WASHINGTON – A two-lane state highway divides the national park from the state park in the Catoctin Mountains. But that’s not enough to keep the two separate in visitors’ minds, park rangers complain.
In the summer, hordes of visitors looking for the beaches in the state park always seem to ask the national park rangers for directions.
“Over the course of a year, the questions we get go into the thousands,” said Mel Poole, superintendent of the national park. “It’s a lot of time and a lot of man-hours.”
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., urged a Senate committee Tuesday to change the national park’s name from “Catoctin Mountain Park” to “Catoctin Mountain National Recreation Area” — a slight adjustment that rangers hope will make a world of difference.
Visitors looking for the lake in Cunningham Falls State Park see the national park’s visitor center first as they drive up Route 77, and many stop there to ask questions.
“I guess they don’t see the large sign out front with the National Park arrowhead,” Poole said. “Sometimes it can be question after question for hours.”
The most common question is whether the lake in the state park is closed from overcrowding — something the national rangers are forced to know even though they don’t work on the state side.
“We’re the first visitor center people see, so people stop in here all the time,” said Deborah Mills, a national park ranger.
The state park gets around 50,000 more visitors every year than the national park. For a fee, it offers cheeseburgers, a waterfall, boat rentals and, of course, the beach — all unavailable in the national park.
The national park is free and, instead of cheeseburgers, it offers educational books at its store.
The parks have not always been so divided in geography or in taste. They originally began as one unit in 1936 — part of a nationwide project to create jobs during the Great Depression. The government called the 10,000-acre property the Catoctin Project.
When President Franklin Roosevelt chose the camp as his retreat, he gave the area yet another moniker, Shangri-La. In 1954, the area gained three more names when the federal government split the property. It returned 4,446 acres to the state for Cunningham Falls State Park and kept 5,810 for Catoctin Mountain Park and a presidential retreat, which President Eisenhower dubbed Camp David in honor of his grandson.
Confusion has dwelled in the Catoctin Mountains ever since.
“People don’t realize there are two parks,” said Cindy Ecker, the state park manager. “When people come here, they see trees, it just seems like one big place.”
“And it’s not just that there are two parks,” Poole said. “We have 25 listings in the (county) phone book with the name `Catoctin.’ So getting the word `national’ in our name would help us differentiate ourselves a little.”
Traditionally, only the biggest, most famous parks — such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon — have had “national” in their name. It was reserved for the “crown jewels” of the National Park System, which is probably why Catoctin Mountain Park never acquired the title.
But these days, “national” doesn’t carry the prestige it used to. In 2000, only 11 of the 384 units in the National Park System did not have “national” in their name.
“We’re not in it for the prestige anyway,” Poole said. “We just want to clear up the confusion.”