During your hectic workweek, do you ever yearn for a foregone time of simple, quaint living? Of woods and water and small town slowness? If you leave DC and go in pretty much any direction for a few dozen miles, you’ll find it, but nothing feels quite so sublimely simple—and old—as the town on the hill that is Harpers Ferry.
Nostalgia is a pretty powerful force in my life, and that’s probably why places like Harpers Ferry make me feel light of heart. Or maybe it’s all the fresh oxygen. Harpers Ferry was founded in 1763 on a hillside at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It is located close to the borders of Maryland and Virginia, but is in fact the easternmost town in West Virginia.
You can see Harpers Ferry’s age in the architecture of its little, wooden houses and in the narrowness of the roads. You can feel it when trains blow through town and barrel right into the side of the mountain.
It is the kind of place that I’ve heard described as “never, never land,” where the temperature of the water and the rustling breeze dictates the direction of the day. And as of 2010, the population was still smaller than my high school graduating class: 286 people. It’s like stepping into the past.
If you decide to step back in time—if only for a day—and visit Harpers Ferry, consider pursuing one or several of the following activities.
Though the town is pretty sweet, Harpers Ferry has a great reputation for hiking and river adventures. Try River & Trail Outfitters, River Riders or the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center. Between the three companies, you’ll find options for flat water and whitewater tubing, rafting, whitewater kayaking, zip lining, canoeing, biking, camping, jumping pillows (yes… aka inflatable trampolines) and, every Washingtonian’s favorite, Segway tours.
Harpers Ferry is a mid-point for of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail, which is why the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters are located there. It is one of just a few towns through which the Appalachian Trail passes directly. Which means seeing a lot of bandana’d, bearded, Teva’d backpackers.
The town is also located at an intersection of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park. That’s the same C & O Canal trail that goes right into DC’s Georgetown. All are great places for beautiful walks and hikes of varying difficulty and length. You can learn more about hiking in Harpers Ferry online at the National Park Service.
Buy things, old and new…
My step-sister spent a day in Harper’s Ferry with her mother many, many years ago. To her, Harpers Ferry and all of its antique/handcrafted goods shops was a special kind of torture. To an adult looking to stock her apartment with some unique furniture, Harpers Ferry can be fun. Try The Gilded Flea, Collectable Treasures and Westwind Potters.
See the historic sites…
Harpers Ferry has a lot of past. It’s the town where, in 1859, abolitionist John Brown ambushed the arsenal with the intent to arm and free slaves, a move that became a catalyst for the Civil War. It’s also the location of the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War and the location of one of the earliest integrated schools in the country. Because of the history, many very old structures have been preserved and/or turned into living museums.
In the historic center of town, you can watch a man with a waxed mustache load a musket under a tree, explore a The John Brown Wax Museum (I really wish I’d gone in) or see women in petticoats purchase a Tiffany watch from a dude in wool trousers.
You can also go on a ghost tour. Of all the places quirky enough to have ghost tours, I believe Harpers Ferry is liable to have a few actual ghosts.
Learn more about the historic sites in Harpers Ferry, here.