The Swallow Falls area of Garrett County, Maryland draws you into waterfalls, canyonesque hiking trails, a bountiful bog lost in time and a rock maze to get the daily grind off your trail.
OFF THE WALL
Several years ago, I acquired a group of art prints from a Goodwill thrift store while hunting vintage goods for my side hustle. Stacked in disregard and flat face down, I flipped each dusty frame to unveil four signed and numbered images by the artist Aza Stanton. These proper souvenirs from the mid 1970’s seeded my curiosity with depictions of four unfamiliar scenes from Garrett County, Maryland. With the intent to list and sell, home they came, displayed on my wall in the interim.
Every evening I broke from the white -knuckle intensity of Baltimore City traffic, to be welcomed home by bucolic windows into Muddy Creek Falls, Swallow Falls, Casseleman Bridge and the Old Stone Barn. They served a daily affirmation that the relentless confines of shadeless blacktop, urban decay and competitive desperation can be traded for open space, cascading waterfalls and the slow wonder of a quiet moment. Their status as a permanent resident had been earned, not for sale. The longer they hung, the more they urged me to see these sights myself.
I missed out on the Old Stone Barn on Mayhew Inn Road, which collapsed in 2015, but I now see my own memories in these old prints and not just the “maybe someday” of a stranger’s abandoned keepsake . These places are well worth the trip and the road to them leads to other noteworthy gems.
SWALLOW FALLS STATE PARK
Though this region of Garrett County is best known for the fishing and water sports opportunities of Deep Creek Lake, nearby Swallow Falls State Park is the main attraction to my eyes. The easy 1 1/4 mile Canyon Loop Trail escorts you through a canopy of old growth pine and rare hemlock. Under the intricately balanced ledges of moss and fern covered sandstone cliffs — rhododendron, mountain laurel and a plethora of flowering plants, berries and fungi weave a beguiling tapestry.
The rocky but very navigable corridor along Muddy Creek and the Youghiogheny river, opens to three distinctive waterfalls. Muscular and rumbling, Muddy Creek Falls is Maryland’s tallest free falling waterfall at 53 feet. Swallow Falls, for which the park is named, once hosted a thriving cliff swallow community within the adjacent downstream rock pillar ( as seen in the featured image ). Tolliver falls is the gentler little cousin of the trio.
The trail can be traversed in under an hour but allow yourself at least 2 to stop and take in all the wonder. Camp sites are available and connecting trails to the Garrett State Forest and Harrington Manor State Park expand the trekking possibilities.
SNAGGY MOUNTAIN ROCK MAZE
Adjacent to Swallow Falls State park is the Garrett State Forest and Mountain Maryland’s answer to a Boardwalk Funhouse, The Snaggy Mountain Rock Maze.
Resembling a pre historic fallen temple, the natural labyrinth of large boulders holds just enough twists to feel the risk of getting lost — without doing so. Split sun rays reach through fissured stone windows, pulling out all perceivable hues of the verdant moss and lichen painted walls. Shadows billow and bloom in the recesses. Rounding each new corner, where rock and Black Birch roots have bound together, the dance of light sways you into the next mysterious passage.
The 1 mile out and back trail, flanked by dense fern covered forest, samples the 8,000 acres of camping and hiking available in Garrett State Forest. After enjoying your rock maze experience, delving deeper is an option.
I won’t spill all the Rock Maze surprises here, but if you desire a more thorough examination before heading out, check out WVbirders piece on the maze.
It appears that the trail to the rock maze has been intentionally obscured /decommissioned in order to prevent ongoing vandalism /graffiti. I have not been able to find any official statement on this but the maker of this youtube video reports the trail demolished as of October 2019. The maze itself may be accessible and is not officially off limits, but finding the way to and navigating may prove more difficult.
CRANESVILLE SWAMP PRESERVE
Boreal ecosystems are normally found in the subarctic but due to a frost pocket effect, you must only travel to the Allegheny Mountains to get a taste of the far north. Five miles Northwest of Swallow Falls, bordering West Virginia and Maryland, Cranesville Swamp is one of the few boreal bogs in the Southern United States.
Dutifully protected by The Nature Conservancy, Cranesville’s rich peatland has formed over thousands of years and hosts 19 thriving plant communities. Eastern Hemlock, red spruce and tamarack reach for the sky —while sphagnum, ferns, sedge, berries and skunk cabbage deluge underfoot. You may even encounter the carnivorous sundew plant. Pause and look closely at all the flora along the trails. The density is so great that you may miss what is right under your nose.
Cranesville is quite dynamic through the seasons. Early spring exposes the vibrant rolling underbelly of sphagnum and plants getting ready to pop. Summer is an explosive green revolution, where you must peer underneath and in between to examine the diverse inner workings. The phenological spectacle of this rare habitat warrants repeat visits over the short trails and 1500 foot boardwalk.
CASSELMAN RIVER BRIDGE STATE PARK
If heading back east on I – 68, The historic Casselman Bridge makes an idyllic picnic spot to wrap up your Garrett County excursion. Completed in 1814 as part of the National Road, it was America’s largest single span stone arch bridge. An engineering feat necessary to ease passage through the wild frontier, west of Cumberland, Maryland. Heavily trafficked until 1933 and decommissioned in the early 50’s, It now stands as an homage to the ingenuity and effort that enabled westward expansion.
Next door, an impressive assembly of historic cabins and buildings have been reconstructed in the Spruce Forest Artisan Village. The master crafters of the village preserve the story of local culture through special events, skills workshops and selling their unique wares. Perhaps YOUR inspiring souvenir, may be found here.