Maple Syrup Festival at Cunningham Falls State Park – Sweet and Sappy

Day Trip Destination: Thurmont, Maryland

Buckets catch sap the old-fashioned way at the Cunningham Falls Maple Syrup Festival. All photos by Paul Jean.

While people tend to think of Vermont and New Hampshire as the maple syrup states, Maryland, Pennsylvania and even Virginia celebrate the transformation of the sap of the sugar maple tree into America’s favorite pancake topper. Step aside, Mrs. Butterworth; this is the real deal.

It’s maple sugaring season, and there’s still time to get in on the fun. On Saturday, March 20 and Sunday, March 21, Cunningham Falls State Park invites you to their 41st Annual Maple Syrup Festival in the William Houck Area off Route 77 in Thurmont. See a demonstration of the traditional maple syrup making process, eat a stack of pancakes slathered with sweet goodness, and let the kids enjoy a bit of fresh air.

This trip has something for everyone and is perfect for young families, scouting packs and multi-generational groups. Demonstrations take place every hour on the hour around a cast iron kettle over a wood-stoked fire. It doesn’t seem to matter how damp or cold the day is when you’re full of pancakes and standing here.

The steamy cauldron produces maple syrup magic after a day of stirring and tending.

The steaming cauldron is put on at 8:30 in the morning, and it takes all day for park staff to work their magic. The demonstration includes a ranger’s talk on the evolution of the process and a bit of consumer education, as well as local lore and legend about the discovery of maple sugar as a food product.

Kids are encouraged to pick up and examine wooden spouts and to ask and answer questions – guides are informative and interactive and keep it simple so most age groups can understand. But that’s not to say that adults won’t learn something, too.

Breakfast is served in the rustic stone lodge that is the park’s concession building, with its long dining tables for making new friends and fire pit in the center for central heating. Pancakes are offered with sausage and Maryland-made maple syrup for under $5, and coffee is a buck. The smell of a campfire and the nostalgic feelings it evokes are free.

Products from S&S Maple Camp in Corriganville – one of Maryland’s largest producers of maple syrup – are available for purchase. Stop by the stand located near the demonstration area for a free shot, and taste their U S Grade A Medium Amber. Syrup is sold by the half-pint, pint, quart and half-gallon, and bags of maple sugar and candies are also available.

A volunteer stokes the fire, so maple sap can cook down to our favorite pancake topper.

Several heated tents offer shelter from unpredictable March weather, with more fun inside. Kids can join Slim Harrison’s Sunnyland Band and play along with him on spoons, jugs, washboards, skiffle boards, limber jacks, wash tub bass and Pennsylvania Dutch stumpf-fiddles. Best of all, they can become a card-carrying member of the band.

Slim’s folk music tells of lost dogs, rainy days and the jugland boogie, but make no mistake: He’s a talented artist sharing a significant slice of Americana with our kids.

And that is, after all, what this day really is all about.

Slim Harrison may look like a one-man band, but he enlists a little help from his friends.

When you go …

  • Demonstrations are held every hour from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Breakfast is served from 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
  • Admission is a recommended donation of $2 per person.
  • Pancake breakfast with sausage is under $5; beverages are available for purchase.
  • Cash only, no credit cards or checks will be accepted.
  • Pets are prohibited in the tents, dining and demo areas and are best left at home.
  • A sign language interpreter is scheduled for Sunday.
  • Proceeds go to the Friends of Cunningham Falls and Gambrill State Parks.

Enough to Make Your Teeth Ache
Gateway Candyland is located in the unlikeliest of places, wedged between a liquor store and a church – two vices and a virtue – in a strip mall tucked off Route 15 just north of the park. Here you will find a dazzling array of candies – childhood favorites, newfangled novelties and a few surprises – a well as jams and jellies to take home.

The nostalgia continues at Gateway Candy – a gateway to your confectionary past.

As you open the door, you can smell the sugar dust in the air – a sign of the sweet nostalgia that waits inside. Row upon row of penny candy, now $4.59 per pound, fills the store, and suddenly the inner child is unleashed. Mary Janes? Squirrel Nuts? Fire Balls? This store is both a dentist’s nightmare and a baby boomer’s dream.

Sour cream and onion crickets and BBQ larvets are interesting offerings that pack a protein punch, and 32 flavors of ice cream serve to cleanse the palate. Gateway is a great stop for kids of all ages.

Time to Eat Again … (If You’re a Hobbit)
If you are headed south on Route 15, Historic Downtown Frederick makes a great detour for its shops, restaurants and small-town charm. One stand-out is Brewer’s Alley, known for its hand-crafted brews and innovative yet reasonably priced cuisine.

A stop at Brewer’s Alley is the perfect end to the day.

Updated comfort food is the house specialty, in addition to pizza from a wood-fired oven. The two concepts happily collide in my favorite dish: wood-fired smokehouse macaroni and cheese with Dorsey’s country ham. The balsamic blue filet with creamy mashers is a good choice, as is the buttermilk-fried chicken with country ham gravy.

Desserts are big enough to share and include warm caramel apple crisp and a brewmaster’s draft root beer float. Sandwiches, soups and appetizers are also offered. This restaurant is family friendly, and high chairs are available; meals from the kids’ menu are $6 including a soft drink.

Settle into a booth in the comfy dining area, or sit out on the patio on a fine spring day. You may not want to leave.

Story copyright 2011, Elaine C. Jean.  All rights reserved.
Photos copyright 2011, Paul N. Jean.  All rights reserved.

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