Despite the fact we have lived in the mid-Atlantic region for years, it took a long time for us to visit one of the most popular Washington, DC day trip destinations: Harpers Ferry. It was easy to justify; in a part of the world so full of history and culture, there are only so many hours in a weekend, and our car always seemed to be pointed in the direction of Charlottesville, Alexandria, or Virginia Beach. Still, Harpers Ferry was always on the list. Friends would talk about great lunches, challenging hikes, and fun spots to visit. Eventually, FOMO caught up to us, and we decided to make it a weekend destination. Our plan was pretty simple: a beautiful hike up the Maryland Heights Trail followed by lunch and sightseeing in the afternoon.
Because not every weekend is perfect, and because it’s sometimes the traveler and not the destination that is to blame, our single day in Harpers Ferry was divided into two visits thanks to… well, what we might call a less than sunny disposition on my part. Our visit to Harpers Ferry taught me two very important lessons: if you’re going on a hike, do your homework (more on that later on!), and listen to the hype when people tell you that you’ll love a certain place. Harpers Ferry was recommended to us for years, and now it has a permanent home on our weekend getaway list.
If you are visiting the Washington, DC area and considering a quick day trip, or if you are looking for a unique spot where nature and history converge, here are a few reasons Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a great contender for your next vacation!
Maryland Heights TrailWhen we decided to visit Harpers Ferry, hiking the famous—or infamous—Maryland Heights Trail seemed like the perfect starting point. We decided to wake up early, make the drive, and complete our hike by mid-morning to benefit from cooler temperatures and fewer people, which we figured would allow for better pictures when we reached the scenic overlook. Everything went according to plan; we found a parking spot close to the start of the trailhead, walked across the footbridge that took us over the Potomac River, and wandered down the quiet C&O Canal Towpath before crossing one more footbridge. We paused there, watching as two hikers wearing daypacks and Camelbacks crossed in front of us and started their journey up a steep hill. I smiled at Adam, telling him I was glad we weren’t doing whatever hike they were starting. Adam looked at me, confused. “That’s the start of the trail,” he said. I shook my head; we had already been walking for 20 minutes; I was ready to make the 20-minute walk back and explore the Lower Town. “How much further do we have to hike?” I asked. Adam told me it was only about two miles to the overlook. I shrugged; two miles didn’t sound so bad.
Somewhere, my Morgan Freeman-esque narrator voice sighed and said, “But it was bad. It was very bad.”
In retrospect, the Maryland Heights Trail is exactly as advertised. It’s a 4.5-mile round trip hike that is mostly moderate and occasionally strenuous, taking visitors up steep hills and through switchbacks before a final rock scramble that ends with the reason most people are there: to see the stunning view of the Lower Town and Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. As I made the trek, I huffed, puffed, and cursed my legs as they cramped and tightened during the steepest parts of the hike. I held my breath as I navigated the rock scramble, hoping I could keep my balance and footing and silently cursing a group of strangers who all but danced across the rocks with the nimbleness of mountain goats. And then, I was at the overlook, and the journey was worth the effort; with the morning light streaming down, the water sparkled, and the town lit up in front of the shadowy Blue Ridge Mountains.
If you know what to expect, the Maryland Heights trail often a peaceful way to get some exercise and connect with nature. If you go unprepared as I did—not knowing it’s a genuine hike instead of the slow meander along the river you thought it would be—you may find you develop such a sour disposition that you have to go home early. I was cranky with every step of the 1,100 feet of elevation we gained as we hiked to the viewpoint, briefly serene while we took in the view of the world below, and cranky once more when I realized we still had a return trip to make.
While I credit my bad mood to hunger—more specifically hanger—I’m very much looking forward to the next time we visit. Now that I know how to better prepare and what to expect, I’m sure I will enjoy the hike just as much as relaxing at the viewpoint.
When President Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry in October 1783, he observed:
Today, visitors can stand on the rock that bears his name—the very spot where he made that remark—and see just what he meant. Following a path that runs behind St. Peters Church, a quick, easy walk takes you to one of the prettiest spots in Harpers Ferry.
The short walk up to Jefferson Rock is a good alternative to some of the more challenging hikes in the area if you’re looking for a picturesque spot without committing hours of your day or aren’t up for the exercise, and it has the bonus of being a historic stop during your Harpers Ferry adventure.
Lower Town Harpers Ferry
Most of the Harpers Ferry action takes place in the Lower Town, which was one of the USA’s very first industrial towns. Harpers Ferry’s location made it a desirable strategic location during the Civil War; it was on the border of the Union and the Confederacy as well as the B&O Railroad, and because the town had an armory it was also a prime target. Well over a century later, the Lower Town still has quite a bit of historic charm and could fill a full day of exploration on its own.
Stopping at the information center is a good way to orient yourself and plan out your visit; although the Lower Town isn’t big, there are a lot of sights to see, and it can be easy to miss some favorite attractions. White Hall Tavern, which hosted plenty of mid 1850s happy hours, gives you a peek into what a community gathering spot looked like, as does a replica of a boat used by Meriweather Lewis as he prepared for his surveying trip with William Clark and the Corps of Discovery. There are also numerous shops specializing in housewares and food from decades past. If your tastes are more modern, you’ll find plenty of souvenirs that will fit in with your home’s aesthetic. Our favorite is the confectionary, which has treats from several different centuries.
The Lower Town is also a perfect spot for lunch, and there are many great restaurants that get a bit crowded on peak days but serve delicious menus. From full-service spots to takeout to ice cream for a treat during your visit, it’s a smart idea to be strategic about your meal times to beat the crowds during busy parts of the day.
John Brown’s FortIn October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the Harpers Ferry armory in a failed attempt to start a slave liberation movement. His dream was for enslaved people to be freed throughout the USA’s South, and many people credit him with escalating tensions between what became the Union and Confederacy, which sparked the start of the Civil War and ultimately led to the realization of his dream. John Brown was tried for treason against the United States, found guilty, and hanged; many people in the North saw him as a hero and a martyr.
A one-story brick building known as John Brown’s Fort is the only remaining structure from the armory, and you can visit it today to see where he and several followers barricaded themselves during their raid. The building is typically open when Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is open, and it’s a very interesting attraction whether you are exploring the USA’s complex history or are curious about historic architecture.
If you are looking for more information about the life and times of John Brown, the John Brown Wax Museum in Lower Town is an eclectic stop that features figurines, dioramas, and exhibits to share his story with modern audiences. You may also be interested in the 2020 Showtime miniseries Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke. Based on the award-winning novel of the same name, the series shares further perspective on John Brown, the abolitionist movement, and the events at Harpers Ferry.
More Information: JohnBrownWaxMuseum.com
More Information: Trailer for Good Lord Bird (YouTube)
Bolivar Heights BattlefieldIf your trip to Harpers Ferry is motivated by historical interests, don’t miss Bolivar Heights Battlefield, which was the site of the first Civil War battle in Harpers Ferry exactly two years after John Brown’s Raid. In total, five battles were fought in that spot throughout the war, which also hosted troops between battles with as many as 15,000 soldiers living there in November 1862. The Bolivar Heights trail offers some nice signage that shares the site’s history as well as artillery including historic cannons that will take you back to a tumultuous period in time.
Parking in Harpers Ferry
We have had good luck and bad luck when parking in Harpers Ferry. Parking in the Lower Town is difficult and expensive; lots fill up very early, and you may spend a lot of time driving around or waiting for people to return to their cars. Parking at the visitor center is free with your National Park admission fee, and there is a shuttle that will take you from the visitor center to Lower Town. If you have a National Parks pass, such as an annual pass, parking and your visit are free.
Tips for Visiting Harpers Ferry
► Get a Harpers Ferry passport stamp
The Harpers Ferry park bookshop in Lower Town offers passport stamps to commemorate your visit, and you can stamp your passport or any other item as a way to remember your day in Harpers Ferry. Many locations around the world offer souvenir passport stamps, so it could be a fun way to continue (or start!) a tradition.
► Consider an off-peak visit
Harpers Ferry is busy during weekends and when the weather is especially nice, so your best bet to avoid crowds is to visit on a weekday, time your visit toward the earlier or later part of the day, or prepare for crowds. We have visited during peak times and found the crowds to be very tolerable, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you plan for restaurant wait times and unhurried pictures.
More Information: NPS.gov/hafe
Tips for Hiking the Maryland Heights Trail
If you’re planning to hike up to see the view of Harpers Ferry, here are a few things to consider.
► Download a trail mapYou may want to download a trail map before you go; cell phone service is spotty once you start the hike, and although there are often plenty of people to follow and the trail is marked it’s not impossible to get lost. There are a few places where the trail diverges, leaving you to choose which direction to move in—and that can mean more or fewer steps and a longer or shorter day.
More Information: National Park Service Mobile App
► Wear the right shoes
While basic sneakers may be fine, hiking shoes or boots will give your feet stability on some of the steeper parts of the trail and during the rock scramble before the overlook. We were both glad to have good, comfortable hiking shoes during our walk.
► Take plenty of water
There are no locations where water is available for free or purchase during the hike, so stock up before you hit the trail. On hot days, take more than you think you will need!
► Consider packing snacks
Granola bars or protein bars to give you some extra energy are a good choice; hiking the trail may feel easy to you, and it might also leave you feeling famished by the time you reach the overlook. I would have been happier with a snack or two to enjoy at the top.
Hotels in Harpers Ferry
When visiting Harpers Ferry, most people stay in nearby Charles Town, West Virginia, where there are many property choices. Because we live just an hour away, we didn’t stay in the area, but we often use Booking.com to review and select properties since they make it easy to compare hotels based on location and amenities. You may also find staying closer to Washington, DC or Dulles Airport gives you a greater range of options. Take a look at Booking.com to see if there is a hotel that works for you!
Enjoy Harpers Ferry!
When Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry, he had only glowing reports to offer about his time there, commenting that, “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.” As it turned out, it was a different president that helped me appreciate my time there even more. During the Civil War, Union soldiers would regularly hike the trail, which served as a military road. During one visit, President Abraham Lincoln began the hike to check in on his troops. He made it only one quarter of the way up the trail before turning back, saying any man who could make the climb was worthy of being in his army. Thinking back on our triumph—we made the round trip in just three-and-a-half hours, including close to an hour at the overlook—I found myself feeling quite a bit better about my experience.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a delightful destination for a challenging hike, a casual walk, or even just a delicious meal. Whatever you need from your time off, Harpers Ferry has something great to offer you.
Just don’t let hanger get the best of you.
Want to read about more interesting places in the USA? Check out these posts from our archives!