Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, at the corner of Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, protects an area full of rich US history. George Washington chose this area as the location for a major US arsenal, Thomas Jefferson marveled at the beauty of the mountains rising from the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Meriwether Lewis used Harpers Ferry as a supply base before setting out on his expedition with William Clark, abolitionist John Brown made his famous raid and last stand there, Union and Confederate troops fought battles over the town, and after the war it became the site of an integrated college and an important gathering point in the Civil Rights movement.
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ILNP Park Review
Our Visit I visited Harpers Ferry NHP one afternoon during a trip to D.C. in July.
Our Weather Slightly overcast and hot.
Overall Impression Harpers Ferry NHP has a little bit of something for everyone, scenery, trails, rivers, museums, shops, battlefields. In fact, Harpers Ferry NHP even spans three states (West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland) and hosts parts of two other National Park units, the C&O Canal National Historic Park and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. If anything, Harpers Ferry suffers from being TOO diverse and not focused on any one thing. You’re bound to learn something and enjoy the scenery, but nothing is going to knock your socks off. Having said that, it’s certainly a place the whole family can enjoy for a day trip.
Visiting I recommend spending at least 3-4 hours at Harpers Ferry NHP. In that time, you can explore the town of Harpers Ferry (the park’s centerpiece), explore a Civil War Battlefield and do a little hiking. Start at the Visitor Center off US 340 and spend 20 minutes listening to one of the park rangers give a talk on Harpers Ferry history before hopping on one of the free shuttle buses to Harpers Ferry’s Lower Town. Once you’ve gotten your fill of the town, there are other sections of the park within a short walk including Storer College northwest of town, Virginius Island just southwest of the town and Maryland Heights across the Potomac River. To get to Maryland Heights, you’ll be hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail to get across the river, and the C&O Canal NHP’s Lock 33 lies just on the far side of the river. With the time you have remaining, spend at least a few minutes hiking one of the Civil War battlefields, Murphy Farm or Bolivar Heights. Below is a more detailed description of the major sections of the park.
The town of Harpers Ferry is the “must see” portion of this park. You can drive there by car, but the free shuttle bus from the visitors center is convenient and runs frequently. From the bus stop, you can go directly to the buildings of Lower Town or take a brief excursion to see the ruins of the industries on Virginius Island. Most of the buildings on Shenandoah Street in Lower Town have been maintained in their Civil War-era condition, and volunteers and park rangers man the buildings in period costumes and provide information. There is an information center with a short film that also helps give context to what you see around you. The most famous event in Harpers Ferry history was the 1859 raid made on the Harpers Ferry Armory by abolitionist John Brown. He intended to seize the rifles stored in the armory and recruit slaves to fight guerrilla warfare in the surrounding hills. At the end of Shenandoah Street is the remains of the armory, a small memorial and John Brown’s Fort, the firehouse where John Brown was captured after his raid failed.
The national park ends a few yards north of Shenandoah Street, but the rest of Harpers Ferry is full of museums, shops and places to eat, and the town has maintained its 1800s appearance. A short hike up the hill past St Peters Church is Jefferson Rock where Thomas Jefferson purportedly said the view was worth a trip across the Atlantic. Personally, I found the unspoiled view overlooking the Shenandoah River from Murphy Farm to be better, but Jefferson’s view wasn’t spoiled by buildings and bridges, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The remains of Storer College, opened as an integrated school shortly after the Civil War, can be visited just north of Jefferson Rock on Camp Hill.
Maryland Heights is a short walk from Lower Town via the railroad bridge. The narrow walkway along the bridge is actually part of the Appalachian Trail between West Virgina and Maryland. This area is predominantly hills and undeveloped forest, but along the banks of the Potomac runs the footpath of the C&O Canal NHP including the remains of Lock 33. This side of the river is a popular spot for water recreation, and the canal footpath is popular with bikers.
The Virginia section of the park is known as Loudon Heights. The Appalachian Trail runs through this section, but otherwise, it is hills and trees overlooking the Shenandoah River. I looked for a parking area to explore a little of Loudon Heights, but I could not find one off US 340.
Murphy Farm can be reached from a turnoff near the main entrance to the visitor center. A small parking lot serves as the trail head for a loop around the farm. At this location, General Stonewall Jackson ordered troops to haul cannons up the steep banks of the Shenandoah River under cover of nightfall to surprise the Union artillery batter at nearby Bolivar Heights. This surprise action led to the capture of Harpers Ferry and the Union garrison. I recommend walking at least to the end of the field and back. At the far side of the field, there is a magnificent view overlooking the Shenandoah River and the old foundation of John Brown’s Fort before it was restored to near its original location in the town. This was the site of an early gathering of Civil Rights advocates and was considered “hallowed ground” by some.
This ridge was the site of a Union garrison and artillery battery during the Confederate effort to capture Harpers Ferry in 1862. After Jackson’s forces made a successful surprise artillery attack from Murphy Farm and ground assault from Schoolhouse Ridge, the 12,500 Union troops at Bolivar Heights surrendered marking one of the largest surrenders in history. A trail leads along the ridge line where you can see the shallow rifle trenches dug during the Civil War. Unless you just need the exercise, there is little to see beyond the cannon display near the parking lot.
General Recommendations If you can help it, don’t rush through Harpers Ferry NHP. If you do, you will miss much of the history and beauty of the area. Take the time to imagine yourself here during John Brown’s Raid or the Civil War and appreciate the significance of this area in US history. Likewise, take a few minutes to hike out into the woods on the Appalachian trail and appreciate that it stretches out more than 1,000 miles in both directions. If you see a weary and ragged looking hiker with a big pack on the trail, offer them a candy bar or a coke and don’t forget to congratulate them on finishing two states in one day.
Nearby Towns Harpers Ferry (West Virginia), Leesburg (Virginia), Washington D.C.
Other Nearby Attractions Antietam National Battlefield, C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Official NPS Website Harpers Ferry NHP
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