What (and Where) Is Camp David?

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Tucked away in the Maryland countryside, Camp David serves as a tranquil retreat for U.S. presidents and a secluded venue for hosting foreign world leaders. The complex of cabins — boasting two pools, a game room, and basketball and tennis courts — has transformed over the decades, yet Camp David’s reputation as a serene escape has never wavered. From its ultra-private location to its bevy of world-famous visitors, Camp David remains a fixture in America’s political social scene.

Where Is It?

The Catoctin Mountain Park in background from downtown Thurmont
Credit: The Washington Post/ Getty Images

The wooden hills of Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, Maryland conceal the grounds of Camp David, nestled 60 miles north of Washington, D.C. Despite its proximity to the capital, it might as well be another world. The camp’s rustic atmosphere and quietude are a far cry from the fast-paced hustle and bustle of Washington, making it an ideal place for presidents seeking a way to relax and recharge. Although public access to Camp David is strictly off limits, visitors can still enjoy the park’s hiking trails, camp sites, and fishing opportunities.

What Is Camp David?

Camp David sign with flags and military men standing in front
Credit: JIM WATSON/ Getty Images

The retreat encompasses 12 guest cabins in addition to the private presidential abode known as Aspen Cabin. Included in the grandiose layout is Laurel Lodge, a spacious hall used for meal service and meetings, and Hickory Lodge, the compound’s entertainment hub stocked with a bowling alley, movie theater, bar and restaurant, game room, and library.

The plans, meetings, and negotiations conducted at Camp David have rewritten history. These walls heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill plan the invasion of Normandy and were privy to top-secret discussions during the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam War.

President Jimmy Carter deemed the idyllic setting worthy of hosting the legendary peace talks between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978 — an event known as the Camp David Accords. President Bill Clinton followed in Carter’s footsteps in 2000 when he brought together Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in an effort to end the conflict between the two countries. More recently, Barack Obama held the 38th G8 summit on the camp’s grounds in 2012.

Despite such historic events, Camp David isn’t all work and no play. The camp and surrounding grounds have provided a sanctuary for presidents and their families for decades. The peaceful environment provides ample opportunities for walking and horseback riding — appreciated by the likes of President Carter, President Reagan, and President Bush. President Obama and President Lyndon B. Johnson have lounged poolside with their family and friends, and Obama even showed his athletic side by organizing a game of hoops with his senior staff members. Often covered with fresh snow in the winter months, many presidents and their families prefer to spend Christmas at the camp. President Nixon, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush have all hunkered down here for the holidays.

History

Top of mountain at Catoctin Mountain Park
Credit: zrfphoto/ iStock

The land now known as Catoctin Mountain Park was originally purchased in 1936 for the start of a governmental development project. The Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area was born, and several camps were built for what was then known as the Maryland League for Crippled Children. A third camp, Hi-Catoctin, was built in 1939 and first used by federal employees.

Fast forward a few years later and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in need of a place to escape the sweltering heat of Washington, D.C. While the presidential yacht nicknamed the “Potomac” was an old favorite, the secret service team urged FDR to find a safer, more remote alternative. The search began in 1942 and the cool air and rural setting of camp Hi-Catoctin immediately captured FDR’s attention. Camp Hi-Catoctin undertook its first of many transformations, emerging as “Shangri-La” — named by FDR after the Himalayan utopia described in James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizon.

Just over a decade later, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, he changed the name of the retreat to Camp David after his grandson. This wasn’t his only alteration; the camp underwent significant remodeling during Eisenhower’s term. Additions included a picnic area, outdoor cooking area, bomb shelter, and a three-hole golf course.

Camp David in 2020

Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat and President Jimmy Carter at Camp David
Credit: Consolidated News Pictures/ Getty Images

U.S. presidents have enjoyed Camp David for nearly 80 years. The retreat even made a believer out of President Trump, who at first appeared skeptical of Camp David’s charm. However, after his initial visit, Trump declared it a “very special place.” Judging by the number of candid photos snapped throughout the decades of presidents enjoying the pool, basketball courts, and wooded trails, we’d have to agree.

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