Fishing Creek watershed, the city’s gem

Nestled between Gambrill and Cunningham Falls state parks is a 7,000-acre forested parcel of city-owned land designated to protect Fishing Creek watershed and reservoir, an impoundment that provides about 11 percent of the city’s water supply.


Didn’t know about it? You’re not alone. It’s the City of Frederick Watershed and Municipal Forest, and the entire area is protected to preserve water quality and water supply for the city’s residents.

Click on the map to open a larger version

Click on the map to open a larger version

It’s not easy to find your way around it. There are very few road signs, no trail markers, save for the blazes along the Catoctin Blue Trail, and general confusion about what is what up there. Red blazes on trees indicate Watershed land, as well as signs at all the main entrances, letting visitors know that they are entering a protected area. A few signs in prominent parking areas display the rules, which include no littering or dumping, no trail cutting, no motorized vehicles on any trails, no fires, no camping, and that the Watershed closes an hour after sunset to an hour before sunrise. Kiosks and way-finding brochures will be developed in the coming year to help visitors better understand the purpose of this place and the ways they can enjoy it.

In the summer of 2014, the Watershed Ad Hoc Committee formed with the intention of understanding the various user groups and determining how to allow recreation while maintaining a healthy water supply. The city is working toward making the area more friendly for outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, bikers, equestrians, fishermen and hunters through the committee. This group of dedicated volunteers has helped establish trail standards, assessed most of the 80-plus miles of trails, and have created an expanded draft recreational section to add to the existing the Forest Stewardship Plan, while balancing with the city’s ultimate goal to protect water quality.

For many years, users have been creating their own trails, parking areas, and dumping trash in a forest that was left largely unmanaged. Though there was a lot of unsanctioned activity, the Catoctin Blue Trail is regularly maintained. The Catoctin Blue Trail, constructed between 1979 and 1982 by the volunteers of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, is a 27-mile path beginning in Gambrill State Park and continues through the Watershed, Cunningham Falls State Park, and ends in Catoctin Mountain National Park. It is currently the only sanctioned trail in the Watershed. However, the committee, along with recommendations from the Department of Natural Resources, is drafting a viable trail network beyond the Blue Trail to propose to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen soon.


Volunteers not only contribute to the trail maintenance, they also help track and collect all the litter and bulk trash that is illegally dumped. Their constant vigilance coupled with the city’s cameras has significantly reduced the illegal dumping and littering, but it still happens. More than 60 volunteers at the spring 2015 Watershed cleanup collected about seven tons of bulk trash, six trucks and trailers full of yard waste, four five-gallon buckets full of used motor oil, a canoe, a toilet, an entire fence, four mattresses and much more. That was the most trash ever collected during the annual cleanup.

In addition to the trash, some visitors have been off-roading with full-sized four-wheel drive vehicles, ATVs and dirt bikes. Motorized vehicles have never been allowed off the county roads in any section of the Watershed and Municipal Forest. The city has attempted to deter that traffic by setting up concrete blocks at those old fire road entrances, but these drivers continue to find new ways into the forest and fire ponds. Usually, trees are cut down and boulders pulled out of the way to illegally enter these areas. The ponds they drive in and around, originally constructed to help combat wildfires, are now well-functioning, established wetlands. Motorized vehicles compact and displace the soils and can harm the organisms that thrive in those environments.


With the assistance of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and the Natural Resources Police, off-roaders, those littering and dumping, campers and campfire builders, and those in the watershed after hours are being warned and cited. Encouraging stewardship and proper recreational use of the watershed is a priority as the city moves forward with its endeavor to enhance the opportunities in this hidden gem while maintaining a healthy water supply for city residents.

This column was originally published here.

City of Frederick AD HOC Watershed Advisory Committee

The Ad Hoc Watershed Advisory Committee was formed to recommend revisions to the existing Forest Stewardship Plan in order to bring better definition to allowable recreational uses; assist with the development of a City-sanctioned trail network system that preserves water quality, environmental habitats and sensitive areas while providing multi-use, sustainable recreational trails; and to assist with the development of a long-term Trail and Watershed Forest Maintenance Plan. Sub-Goals of the Committee include enforcement, public information, parking, signage, funding, etc.