Vacation Time – the beach or the mountains? Hmmm – I can never decide, but what about both at the same time? Well, it is possible and I am not kidding. Within driving distance of many east coast and upper Midwest communities lies the under-discovered and relatively secluded Deep Creek Lake – a massive, yet cozy vacation community nestled in the natural Appalachian Mountain heritage of Western Maryland. Such a lake might surprise the senses and seem out of place atop the Appalachian Ridge and far below any regions with natural lakes. But while no one was looking, an enterprising plan to build a dam across a mountain stream in the 60s resulted in what is now a premier natural resource destination.
A quick review of basic geography reveals that the Maryland, known as America in miniature, is so designated, despite its smaller size, by its unique shape that captures the Atlantic Ocean seashores of the east, Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore/Washington, DC regions in the middle, the semi-rural coastal plains of the south and the Appalachian continental divide to the west. The manmade and amoeba-shaped Deep Creek Lake of Maryland’s panhandle is a prime family retreat for many non-Maryland metropolitan areas as well such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia.
So next time the crowds and familiarity of overpriced seaside resorts gets old, snatch up a lakeside cottage for a week from one of the many local realtors for the best of the beach and the best of the mountains in one experience. The vastness of this lake is only exceeded by its unique nestling of endless waterfront among scenic Blue Ridge vistas with easy access to cultural as well as recreational activities – best described as seashore with fresh water and trees instead of sand and brine. Throw in perfectly cool nights to relieve the hot days along with less crowds and costs and you may not ever see the ocean again.
Play, not work, is the name of the game at Deep Creek Lake – and while boating, fishing and water-skiing are the prominent activities, many are surprised to learn of the many non-water oriented adventures available as well. The secluded and rolling terrain offers many opportunities to try all those outdoor things you may have been too busy to try back home – like horseback riding, trout fishing, mountain biking, paintball and good old- fashioned nature appreciation and hiking.
A good starting point, if undecided about what to try or where to go, is to head over to the pre-eminent all season focal point of the area – Wisp Deep Creek Mountain Resort. While a premium ski destination (great snow conditions due to altitude), this winter resort is just as fun in the summer as a one-stop-shop for any recreation opportunity which might cross your mind from Frisbee golf, a skate park, ATV tours and mountain biking to paintball, fly fishing and kayaking. My favorite was trying the adventurous mountain boarding – a summer version of snow boarding – which is a skateboard with larger air filled rubber wheels and a hand brake for negotiating the grassed mountain ski trails – lessons are included. Don’t pass up the Super Sunday Outdoor Expo every (of course) Sunday at Wisp which lets anyone try all the activities as much as they want for just $5. Complementary snacks, treats, kiddy games and souvenirs are included – definitely one of the best buys in the area.
In fact, consider staying at Wisp at their Resort Hotel and Conference Center. While many visitors rent cottages (usually by the week) and are the best for a waterfront access and view, Wisp puts you at the foot of their mountain and near everything you would want in one place, including an excellent restaurant (DC Steakhouse). Get one of their family stay packages – especially if golfing at championship courses is a priority. The family fun package includes a myriad of passes and discounts for all the activities. These packages are even more rewarding when scheduled around the various golfing, mountain boarding, ATV and mountain biking tournaments the resort hosts.
Wisp also holds the honor for best pampering in the form of their Sewickley SPA providing types of salon services and massages so varied that I never even of heard of them – but I am a guy. The peak seasons are summer and winter – but the summer peak isn’t in full force until after the July 4th holiday period. If the warmer lake water temperatures of August are not a priority, take advantage of the mini-shoulder summer season between the end of school and the 4th of July – providing the best of summer with less crowds and more flexible accommodation opportunities.
Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what to do first – I go for the opportunities least possible back home and for me it was horseback riding. My last such experience was as a teen at summer camp in the 60s (quick, do the math) where my youthful anxieties of sitting on a big animal precluded a fully enjoyable experience. For beginners – as well as advanced – I heartily recommend the family run Circle R Ranch. Their experienced guides will not only show you how to ride in a flash but make it immediately fun as well by leading the patient beasts through leisurely winding trails over hill and dale. Do not be surprised if the quiet clip clop gives way to fantasies of what it might have been like to use and rely on this transportation long ago. Some of the scenarios my kids shared included my daughter pretending to be a princess riding through the woods in medieval times, my son participating in a battle scene ,and me – well … riding through a famous town of the old west as a gunfighter . (I confess I succumbed to the imagery of Clint Eastwood while practicing his squint).
If budgets allow, Deep Creek Lake is one of the best places to explore and access by boat – if you own a boat and trailer, so much the better. For those in the know, it can substitute for a car since most lakeside attractions and restaurants provide boat dock parking, and some areas of the lake are only accessible by the water. Of course this is the only venue for water skiing, and boats are a must. The popularity of this pastime can require boat rental reservations to be made months in advance, so plan early – try Bill’s Marine Service or Deep Creek Marina for rentals.
An economic alternative to boating is the myriad nature appreciation opportunities. Try the Wisp mountain trails or the ones at Deep Creek Lake State Park nearby. This is the main public access to the only bathing beach as well as picnic areas and a premium nature center. The center offers excellent interpretive learning programs for budding biologists (try the Junior Ranger and Scales and Tales Campfire programs) and allows for some alone time for the parents. For more immersion into such activities sign up with outfitters such as Camp Earth for naturalist guided hikes and kayak tours, farm tours, photography workshops, and if burned out on hiking, try Western Maryland ATV Tours for true – and fun – remote wilderness exploration.
Week-long stays may warrant a change of pace and nearby opportunities for exploration and cultural appreciation are endless. Try hiking Muddy Creek Falls at Swallow Falls State Park or exploring the country communities, specifically historic Oakland – the county seat. Billed as “A Great Small Town”, it offers great walking tour opportunities. One of my favorite exploration activities in this cozy country community was a horse and buggy ride through vast Amish farmlands with Pleasant Valley Dream Rides. Also offering winter sleigh and Cinderella wedding carriage rides, the proprietor will regale you with local tales of the surrounding mountain vistas, Amish lore and farm life as well as the Clydesdale horse, so massive as if able to haul a Bradley assault vehicle. For something really different, early risers and fanciers of the husky dog breed should sign up for a real life dog sled ride on wheels. It is early in the AM so as to avoid overheating of the winter-favoring tykes.
For a bit of civilization and comfort, try a lakeside night out at Uno’s restaurant with a couple of after dinner drinks at the adjacent Honi Honi bar. Both combined establishments are also family friendly with waterfront boat access as well as a unique kid playground with opportunities for memorable photographs. A more hi-tech and stimulating experience can be found at Smiley’s FunZone – the ultimate arcade and game park of the western mid-Atlantic. Guaranteed to liberate the adult child as well as the obvious ones, this massive amusement playground offers literally hours and hours of go-kart racing, putt putt golf, laser tag, video and pinball games all tucked into the hilly lake shoreline. My favorite was the go-karts and laser tag. This is a great opportunity for a tech-fix for kids, but take a break at their excellent restaurant to rest.
In fact, keep on resting…..until ski season.