Catoctin Mountain Park | GATEWAY TRAIL LOOP HIKE

Gateway Trail Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Gateway Trail Loop Hike map (click to enlarge)

Length:  3.5-mile loop
Time:  2.5 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous

The Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park runs between the Lewis Area parking lot and the Visitor Center. However, the loop hike detailed in this review does not go all the way to the Visitor Center but instead creates a loop by taking a very steep segment of the Orange Trail starting near the Park Headquarters. The route is lollypop-shaped, meaning you hike out on the stick portion before coming to the actual loop.

One word of warning about hiking ANYWHERE in Catoctin Mountain Park during the summer: there are a ton of gnats. I highly advise wearing a hat and mosquito net on your head—I had one in my bag just by chance. I saw dozens of people with mosquito nets during my four-day visit to the park, so it appears that the locals know to come prepared.

The hike begins at the Lewis Area parking lot. Per the sign at the trailhead, start hiking the Gateway Trail in the direction of Chimney Rock / Park Headquarters / Visitor Center. The sign also points to the TOWN OF THURMONT, but this is not really a trail. You can walk along the road for a quarter mile to reach the town. The Gateway Trail was designed to connect Thurmont to Catoctin Mountain Park.

Start of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike from the Lewis Area parking lot at Catoctin Mountain Park

Start of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike from the Lewis Area parking lot at Catoctin Mountain Park

The Gateway Trail is marked with white blazes, and there are also Gateway Trail posts along the route. On the section shared by the Gateway Trail and the Orange Trail, there are white and orange blazes on the trees. For those unfamiliar with blazes, these are paint splotches on trees and rocks that you follow like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs so that you don’t get lost.

White blazes mark the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

White blazes mark the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Posts with the Gateway Trail log also identify the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Posts with the Gateway Trail log also identify the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

The stick portion of the hike starts off by heading due west, and after a half mile the trail curves to the south. The hike until the curve is all uphill, and the climb is strenuous. The average grade of the ascent is 17% (17 foot rise for every 100 feet in length). Most hikers agree that strenuous begins at 15%. Just for reference, the average grade from the first Nepal base camp to the summit of Mount Everest is 17%, though of course that goes on for many miles at high altitudes and in very cold weather.

The Gateway Trail is often narrow and overgrown, and in some cases it’s hard to discern. Because of this, it is important to keep a lookout for the white blazes. I get the feeling that the trail doesn’t see a lot of use. I definitely recommend wearing long pants regardless of the temperature. Traipsing through vegetation is a good way to pick up a tick, brush up against poison ivy, or get scraped by briars. Be sure to check yourself for ticks whenever you come in contact with greenery.

Overgrown section of the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Overgrown section of the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Where is the trail? Overgrown section of the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Where is the trail? Overgrown section of the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

One good thing about the stick portion of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike is that it is one of the smoothest trails at Catoctin Mountain Park, meaning that it doesn’t have a lot of rocks and roots on it. There are trails in the park that look like a landslide hit them. You’ll see such terrain later in the hike.

Smooth surface for the first .6 mile of the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Smooth surface for the first .6 mile of the Gateway Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

The top of the hill comes .6 mile into the hike, which is where the trail begins curving to the south. From here to the intersection where the loop starts—.2 mile away—it’s downhill, though on a much more moderate slope. The problem now is that the trail gets a little rockier, and the weeds often hide the trail surface, so you never know what your foot is going to come down on. Just before the intersection it’s like walking through the rubble of a bombed-out building. I slipped a number of times on the small, loose rocks. Hiking poles, if you have them, will certainly come in handy in preventing a sprained ankle.

The intersection where the loop starts is marked with two directional signs. You can hike the loop in the clockwise direction by continuing on the Gateway Trail towards the Visitor Center or counterclockwise by hiking towards Chimney and Wolf rocks. I don’t think one particular way is any easier than the other. I continued around in the counterclockwise direction towards Chimney Rock, and this trail report is written from that perspective.

Start of the loop portion of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

Start of the loop portion of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

The next destination is the intersection with the Orange Trail .4 mile ahead. The hike is uphill all the way on a 16%-grade stretch of trail. The terrain for the first .2 mile is similar to before—a few overgrown segments but fairly smooth as far as Catoctin Mountain Park trails go. There are briars on the trail, but I never did pick up any ticks.

Typical terrain at the start of the segment of the Gateway Trail leading to Chimney Rock at Catoctin Mountain Park

Typical terrain at the start of the segment of the Gateway Trail leading to Chimney Rock at Catoctin Mountain Park

The trail widens halfway to the Orange Trail intersection, and the trail surface becomes much rockier, which is more typical of trails at Catoctin Mountain Park. At times you must find the white blazes because there is no longer a discernible trail due to the abundance of rocks. Furthermore, some segments are tippy-toe steep, which is what I call being so steep that you must push off on the balls of your feet to move forward, and your heels never touch the ground.

Rocky terrain along the Gateway Trail as it approaches the intersection with the Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Rocky terrain along the Gateway Trail as it approaches the intersection with the Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Rocky terrain along the Gateway Trail as it approaches the intersection with the Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Rocky terrain along the Gateway Trail as it approaches the intersection with the Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

I came across an eastern box turtle on the trail, but other than birds, this is the only wildlife I saw on the hike.

Eastern box turtle at Catoctin Mountain Park

Eastern box turtle at Catoctin Mountain Park

The intersection with the Orange Trail comes at 1.2 miles into the hike. It is at the top of the hill that you have been climbing, and it is the highest point on the hike. Just prior to the intersection, the trail gets narrow and overgrown with lots of briars. It seems as if each intersection comes at a point where the terrain makes a drastic change. Anyway, follow the directional sign towards MD ROUTE 77, though you won’t actually be going all the way to the road where the Park Headquarters building is.

Intersection of the Gateway Trail and Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

Intersection of the Gateway Trail and Orange Trail at Catoctin Mountain Park

The trail is now marked with white and orange blazes, for the Gateway Trail shares the same path as the Orange Trail. It is extremely rocky, almost like walking through a landslide—and it may well be a landslide. Many of the rocks are loose, so your feet can easily slide out from under you.

Rocky terrain on Catoctin Mountain Park's Gateway / Orange trail heading east towards Park Headquarters

Rocky terrain on Catoctin Mountain Park’s Gateway / Orange trail heading east towards Park Headquarters

The next destination is the intersection where the two trails diverge, .4 mile ahead. The hike is downhill nearly all the way and continues to be very steep, basically a mirror image of the hike up. The first segment before a short, level reprieve is a little over a tenth of a mile long and has an average grade of -19%. A second segment of the same length has an average grade of -17%. Both segments have short sections that reach grades of -30% or higher. However, there are so many rocks on the trail that I didn’t even notice the steep descent, for all of my concentration was on where to place my feet so that I didn’t break a leg.

Extreme rocky terrain on the Gateway / Orange trail section of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

Extreme rocky terrain on the Gateway / Orange trail section of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike at Catoctin Mountain Park

The trail levels out roughly 500 feet before coming to the intersection. You’ll hear the traffic noise from Highway 77 as you approach. When you reach the intersection, head in the direction of the Lewis Area, which is marked on the directional signage.

Turnoff from the Orange Trail onto the Gateway Trail near the Catoctin Mountain Park Headquarters

Turnoff from the Orange Trail onto the Gateway Trail near the Catoctin Mountain Park Headquarters

The hike back to the start of the loop runs along the highway, so you are never out of earshot of the traffic noise. The first tenth of a mile continues down a steep hill (-15% average grade) and is overgrown. As I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t appear that the Gateway Trail is very popular. The more people hike a trail, the more the grass and weeds get beaten down, and that’s definitely not the case here. There are also plenty of small rocks on the path, many of which you can’t see due to the weeds. The terrain can be summed up as extremely tedious—small loose rocks, narrow path, steep, and who knows what’s lurking in the vegetation.

Typical terrain on the Gateway Trail heading east from the Catoctin Mountain Park Headquarters

Typical terrain on the Gateway Trail heading east from the Catoctin Mountain Park Headquarters

The terrain levels out once you get to the bottom of the hill, and the trail begins following a picturesque stream, Big Hunting Creek. You’ll be on a ledge above the creek, and for once the hiking is fairly easy. The only drawback is the traffic noise.

Catoctin Mountain Park's Gateway Trail follows Big Hunting Creek

Catoctin Mountain Park’s Gateway Trail follows Big Hunting Creek

Catoctin Mountain Park's Gateway Trail runs along a ridge above Big Hunting Creek

Catoctin Mountain Park’s Gateway Trail runs along a ridge above Big Hunting Creek

After .8 mile, the Gateway Trail makes a sharp turn to the north—nearly V shaped—and leaves the stream behind. A sign points to Chimney Rock, which is the way to go. At this point you will have hiked 2.6 miles.

Gateway Trail heading north towards Chimney Rock at Catoctin Mountain Park

Gateway Trail heading north towards Chimney Rock at Catoctin Mountain Park

For the first and only time at Catoctin Mountain Park, I got lost. Trees were down everywhere, and all traces of the trail quickly disappeared once I made the turn north. Upon reviewing my route as recorded by my hiking GPS, I discovered that I had walked around in circles three times for a total of a quarter mile. I knew I was somewhere in the middle of the V, so I eventually quit trying to figure out what went wrong and, using my GPS, I just cut through the forest in the direction of the trail and eventually reconnected with it. I went back to figure out where I missed the turn and came to the conclusion that there simply isn’t a trail at this point, and if there is, it is overgrown and no longer maintained. All of this mess is within a tenth of a mile of the intersection with the stick portion of the Gateway Trail Loop Hike.

The final stretch of the Gateway Trail to the stick portion is up another strenuous, tippy-toe steep hill (19% average grade with a 300-foot, 22% segment ). And remember, once you make the right turn back onto the stick, you will still be hiking up hill until reaching the point where the trail curves to the east, and then it’s a steep downhill trek all the way back to the parking lot.

Intersection of the loop and stick portion of Catoctin Mountain Park's Gateway Trail

Intersection of the loop and stick portion of Catoctin Mountain Park’s Gateway Trail

Even without the mess at the end of the hike, there’s not much to recommend about the Gateway Trail Loop Hike. There is nothing interesting to see along the way, it’s very strenuous, extremely rocky, and there are so many overgrown sections with briars and chances to pick up ticks that it’s just not worth the effort. Based on its non-maintained appearance, it doesn’t seem to be a very popular hiking destination at Catoctin Mountain Park.

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Last updated on February 2, 2023
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