Maryland's largest manmade body of water beckons, with abundant outdoor activities.

Group vacationers know large rental homes rarely come cheap, even when splitting the cost among several parties. So Ryan Ackerman was pleasantly surprised to discover Deep Creek Lake last year when his small church group was planning a trip for summer’s waning days. “We stayed at a rental house called Smack Dab that was on the lake in a town called Oakland,” says Ackerman, a 35-year-old Westerville resident. “It was really affordable compared to other lake destinations like Lake Norris, and much closer to home.”

It’s true: Deep Creek Lake, Maryland’s largest inland body of water, is just four hours from Columbus by car. Thus, the lake and its many nearby attractions are accessible for extended stays and long weekends. For Ackerman’s group, fishing, boating and swimming proved to be ideal activities for soaking up summer’s final days together.

They also voyaged to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house Fallingwater an hour up the road in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. They indulged in some sweets at Deep Creek Donuts, which bills itself as a “fresh, homemade donut micro factory.” (Ackerman compares it to Duck Donuts.) Perhaps most memorably, they trekked amid the waterfalls at Deep Creek Lake State Park and Swallow Falls State Park.

Still, that was just a sampling; Ackerman would have had to stick around for months to work his way through all the various sights and activities that have sprung up in the Deep Creek area.

Making a Vacation Mecca

In the roaring ’20s, the Youghiogheny Hydro Electric Corp. had the bright idea to generate power from the raging currents of Deep Creek, a tributary of the Youghiogheny River. The company built a 1,300-foot impoundment dam to stem the tide. Within months the reservoir was full, and by May 1925 the hydroelectric plant was operational.

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Soon, so was a booming vacation industry, one that now welcomes 1.2 million visitors to Garrett County each year. Nestled within the Allegheny Mountains at Maryland’s western edge, the region is home to a wide range of natural wonders and attractions, including the state’s highest free-falling waterfall, its tallest mountain, its only ski resort and a state-best 90,000 acres of public land. Perhaps foremost among the area’s superlatives is a man-made contribution to the landscape, Deep Creek Lake itself. Spanning 3,900 acres and 65 miles of shoreline, it’s Maryland’s largest freshwater lake and a center for all kinds of aquatic activity.

Sarah Duck at the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce says vacation rental homes are the most plentiful accommodations, along with hotels, lodges, cabins and bed-and-breakfasts. The local state parks also have plenty of camping options. Although active as a vacation hub for nearly a century, in recent years the region has quietly emerged as a prime location for outdoor adventure and relaxation in all seasons.

The Wild Winter

It’s impossible to discuss winter in the Deep Creek Lake region without mentioning Wisp Resort, which offers a wide range of activities year-round but is best known as Maryland’s only ski resort. Garrett County gets an average of 120 inches of snowfall per year—“nearly double that of Fairbanks, Alaska,” Duck explains. Those seeking to speed down the mountainside have 32 slopes and trails to choose from, plus a snow tubing area and the Mountain Coaster, billed as “a gravitational hybrid of an alpine slide and a roller coaster.” About 1,300 feet of track up Wisp Mountain lead to a 3,500-foot downhill ride that spans 350 vertical feet.

Wisp also offers several terrain parks for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Adventurers in search of a more horizontal experience can try cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling at Wisp’s Nordic Center, as well as skating at the ice rink. The resort offers a fair amount of indoor options, too, including some amenities you’d expect (an indoor pool, hot tub and fitness center) and some that may surprise you (escape rooms). One way to experience Wisp is by crashing at its recently renovated lodge, where guests are treated to a nightly s’mores roasting.

January and February are the best months for ice fishing at Deep Creek Lake and other Garrett County lakes and rivers. Cross-country skiers can find groomed trails and rentals at area state parks including Herrington Manor, New Germany and Sang Run. You can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride at Circle R Ranch in Oakland, and great winter hiking is available at Swallow Falls State Park, where you’ll find the aforementioned 53-foot waterfall, Muddy Creek Falls. “About January, it freezes solid and people will actually climb up the ice and repel down it, which is just absolutely wild,” says Railey Realty’s Kristin Skeweris. “Since this river’s frozen, you can actually walk out to the frozen waterfall.”

If you’re looking to time your visit to a special event, the Oakland Winter Fest brings ice sculptures, ice-carving demonstrations and sleigh rides to downtown Oakland on Feb. 15 and 16.

Sightseeing in Spring

Given the temperate climate, spring may be the best time to explore the region’s ample hiking and biking trails, heritage sites and shopping options. It also might be the most affordable time to visit. Duck says many local rentals will offer a special rate of three nights for the cost of two from March 12 to May 7, holidays excluded.

Garrett County is home to eight state parks and two state forests, so the trails are numerous and diverse. Deep Creek Lake State Park offers rugged terrain ideal for hiking and mountain biking. Adventurers can also snag a bird’s-eye view of the lake from Thayerville Fire Tower. For breathtaking views without as much effort, take a drive and a short hike to Maryland’s highest point, the Hoye-Crest summit on Backbone Mountain, named for the late Capt. Charles E. Hoye, founder of the Garrett County Historical Society.

Railey suggests Herrington Manor State Park and Garrett State Forest for longer, flatland hikes, including one 6-mile trail that connects both of those sites with Swallow Falls State Park and its famous (occasionally) frozen waterfall. Even more hiking and mountain biking options are available at Fork Run Recreation Area, New Germany State Park and Savage River State Forest.

Appropriately enough for a region defined by its man-made body of water, many of the Deep Creek Lake area’s wonders were built into the landscape by humans. Several of the historic structures in Garrett County can be found in and around Casselman River Bridge State Park in Grantsville. The park is named for its titular 80-foot stone arch, the longest of its kind upon its construction in 1813. From then until 1933 it was part of the National Road, helping to establish the area’s vibrant commercial prospects during the pioneer area. That history is preserved at the adjacent Spruce Forest Artisan Village, a set of historic structures including a 19th-century mill and schoolhouse and Miller House Peace Center.

Not far from Grantsville, after glimpsing an incredible view from the Cove Scenic Overlook, you can go back even further in time in the intriguingly named Accident, Maryland. There you’ll find the Drane House, the county’s oldest building. Among other historical sites in the area are Oakland’s B&O Railroad Museum and the gravesite of Maryland’s famous frontier hunter Meshach Browning, near Friendsville. Guide yourself through these spots and more with the Gateway to the West Heritage Tours app or the map at garrettheritage.com.

Head into Friendsville proper for libations at Deep Creek Cellars, open by appointment from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Wine and cheese pairings can be sampled at FireFly Creamery & Market in Accident, and epicureans of all stripes will enjoy the annual Taste of Garrett festival May 3 at Wisp Resort.

Summertime Waterfront Fun

Most of Deep Creek Lake’s springtime activities translate to summer, but the hot season is especially good for the region’s abundant aquatic activities. Many types of watercraft rentals are available—pontoon boats, canoes, kayaks, jet skis—for all manner of fun, including tubing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, paddleboarding, you name it. To turn your outing into a guided experience, get a kayak tour though All Earth Eco Tours, whose year-round offerings also include yoga, team-building programs, hiking and photography tours, and much more.

“One of the cool things that locals do is getting out for a sunrise paddle,” Skeweris says. “There’s absolutely no one on the water. It’s just a really cool, serene way to wake up.”

Looking to go fishing? According to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, Deep Creek Lake allows gas-powered boats and is a popular location for bass fishing tournaments. Beyond largemouth and smallmouth, it’s stocked with a wide variety of species including walleye, yellow perch and chain pickerel. Bill’s Marine Service and Outdoor Center offers family float trips for fishing. There are piers all along the shoreline, too, and many of the lakefront rental homes have docks where anglers can cast their lines.

For good times all season long, try Honi-Honi Bar in Oakland, an outdoor, waterfront joint where you can dock your boat, enjoy live music, turn kids loose on the playground and maybe stop for ice cream down the road at Lakeside Creamery. Another watering hole Duck recommends is McHenry’s Black Bear Tavern: “They have a sports bar on one side and a nightclub with music on the other side,” she says.

As for getting around on dry land, the Oakland-based stables Circle R and Western Trails offer horseback riding, including guided tours and pony rides. Western Trails has off-road ATV rentals and UTV tours, too. Another place for outdoor fun is Monkey Business Aerial Adventures, with its array of zip lines and ropes courses. It’s part of DCL Adventures, which has an inflatable water park on the lake called Splash Island, set to open for the summer on June 15.

The DCL empire also has an indoor-outdoor gaming center called Deep Creek Fun Zone, which features go-karts, bumper boats, an arcade and more. It’s one of several such facilities in the area, including Funland and Fun Unlimited; at the latter, parents play for free when paying for a child aged 16 or younger. And at the nearby Deep Creek Ninja Factory, you can partake in American Ninja Warrior-style challenges. That’s probably not the first activity you’d associate with a massive freshwater reservoir in rural Maryland, but Deep Creek Lake overflows with surprises.

Chris DeVille is an editor at the music website Stereogum. He has written for The Ringer, The Verge, Rolling Stone and Columbus Monthly.

Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Best Driving Vacations 2020.

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