By Katie Riley
- Cascade Falls, 2.2 miles
- Cunningham Falls, .5 mile or .75 mile, depending on which trail you pick
- Swallow Falls, 1.25 miles
- Kilgore Falls, 1.2 miles
- Great Falls, 1.4 miles
There’s no better way to entice your kids on hike than picking a route that leads to a waterfall. These hikes to Maryland waterfalls are just the ticket.
On a Sunday morning at Cascade Falls in Patapsco State Park, the shrieks of delighted children were the only sounds to disturb the surrounding woodlands.
“Awesome!” shouted my daughter as we spotted our first glimpse of the falls from the Cascades Hiking Trail. “Cool!” echoed my 7-year-old, as he flung his shoes and jumped off a craggy rock into the pool of water at the base of the falls.
The allure of waterfalls has been documented for centuries, but they are never more enticing than on a hot summer’s day. Here are five hikes in Maryland where your family can experience the magic of a waterfall.
Admission prices may have changed. Check websites before heading out.
Cascade Falls at Patapsco Valley State Park is the ideal destination for kids of all ages. It has falls, pools of water and a trickling stream perfect for splashing.
Head to the Orange Grove area and park near the swinging bridge. The Cascade Falls Trail begins across the street from the swinging bridge. Walk just 300 yards up the trail before catching a glimpse of the first series of falls. The slightly hilly terrain is easy for little ones to traverse, and kids will love scrambling over the rocks to wade in the pools below. Three different waterfalls offer a shallow splashing area for kids to gather rocks and get close to the falls.
At the last set of falls, climb the rock staircase to continue on for a longer hike on the Cascades Trail (2.2 miles), a serene and moderate-level hike through the woods along a babbling brook. This popular trail can get busy on weekends, so catch the falls early in the day before continuing on this 60-minute, family-friendly hike. Afterwards, cool off with a refreshing swim in the Patapsco River, which runs just beside the parking lot.
Patapsco Valley State Park
5120 South St., Baltimore
Hours: 9 a.m.–sunset
Cost: $2 per vehicle weekdays; $3 per person weekends for Maryland residents April-October
Avalon/Glen Arney/Orange Grove area
Head west to Frederick County and Cunningham Falls State Park, which offers everything from breathtaking waterfalls to a natural lake and miles of trails.
Little ones are sure to be awestruck at the 78-foot Cunningham Falls, the largest cascading waterfall in the state. Enter the park at the William Houck area, located 3 miles west of Thurmont off Rt. 77, and park near the lake area.
For the quickest route to Cunningham Falls, hike the easy Lower Trail (1/2 mile) or take a rockier route on the Cliff Trail (3/4 mile) to the boardwalk and viewing platforms surrounding the falls. For a longer and more strenuous route, connect to the Campground Trail. Or you can head out on the more challenging Old Misery Trail, which provides a rocky terrain and breathtaking views of the surrounding Catoctin Mountains.
Swimming is not permitted in Cunningham Falls for safety reasons, but cool off after a satisfying hike with a dip in Hunting Creek Lake, just a short walk from the falls. Lifeguards are on duty daily during summer hours. The park may fill to capacity on summer weekends and holidays.
Cunningham Falls State Park
14039 Catoctin Hollow Road, Thurmont
Hours: 8 a.m.–sunset April–October; 10 a.m.–sunset November–March
Cost: $3 per person weekdays; $5 per person weekends for Maryland residents Memorial Day weekend-Labor Day weekend
See some of Maryland’s most beautiful scenery at Swallow Falls State Park in Garrett County.
Swallow Falls is north of Oakland. It is home to the Youghiogheny River and Muddy Creek, two whitewater rivers that flow through the surrounding Appalachian Mountains.
From the parking lot, take the moderate Swallow Falls Canyon Trail (1.25 miles), a slightly hilly terrain that runs alongside the Muddy Creek and past four sets of rapidly moving falls. Muddy Creek Falls is a crashing 53-foot waterfall, Maryland’s highest free-falling waterfall. Because the rivers have strong currents and swiftly moving rapids, swimming is discouraged.
After hiking the Swallow Falls Canyon Trail, families can choose a longer hike on the 5½-mile Swallow Falls Trail that leads through the Garrett State Forest, past 300-year-old hemlocks. The trail connects with Herrington Manor State Park, a nearby park that includes a 54-acre lake with a beach and lifeguards on duty during the summer.
Families can stay for a weekend by taking advantage of Swallow Falls’ on-site camp store. Campsites feature modern bathhouses and 65 campsites, each with its own fire ring, picnic table, lantern post and stabilized pad.
Swallow Falls State Park
2470 Maple Glade Road, Oakland
Hours: 8 a.m.-sunset year round
Cost: $3 per person Maryland residents; $5 per person out-of-state Memorial Day-Labor Day plus weekends in May, September and October
All other times $3/car for Maryland residents, $5/car for out of state residents
Get an up-close look at the waterfall made famous in the Disney movie “Tuck Everlasting” at Kilgore Falls in Rocks State Park. This short, family-friendly hike on the Falling Branch Trail (1.2 miles) of Rocks State Park leads to Maryland’s second-highest vertical drop waterfall of 19 feet.
The Susquehannock Indians used Kilgore Falls as a meeting place, and remnants of an old state coach road and stagecoach outbuilding remain along the trail. Wade in the surrounding pools of the falls, but be sure to wear shoes, as the bottom of the pool is rocky and can drop to a depth of 10 feet beneath the falls. Kids can climb the rocks behind the falls to gain a watery perspective.
To find the trail, head north of Rocks Park on Route 24. Turn left at St. Mary’s Road, then right onto Falling Branch Road and proceed to the parking area. Take note: There are no restrooms in this area and the parking lot can fill by mid-day on weekends.
Rocks State Park
3318 Rocks Chrome Hill Road, Jarrettsville
Hours: 9 a.m.–sunset March–October; 10 a.m.–sunset November–February
Cost: Some areas free; others weekends $3 per person, weekdays $2 per vehicle Maryland residents
NEW for 2021—Parking passes are now required to visit Kilgore Falls on weekends and holidays between May 1 and Labor Day. Passes become available for reservation on the Monday prior to the desired visit.
Families searching for the ultimate waterfall hike need look no further than Great Falls. This spectacular natural landmark is located along the Potomac River in Maryland and Virginia. Watch the Potomac cascade over rocks to form 20-foot waterfalls, creating the steepest fall line rapids of any river on the Eastern Seaboard. The park is 800 acres and part of the National Parks Service.
Enter the park from the Maryland side in the C&O Canal National Historic Park and park at the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center. Check out the falls from the Aqueduct Observation Deck or further south on the Olmstead Island Bridges before picking up the Billy Goat Trail at lock 16. Follow this 1.4-mile trail before looping back to the parking lot or continue further down the trail through section C (1.6 miles).
For families with older children who aren’t afraid to scramble over a rock or two, the Billy Goat Trail offers panoramic glimpses of some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the Washington area.
C&O Canal National Historic Park
11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac
Hours: (Visitor Center CLOSED During COVID) Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center open 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, closed Mondays and Tuesdays; park open daylight hours year-round.
Cost: Three-day pass $10 per vehicle
The thrill of a waterfall can tempt even the most watchful of children. But it’s important to exercise care and restraint when approaching a waterfall. Hidden dangers can lurk in even the shallowest of pools and minor cascades. Always practice caution and keep in mind these tips when visiting a waterfall:
- Keep a safe distance from cascading falls; the water is more powerful than it appears.
- Stay clear from the edge of a waterfall, and avoid slippery rocks.
- Wear stable footwear and take careful steps when approaching the pools and falls.
- Always know the depth of the cascade pool, and test the waters before sending little ones in for a closer look.
- Do not allow children in the water alone, and never allow diving from rocks into the shallow pools.
- Avoid waterfall pools and cascades after a heavy rainfall, when the water is deepest and the current at it’s strongest.
- Keep a safe distance from large and powerful falls. Observation platforms, fencing and restricted areas exist for a reason.
For more information about waterfall safety, contact a park ranger for accurate, up-to-date information at each venue.
Looking for other places to explore with your kids?
Top photo by Katie Riley.
Falls photos provided by state and national parks.
Originally published in 2014. Updated May 2021