TRAVEL – Harpers Ferry: An Outdoor Playground for History Buffs
October 1, 2012
By Hanna Mangold
News Writer/News Assistant
Photos: Courtesy of Don Burgess, Bob Dawson, Terry Tabb
Located just sixty miles northwest of the District, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, is an easy drive for a day-trip or overnight stay. This destination has long been popular with Civil War buffs: it is the site of abolitionist John Brown’s infamous raid on the armory, and held a strategic location along rivers and railroad lines, making it uniquely attractive to both Union and Confederate forces. The town and nearby National Historical Park offer breathtaking views, tours, and hiking, especially during this time of year, when the leaves are turning red and orange in the mountains. Coordinate your trip with scheduled reenactments, or attend lectures by local historians, for a fun and educational vacation. This fall also marks the 150th anniversary of the historic Civil War battles of Harpers Ferry and nearby Antietam, adding many commemorative events to the itinerary.
Harpers Ferry is not just for historians. The small town, situated on a West Virginia peninsula and nestled into the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, is adjacent to Virginia by way of the Shenandoah River and Maryland by way of the Potomac. This destination is a great place to take in quiet rural vistas, and has inspired many photographers, painters, and writers. Efforts to maintain a historic atmosphere mean that one will find no corporate restaurants, shopping, or lodging; instead, enjoy local favorites, small boutiques, and quaint bed & breakfasts. Plan a trip in October to partake in an especially seasonal sampling of local ghost lore by visiting the Haunted Cottage.
Harpers Ferry is also a hub for exciting outdoor adventuring. Hiking and camping are year-round favorites for visitors from near and far. There are planned campgrounds, such as the KOA, which offer RV hook-ups, cabins, and tent sites, as well as some amenities and activities for families not looking for the full wilderness experience. There are also many sites off the beaten path for backpackers and more seasoned explorers.
The town draws many hikers off of the nearby Appalachian Trail for a relaxing break, and maybe even an ice cream cone from one of the several local shops. Its location along the C&O Canal also makes it an ideal place for bicycle tourists to stop along the towpath. The two local rivers provide even more exciting activities. Rafting, kayaking, canoeing, and tubing are favorite summer adventures which can be enjoyed well into the fall. Fishing draws many visitors as well, though it requires a permit if not part of a guided trip.
A favorite excursion in Harpers Ferry is the hike up to Maryland Heights. The trailhead is a short walk from downtown, across the bridge to the canal on the Maryland side of the Potomac. From there, it is a relatively short but steep, moderate-to-strenuous climb, past Civil War fortifications to the overlook. Hikers are rewarded with spectacular views of Harpers Ferry, the two rivers, and the railroad bridge. The sensation is a step back in time that evokes Americana. You will easily forget that you are less than two hours from Washington, D.C.
Here are some recommendations to consider when planning a visit:
Dining: For a quick and easy lunch, try the local favorite Cannonball Deli, which serves amazing sandwiches, pizza, and more at a reasonable price. It is kid-friendly and you can eat in, or, weather-permitting, sit outside. They also offer take-out for those who wish to bring their meals down to the park and eat picnic-style on the banks of the Shenandoah.
The Anvil Restaurant offers an upscale menu with a modest atmosphere. The specialty is seafood, but their steaks, pastas, and salads are all great choices. It is a wonderful place to bring someone special for dinner, and their lunch menu is fantastic as well. Featuring a wide selection of beer and wine (with locally brewed options!), The Anvil has something for everyone.
Also consider The Canal House Café for simple, locally-grown food, and The Swiss Miss for hotdogs, French fries, and the much-lauded homemade custard.
Lodging: Although there are some chain hotel options, it is recommended to stay in town in one of the local bed & breakfasts, such as The Jackson Rose. This Federal-style building was formerly owned by the Lee family, and once served as the temporary headquarters of Stonewall Jackson. If you would like the downtown experience but are not a fan of the bed and breakfast style, try lodging at the beautiful Towns Inn.