Traveling to Harpers Ferry takes you into a quaint town with the markers of American history at every turn. The community of picturesque buildings, homes, and shops from the 1800s comprises Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to tour museums and shop boutiques.
A lesser-known feature of the park is that it also offers many opportunities for hiking through abundant forested hills with scenic views. Put on your hiking boots or walking shoes and explore the many beautiful hiking trails in the park, including the Appalachian Trail.
The town became famous in 1859 when a fiery abolitionist named John Brown organized a raid on a U.S. government arsenal of weapons at Harpers Ferry. After an initial success and occupation of the armory, federal militias arrived and captured the raiders. Although Brown's hope of sparking a broad slave revolt failed, his actions are now viewed as an indicator of the strong anti-slavery sentiments that soon would lead to the Civil War.
The 19th-century guardhouse and firehouse where Brown was captured, now known as John Brown's Fort, is a popular feature of the park.
Visitors can learn more about the controversial revolt at the John Brown Museum, which features a film about the historic raid every half hour. The community also has a museum dedicated to the Civil War's Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862, in which Union forces eventually surrendered after enduring an attack from General Robert E. Lee's command. The park also preserved the Bolivar Heights Battlefield, which was the site of one of the first battles of the Civil War in 1861.
For an additional fee, visitors can tour the John Brown Wax Museum to view life-sized dioramas with voice, music, and animation showing an enactment of the historic raid.
Another significant building is Storer College, a historically black college that was the location of the first meeting of the Niagara Movement group of Civil Rights activists organized by W.E.B. De Bois in 1906. That meeting is now recognized as an important landmark in Civil Rights history.
Hikers can enjoy the park's many trails, offering views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It also is the midpoint to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a footpath that traverses more than 2,000 miles, and the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters and visitor center. Sightseers also can stroll along the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park by crossing the footbridge over the Potomac River.
The 20 miles of hiking trails at Harpers Ferry span a wide variety of difficulty. For especially stunning overlook views with more than 1,400 feet elevation, try the challenging (but famously beautiful) Maryland Heights Trail (6.5 miles). The Loudon Heights trail (7.5 miles) is nearly as high. For a shorter walk, the Bolivar Heights and School House Ridge North trails offer easier terrain with less climbing. Be prepared to see herons, hawks, deer, and other wildlife along the way.
For book lovers, a must-visit destination is the Harpers Ferry Park Association Bookshop, a regional landmark that is well stocked with Civil War history volumes. You can also browse commemorative items and other distinctive souvenirs.
A fun way to explore more Harpers Ferry history is to visit True Treats Historic Candy, a popular shop filled with retro favorites, such as black licorice pipes, caramel creams, and bubblegum cigars.
Moving on, visit The Vintage Lady to peruse the delectable turquoise and copper bracelets and other handmade jewelry from local artists. There is more handmade jewelry at the Mary Adams shop, including contemporary floral Lucite designs as well as unusual pieces made with ancient glass fragments.
Stop for a burger or a casual vegetarian meal at Cannonball Deli or at Potomac Grille in the historical park. If you would like a more upscale setting, there are some fine options in Shepherdstown or Charles Town, each within a 20-minute drive.
The mix of culture and natural beauty makes Harpers Ferry great place for a getaway. "Harpers Ferry immerses you in rich history in a stunning landscape. It is appealing for history buffs and for outdoor enthusiasts," says Annette Gavin Bates, executive director of the Jefferson County (WV) Convention and Visitors Bureau, which encompasses Harpers Ferry.