Rocking the Rocks at Shangri-La

I’ve often sat in awe of Hog Rock.

Actually, I’ve often sat atop Hog Rock, an ancient outcropping in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains providing a panoramic view of the Piedmont Plateau. It’s a mere hour from Washington, D.C., and in the summertime swelter a good 10 degrees cooler at an elevation of 1,600 feet.

The preserve at the northern reach of the Blue Ridge province that runs from Roanoke is the perfect playground for presidents, which explains why Franklin Delano Roosevelt first struck camp here in 1942 and called it Shangri-La. Dwight Eisenhower thought better of the fanciful appellation, renaming the official presidential retreat Camp David for his grandson and thus sparing three generations of presidents the embarrassment of retreating to some paradise named after the fictional secret monastery in Lost Horizon.

Yet it turns out I hadn’t seen anything until I found and climbed Wolf Rock on a cold winter’s day. It’s a 500-million year old ridge of greenstone riven with deep crevices carved by freezing water that seeped through the metamorphosed basalt lava flows of the Catoctin Formation. The surface of this 2,000-foot thick pile of quartz and feldspar sparkles purple, green and pink in the late afternoon of a Winter Solstice, the waning sunlight streaming through a bare forest.

I had come to the Catoctins in almost every season, seeking respite from Washington’s oppressive summer or photographing the spring wildflowers. Lately, the most colorful of autumns that wouldn’t quit lit these low mountains in flashes of yellow and red that soothed the soul of a refugee from the city. And Hog Rock is reachable by the most pedestrian of short walks through the woods along the road that winds through Catoctin Mountain Park up to Camp David, elevation 1,700 feet.

Yet the mountain road is closed in the wintertime — even the sitting president, who has little use for Camp David, was away on vacation in Hawaii on this day. This leaves a day-hiker only one true option: An 800-foot ascent up the mile-long trail from Cunningham Falls. It’s a measure of these modest mountains that the creek tumbling down a boulder slope, also known as McAfee Falls, is the largest cascading waterfall in Maryland, 78-feet high.

My grown son challenged me to a hike this day — not a walk in the woods, he insisted. So we set out on a 36-degree, sunny afternoon for a five-mile loop of some of the most accessible overlooks in the park.

Five miles became eight — only because of our inquisitiveness about another ridge beyond our initially charted course — the breathtaking outcroppings of Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock (pictured here) discovered on this winter’s day.

It was this longer path best taken that made the day, a half-day really, four exhausting hours of treks to tops of ridges and knee-stressing tip-toe down the steep rocky inclines on the other side as the sun started to set behind the hills. The path was alternately soft dirt, wet in patches from recent rains, and flat rock jutting from the ground with sharp edges.

Starting with the climb to Hog Rock, which revealed a familiar view of the plateau facing south — this time without the palette of fall colors in the hills below that greeted me the last time I was here — we moved on to the Blue Ridge Summit Overlook on the northern side, a 1,520-foot platform of rocks the size of small trucks. The Catoctin Formation was forged of silica-rich volcanic rock between basaltic flows as long as 560 million years ago, the dark bluish-black metarhyolite serving as exquisite material for arrowheads and knives for the native Americans who later inhabited the hills, and the deep wells and springs serving as necessary sources of water. The abundance of silica makes the rock tough, and tools fashioned from it have been found in places as distant as the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

``The history of the area is heavily influenced by its geology,’’ according to a Geologic Resources Inventory Report by the National Park Service. ``Ridges and valleys made travel parallel to their trend easy and traversing their trend difficult.’’

We readily identified with this difficulty in traversing their trend.

As high as the ridges reach today, all of this lay underwater at one time, the formation remnants of a continental flood erupting with the opening of an ocean in the late Precambrian time. The tearing of the Earth’s crust resulted in volcanic activity that produced more than 4,000 square miles of flood basalt, the largest such province in eastern North America.

Which brings us to Wolf Rock. One approaches it as a long sheer wall rising 20-feet from the forest floor, a faulted outcropping folded and fractured during its formation. And one steps a couple-hundred feet across its long sloping top hop-scotching the deep, dark crevices dividing it. Water still trickles through cracks and freezes during winter, working with roots of scrub pines to wedge the rocks apart.

Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock further along the mountain trail are made of weathered gray quartzite embedded with metamorphosed siltstone. The quartzite shines white and pastel, the rock surfaces smooth.

At its elevation of 1,401 feet, surrounded by dense woods, Wolf Rock permits no view but the trees beyond its immediate edges, yet the view of the rock itself is as stunning as any valley vista. The same formation, in another outcropping at Chimney Rock, at 1,419 feet, offers a panorama of the valley below. The Chimney looms as one mammoth boulder left standing atop a column of the half-billion year-old promontory beneath it.

It’s difficult to explain the effect that any mountaintop view has on one’s psyche. It’s the same as sitting atop a high prehistoric rock. Its first achievement is to erase all other thoughts, focusing the mind on one transfixing image. Its most frustrating effect, however, comes with an inability to fully capture it all with a camera.

``In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree… the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.’’ (Samuel Coleridge).

At Shangri-La did FDR, an American president, first decamp. As quiet a retreat as this may be today, a Middle East peace accord once was negotiated here. Winston Churchill conducted Cabinet meetings here. Margaret Thatcher slept here too.

“We have reason. It is the entire meaning and purpose of Shangri-La.’’ (James Hilton, Lost Horizon)

At one overlook along our hike, an eastern-facing view of tiny Thurmont, Maryland, below the mountains, sits a long wooden bench etched with years of initials carved by hikers who preceded us. It’s the modern-day equivalent of cave art, the inscriptions ultra-short stories told not by dwellers but by passers-by.

We finished our eight-mile journey from Cunningham Falls to Hog Rock, Blue Ridge Summit, Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock with a long descent back to the trail head where we began, along the creek that runs from the falls.

By now, the early-setting sun was gone behind the mountains, the clear air chilling by the minute and a few white-tailed deer bounding through darkening woods above us as we left.

We had fulfilled my son’s goal. This was no mere walk in the woods.