to be developed into a recreational facility. The facility was to demonstrate how rough terrain and eroded soil could be turned into productive land again. The New Deal's Works Progress Administration, WPA, began the work in the newly created Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, joined by the Civilian Conservation Crops, CCC, in 1939."
The area was transferred from the Resettlement Administration to the National Park Service on November 14, 1936. As development progressed, the need for a contact station to control access and provide visitor information became apparent. According to an administrative history of the park, the location selected was at an intersection called "Blue Blazes" by local residents.
The name Blue Blazes is thought to derive from the sighting of foxfire by early settlers passing through Harmon's Gap on their trek west. Foxfire emanates from a luminescent fungus growing on decaying wood, which glows at night in areas of the Appalachian Mountains.
There's no indication the question "Where in blue blazes" had any bearing on the next major event in the history of Catoctin. In the spring of 1942, the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area, along with similar sites, was closed to civilian use and converted to activities to "support the present war effort." A basic training school for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was opened with British Captain William Fairbairn, known as “Fearless Dan” or “Shanghai Buster,” as perhaps its most famous instructor.
That same year, the need arose for a presidential retreat within 100 miles of the White House, but away from the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C. Security concerns required FDR to abandon use of the presidential yacht Potomac, and an existing camp at Catoctin was selected and quickly renovated for Roosevelt's use.
FDR named his retreat Shangri-La, and it is generally accepted that he adopted the name of the mountain kingdom in the novel Lost Horizon. Attempts were made to keep the location of the camp under wraps, although it was no secret to locals when the president was in the area. Before his death in April 1945, Roosevelt visited the retreat over 20 times, entertaining dignitaries such as Winston Churchill, Princess Martha of Norway and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. A park publication picks up the story:
At the close of World War II, there was some debate over the future of Shangri-La. Should it be returned to the National Park Service? Should it be maintained as a national shrine or monument? Should it be transferred to the Maryland State Forest and Park System as was the original plan of the demonstration area? In a letter to Maryland Governor Herbert R. O'Connor, President Truman wrote:
"I have decided because of the historical events of national and international interest now associated with the Catoctin Recreation Area that this property should be retained by the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. This action is in accord with the position expressed by the late President Roosevelt before his death."
In 1952 Truman approved a compromise under which the land north of Maryland Route 77 would remain Catoctin Mountain Park operated by the National Park Service and the land south of Maryland Route 77 would become Cunningham Falls State Park. The official transfer took effect in 1954. President Eisenhower renamed the retreat, after he took office in 1953, 'Camp David,' after his grandson.
Camp David continues to serve as the Presidential Retreat today. It is a private, secluded place for recreation, contemplation, rest, and relaxation. Many historical events have occurred at the Presidential Retreat: the planning of the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower-Khrushchev meetings, Camp David Accords with Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, discussions of the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War discussions, and many other meetings with foreign dignitaries and guests.
Although Camp David is located with the boundaries of Catoctin Mountain Park, it is not open to the public. Security concerns are an issue, and the purpose of the retreat continues to be the chance for world leaders to enjoy privacy in an informal setting.
So, what's there to do in the park for the rest of us? Catoctin offers opportunities for a variety of outdoor activities, including wildlife watching, scenic drives, fishing, orienteering, rock climbing and cross country skiing. Twenty-five miles of hiking trails winding through both Catoctin Mountain Park and the adjoining Cunningham Falls State Park offer routes ranging from easy to strenuous. Many of the trails lead to outstanding scenic vistas.
Owens Creek Campground has 51 sites and is typically open from early May through mid-November. Get details in advance if you have an RV or more than one vehicle.
Catoctin's 5,800 acres are located within a two-hour drive of Washington, D.C.—assuming you don't try to escape the city during the rush hour. You'll find driving directions on the park's website. The park is open all year from daylight until dark, but verify current hours of operation for the visitor center.
There are seasonal road closures, normally during the winter months, and temporary security closures may affect some routes when things are astir at Camp David. The "Things to Know" page on the park's website has more information, so check before making a trip, especially in the winter, to avoid wondering what in blue blazes prompted the "road closed" signs.