Hiking the Trails in Historic Harper’s Ferry
By Penelope Folsom
For an interesting fall hike that promises one of the best photo opportunity’s in the area, try Maryland Heights. Located in Harper’s Ferry, a bit under two hours from Annapolis, the area offers more than enough to fill a couple of days. Not only is the hiking good, but it’s also an historically significant locale. John Brown met his demise in Harper’s Ferry as you’ll recall. Although history has maligned his contribution in spearheading an end to slavery, he was one of the original abolitionists and the museum on Shenandoah Street recounts his life. There’s also the revelation of the secret six that was not covered in my high school class. It has to do with those elusive New Englanders who were financing much of what went on with John Brown, but you’ll have to get with a park ranger to get the whole story on that less than well-known piece of history. And not only is the town drenched in the history of the beginning of the Civil War, but it has an interesting past of weather phenomena. Floods wiped out entire factories and repeatedly threatened much of the town. Don’t miss the high water marks on the side of the building in the lower town.
Shenandoah Street is set up to depict the way it was in the 1800s, with a boarding house, dry goods store, jewelry shop, confectionery and other shops that were typical of a 19th century town. There are also shops and small local eateries and a well-stocked bookstore carrying a wide choice of titles on the beginnings of the Civil War.
The Historic Hilltop House, once a grand hotel, is located on one of the high points of the town overlooking the Potomac. It is currently closed for renovations, but the very short drive or walk up to the hotel is worth the effort. The view is nothing less than spectacular and a place to consider on a future visit. (Its reopening is scheduled for 2011.)
Harper’s Ferry offers many good hikes but the best, as many experienced hikers will agree, is the Maryland Heights Trail, which offers a spectacular view from the overlook. It’s a strenuous hike of more than three miles and not the best one if you’re accompanied by children. The overlook presents some danger if kids aren’t watched closely. However, don’t forget your camera because it’s a panoramic view of three states and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers as well as a bird’s eye view of Harper’s Ferry. If you choose to you can follow the trail from the Overlook for another couple of miles to the top of Maryland Heights where the Union army held off the Confederates. Some of the ramparts are still there. Interestingly, Harper’s Ferry changed hands eight times between 1861 and 1865 as the north and the south battled it out. If this hike isn’t challenging enough there’s also Loudon Heights, which is another serious hike with seven plus miles offering even more picturesque spots.
Harper’s Ferry is in hill country and just about anywhere that you go you’re going to be walking up hills and down. (It seemed to me like there were more ups than downs.) The Appalachian Trail also goes right through the town and it’s well worth the short walk on this trail to get to Jefferson Rock. If you choose to hike up to this overlook and have a map you can then branch off the AT trail and descend to the Shenandoah for a quiet walk along the river’s edge. This meandering but level trail weaves through what had once been a prosperous factory area, known as Virginius. The area was flooded repeatedly and now only foundations remain. If it’s warm enough, there’s the opportunity to wade in the river, although the park service frowns on it because the current can at times be very dangerous.
Other than the three spectacular hikes of varying lengths and elevations, there’s also the Chesapeake & Ohio Trail that offers a level, hard-packed path that stretches for 184 miles. The trail winds along the Potomac and is ideal for either hiking or biking for whatever distance you choose. If you are heading north, it’s a mere 15 miles to Antietam Battlefield, a carefully restored area that is more than worth the effort with a visitor center and extensive walking trails and historical stops throughout.
Harper’s Ferry also has a national park with an easy three-mile hiking trail that describes different Civil War sites along the way that were significant. Mostly level, there are a couple of overlooks for photo ops.
This is an interesting and rustic area that has kept much of the charm intact of years gone by. It’s worth the trip if for no more than a Sunday stroll along the river but my choice has always been to spend at least two nights to be able to see and do it all. There couldn’t be a better time than the fall for the spectacular display of the autumn colors.
Harper’s Ferry Map www.nps.gov/archive/hafe/maps/pdf/guide-ruins.pdf
Maryland Heights Trail www.nps.gov/hafe/maps/maryland.htm
Chesapeake and Ohio trail www.nps.gov/choh
Virginius Island www.nps.gov/archive/hafe/maps/virginius.htm
National Park Service Map www.nps.gov/hafe