Suggested Trip

Harpers Ferry: Where History and Natural Beauty Converge


When visiting Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, I began my journey at the visitor center where I got a map and advice on trails to hike. The cost per vehicle was $20 at the main visitor and parking section. Limited parking is available closer to the park at the station parking lot. Listening to information about the park on the shuttle to Lower Harpers Ferry got me excited to hike the Maryland Heights Trail, explore the town of Harpers Ferry and view the park’s many scenic areas and historical landmarks.

View in fall entering Lower Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry was first inhabited by American Indians in the Paleoindian and Archaic Periods. With a warming climate and increasing abundance of flora and fauna, American Indians migrated to the area for hunting and gathering. During the Early Woodland/Adena Period, a mound building culture developed trade, craft and agriculture. By the 1600’s complex communities evolved, with the Iroquoian peoples becoming dominant. The Five Nations Iroquois used the area to sell and trade furs, but had completely departed the area by the late 1600s and early 1700s. Through treaties, wars and diseases caused by European arrivals, American Indian populations dwindled.

The first enslaved Africans were brought to Harpers Ferry in the mid-1700s. Freedom seekers fled to Harpers Ferry on the underground railroad. Abolitionist John Brown raided Harpers Ferry with a 21-man “army of liberation” to seize the U.S. Armory – a tactic in a multistage plan to free enslaved people. Unfortunately, most of the men involved in the raid were either injured or killed and John Brown was captured, put to trial, and hanged. The repercussions of John Brown’s Raid added to the ongoing debate regarding the legality and morality of slavery.

When the Civil War broke out, many of those enslaved went to camps in towns primarily protected by the military, including Harpers Ferry. “More than 250 years after the first family settled the area, Jefferson County still boasts the longest-established African American community in the state.”

I’ve visited Harpers Ferry National Historical Park during both fall and spring and found both to be gorgeous times to visit. However, in fall the colors of the trees were spectacular! The cobblestone streets and quaint town buildings encouraged me to delve more into learning about this area. Walking towards the Maryland Heights trail I saw John Brown’s Fort. I was awestruck by the point where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac River. The river's confluence is gorgeous and in the past was bustling with industry and transportation.

View from exterior Stone Fort (Maryland Heights trail)

Hiking is plentiful in Harpers Ferry. From sunrise to sunset you can enjoy two miles on the Virginius Island and Hall's Island Trail and 7.5 miles on the Loudoun Heights Trail. The 184.5 mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park runs through the park and goes from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. The Appalachian Trail (2,180+ miles) also runs through Harpers Ferry.

In spring I traversed the Maryland Heights Trail (4.5-6.5 miles) where the vegetation engulfed many historical features, including old forts. On the trail I got to see the interior and exterior of the Stone Fort which was built post-Battle of Antietam. The fort provides a beautiful scenic view and I could see how it was strategically placed. Not only was this trail historically interesting, so were the natural sights, including birds, lizards and skinks and vegetation! It being the end of May and sunny, I got to see male broad headed skinks (Plestiodon laticeps) which had orange/reddish heads signifying it was mating season. The Eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) crinkled the leaves, but was stealthy and blended into the flora very well. As I continued the Maryland Heights loop I came upon a view taking in the entirety of the town of Harpers Ferry. With good timing I was able to see a train passing below!

Eastern fence lizard, taken by a camera that catches photos from a distance so that wildlife is not disturbed

Great blue heron looks out onto the Potomac River.

During my visit to Harpers Ferry in the fall, I was greeted with a scenic view from Jefferson Rock, after a difficult hike up stone stairs. Jefferson Rock is situated along the Appalachian Trail between the Lower Town and Camp Hill areas of the park. The overlook provides a gorgeous view of the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and surrounding mountains. This view began forming 360 million years ago when the continents of Africa and North America collided to form the Appalachian Mountains, including the Blue Ridge Mountains. Glacial melt and rain runoff over millions of years created the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. What a view!

Harpers Ferry offers a plethora of programs for visitors at the park including volunteering, becoming a Junior Ranger and Artist in Residence. With fun activities like a crossword interspersed with park history, the Junior Ranger booklet is a great way to delve into Harpers Ferry history. Keep in mind when you visit that pups can also enjoy the park with the BARK Ranger program!

With its historical significance and natural beauty, Harpers Ferry is well worth visiting! Immerse yourself in the park’s history, grab a Junior Ranger booklet and read the informational plaques. Follow the trails and take in the surroundings – from the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers to the hilltop vistas. Enjoy your visit!

Resources and further reading:
Getting Around Harpers Ferry
The ethnographic history of Harpers Ferry 
John Brown’s Raid  
The History and Culture of Harpers Ferry  
Rivers and Humans Carved Harpers Ferry’s Story 
Geological History of Harpers Ferry  

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park lets visitors explore history and the Potomac River along the 184 mile canal from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. There are a number of visitor centers and sites to visit all along the Potomac so take a look at them all.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offers a variety of experiences for visitors. Whether you enjoy recreation or historical inquiry, a quiet stroll by the river or a guided program with a ranger, there are opportunities for everyone.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, measuring roughly 2,180 miles in length. The Trail goes through fourteen states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range from Georgia to Maine.

Christopher Orozco-Fletcher

Chris formerly worked in various conservation corps, from Yellowstone Youth Conservation Corps to the Student Conservation Corps. They also worked as an Outreach Interpretive Assistant with the National Park Service through the Chesapeake Conservation Corps. Chris loves being outside, and enjoyed their teaching experience with Boy Scouts.

November 6, 2022

Main image: Area where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac, all photos by Chris Orozco
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