News & Politics

Westward Ho

The lake-filled mountains of western Maryland were once too far away for a vacation home. Not anymore.

For Mike and Grace Shirey, Deep Creek Lake was irresistible. The Silver Spring couple had tired of beach traffic and ocean vacations but not the water. They decided to try a mountain-lake resort.

At first they rented houses; then they bought. After owning several places on the lake, they built a large waterfront home on more than an acre in Deep Creek’s Blakeslee subdivision.

“The small house on the block,” Grace says. “A lot of our neighbors have indoor pools.” The Shireys’ second home features a lighthouselike tower to guide them home when returning by boat from lakeside restaurants.

For now, the Shireys, in their mid-fifties, are weekenders. But they feel at home. “I’m sure there are bigger and better lakes,” Mike says, “but, I tell you, I love this one.”

For vacation homes and retirement spots, more Washingtonians are finding their way west. Years ago, the mountains of western Maryland and nearby West Virginia were a long haul from Washington. But in the early 1990s, Interstate 68 was finished, running from I-70 at Hancock, west of Hagerstown, to Morgantown, roughly parallel to the Maryland/Pennsylvania border. The highway opened new vacation possibilities.

Like the Shireys, more Washingtonians are heading to Deep Creek and discovering what locals have touted as “Maryland’s best-kept secret.” They also are buying property nearby in West Virginia’s Canaan Valley and Alpine Lake.

The drive from Washington is a decompressing passage. Stress melts as you head over the first mountain beyond Frederick. As you descend the western slope of the eastern continental divide, tension gives way to mountain mellowness.

Especially appealing is the climate, usually eight to ten degrees cooler than in DC. But it’s not just the weather that draws city people. It’s quality of life.

Garrett County’s Deep Creek Lake is three-plus hours and a world away. The 1925 creation of a Pennsylvania utility company, it’s the largest human-made body of water in Maryland or adjoining states. Though long a Pittsburgh retreat, the area’s now a popular vacation spot for Washington and Baltimore.

Only 30,000 people live year-round in Garrett County, perhaps 650 in the lake area. In summer, the population swells with weekenders and vacationers.

Real estate is hot around Deep Creek, especially at the high end. With the westward migration of Washington wealth, prices rose and residents began to see teardowns, or “scrapes,” as they are called there.

Today, many of the smaller homes have been replaced. Even A-frames and townhouses from the 1970s and ’80s look old.

In the last two years, about 50 houses have sold in the lake area for $1 million or more, according to broker Ed King. Near the end of 2006, there were 23 listings, with prices up to $3.49 million.

“Supply and demand there is holding its own,” King says.

Lakefront property goes for top dollar, followed by lake-access homes with full docks and then properties with nice views and dock slips, says King.

At the low end of the market are “cabin-in-the-woods stuff for under $300,000 or so,” says Doug McClive, another broker. “This is a huge county with six state parks and lots of state-owned land. There are still lots of opportunities.”

Several miles east of the lake at a development called Deer Crest, ten mountain-view home sites of one to four acres are for sale from $104,900 to $179,000. Waterfront Greens (; 301-387-8851), a nine-hole golf community on one of the lake’s quiet coves, is under way, with house prices up to $1.3 million.

At Ridgeview Valley (; 800-544-2425)—309 wooded acres near but not within sight of the lake—lots are $139,000 to $179,900. The new homes are what some call “upscale rustic,” more akin to the “great camps” of the Adirondacks than the modest cabins that used to be typical of Deep Creek.

“People are just craving that getaway place,” says Railey’s real-estate agent Debra Savage. “You can drive out Friday night, get here, relax, leave here Sunday at 4 pm, and you’re back home by 7 pm.”

Along Glendale Road, which crosses the lake, there is a string of empty lots and new homes. At Silver Ridge (800-279-4680), a cluster of Craftsman-style homes, only a few spots remain for sale. Only 12 lots available, said a sign this fall at Meadow Mountain Run.

But more houses are on the drawing board. Thousand Acres (; 301-616-9866), a 600-acre golf community along the shores of Deep Creek Lake, is planned for 300 homes, a clubhouse, and a restaurant.

The Reserve at Holy Cross (; 800-544-2425), once a Catholic Church property on the western shore of the lake, is rising house by custom house. This fall, two lakefront houses were for sale for $2.6 million and $3.5 million. Acre lots listed for $1.4 million to $2.3 million.

DC Development (866-526-9477), which owns Wisp Resort, is planning up to 2,500 homes on Marsh Mountain, some of which will overlook the lake. The firm has donated nearly 18 acres for an adventure sports center created largely with public funds; it’s slated to open this spring with a world-class whitewater kayak course. The company also has turned over to public use 550 acres on the mountain for an “adventure park” with rock climbing, hiking, biking, and cross-country ski trails.

Last April, 60 ski-in, ski-out lots adjoining Wisp’s new North Camp section sold in one day for more than $25 million—an average of more than $400,000­­. Most of the buyers were from the Washington area. A similar sale is planned for lots adjoining a new golf course.

“Aspen and Vail have bigger ski mountains,” says Karen Myers, a Garrett County native whose roots go back generations, “but they don’t have a lake. Other than Lake Tahoe, this is the only resort that has water recreation with skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling as well as all the water-oriented summer activities.”

The area’s attraction to outsiders is not new. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, trains brought moguls of the Gilded Age to the area’s glades, meadows, and mountains. Later, titans of the industrial age—Firestone, Ford, and Edison—came here to camp at Muddy Creek Falls, a tributary of the Youghiogheny River that was later expanded to become Deep Creek Lake.

Today the lake is not a celebrity magnet, though Ted Koppel once owned a place and Albert Einstein used to visit. Vianne Bell, proprietor of the Good Timber Bed & Breakfast, moved midway down the lake with her husband, Michael, in 2001 after 26 years in the Washington area.

Vianne is a former CPA; Michael, an economist affiliated with George Washington University, frequently travels abroad. He drives to Washington one day a week, avoiding rush hour. “I never schedule a meeting before 11,” he says.

The Bells razed the cabin they bought to create a cedar-log house on the lake. “It’s not a teardown,” she insists. “We recycled the cabin.” They offered the remains to locals, who took everything but three cinder blocks. “Little bits of our cabin are all over this county, and it makes us feel really good.”

Though Garrett remains old-fashioned, the Washington invasion has created a new market for gourmet-coffee shops, art galleries, and antique shops, which are concentrated in Oakland, the county seat. The influx of newcomers has energized the Garrett County Arts Council, and there’s a thriving community theater.

A state park, miniature golf, and lots of informal restaurants keep the place family-friendly. Despite the small fleet of sailboats anchored at two yacht clubs and the abundance of speedboats, pontoon boats with shade awnings are still popular.

“Even on the busiest weekends, it’s so less hectic than any major holiday resort in America,” says Peter Trooboff, a partner at the Washington law firm Covington & Burling and a lake-property owner since 1977. “You can get into the movies, into the restaurants. You can get the New York Times on Sunday morning.”

Gary Yoder, who lives on the lake and used to manage its 65 miles of state-owned shoreline, is at the helm for an afternoon boat tour of the serpentine-shaped lake. It’s 13 miles long, rises about half a mile above sea level, and encompasses 3,900 acres. Along its edges are docks and slips that house as many as 5,300 boats.

“It’s a cross between Walden Pond and a watering hole in the desert,” Yoder says. “From the Fourth of July to Labor Day, all the [human] animals come to drink at the watering hole. Other times it’s a great mountain lake, with all those looks and moods. There are times when it’s gunmetal blue, there are times when it’s sort of green, there are times when it’s quicksilver.

“When you travel to meet with friends, or get together at someone’s house, you go by boat and come back by boat late at night when the moon’s lying on the water and there’s nobody out there.”

I am visiting during a quiet time in November. It is after the Autumn Glory Festival and before winter takes hold, when ice fishing, snowshoes, and cross-country skis replace waterskiing, speedboating, and wake boarding.

Soon more than a foot of ice will cover the lake. More than 250 inches of snow fell in 2003, including one 24-hour period that saw 51 inches.

“When winter comes,” says Yoder, “it’s a quiet, still place—except when it’s real cold and the lake is making ice and this expansion occurs and there’s an eerie sound. In June, it’s the whine of mating mayflies in the air.

“There are times when it’s a very placid place, and there are times when it’s a very busy and frenetic recreation center, and all those times are good.”

Silver Spring writer Eugene L. Meyer described DC’s inner-city renaissance in April 2006’s “New Day in the City.”

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