Visiting the Historic Harpers Ferry – Things to Do & Travel Guide
Last updated on March 10, 2023
I live so close to Harpers Ferry and had heard so much about it from friends. But for some reason, I hadn’t been until during the pandemic. However, I was so pleasantly surprised to visit and see this centuries-old town for myself.
A History of Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry has a fairly straightforward history. The land belonged to a man named Robert Harper in 1750, and in 1761 he established a ferry to bring passengers into the Shenandoah Valley and farther west – thus the name Harpers Ferry. (the lack of an apostrophe was intentional) Being right at the corner of Maryland and Virginia (West Virginia didn’t exist until the Civil War), the site was a gateway to the west. In 1833-34, Harpers Ferry became a part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal as well as the B&O Railroad.
After the Revolutionary War, when tensions with the British were still high, an arsenal and armory were put in Harpers Ferry. This became very important because on October 16, 1859, Harpers Ferry’s most famous event occurred: John Brown and 21 men raided the arsenal and attempted to supply a slave uprising. They were only successful for a few hours before they were captured and John Brown was hanged for treason. If you’ve studied the American Civil War at all, you’ve probably heard of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry. It was one of the uprisings that helped spark the Civil War a year later.
Harpers Ferry was always a transient place, but a lot of the locals left during the Civil War because of all the turmoil. Because of its location, again, it became a highly militarised area.
Map of Harpers Ferry
Things to Do in Harpers Ferry
Today, it’s still a sleepy town, but one that’s popular with local hikers. I didn’t know what Harpers Ferry was all about until I visited and I was pleasantly surprised by how attractive this place is. It’s a step back in time to the 19th century and the striking scenery is gorgeous.
There are small museums scattered throughout the town that tell the history of what Harpers Ferry was like in the 1850s/60s. It’s really cute to see everything done up with decor that would’ve been used centuries ago. The museums are small but free to stop in and have a peek. You can see John Brown’s Fort and imagine what it must have been like back in 1859.
One place I recommend going is True Treats Historic Candy. It’s a candy shop that sells historically accurate and inspired candy and it’s not just limited to the Civil War era. The tags also have historical facts about the candy so it’s a learning experience as well. I found out the ancient Egyptians had marshmallows. This is a super cool place to stop in and buy from. But don’t worry – if you can’t make it to Harpers Ferry, they do sell their products online.
Aside from the hike (detailed below), the main appeal of Harpers Ferry is its old town charm. The U.S. has a lot of its history in mining and the industrial revolution but very few small industrial towns like Harpers Ferry remain. It’s a unique place and all the buildings along the hills make it incredibly picturesque. The operating buildings are also filled with restaurants and independent craftsmen.
There are also a lot of small museums you can pop in, each dedicated to what life looked like in 1859. You can visit the John Brown’s Museum and John Brown’s Fort, where the men barricaded themselves in during the raid. There’s also a Civil War Museum and a small Industry Museum. There are other historic places to stop in like a convenience store, a provost office, and a clothing store. All these places are very small and you can only look into several of them. If you want to see everything mentioned then you’ll probably need a couple of hours maximum as there’s not so much to see.
The Harpers Ferry Hike
I made a big mistake when I went to Harpers Ferry: I didn’t know it was a place for hiking! My GPS gave me directions to the lookout area so I thought, “Oh, I’ll just drive up to the viewing platform since I’m not a big hiker.” Well, GPS was wrong. The only way to get up to the hill that overlooks Harpers Ferry is to climb. So there I was on a very hot day without good shoes, food, or water.
“Doesn’t look like a huge climb,” I thought. So I got across the bridge and up the hill a bit. I was dying but I felt I’d made a lot of progress. Then I got to a sign that said:
(That’s not verbatim but close enough.)
The hike loops around the hill, which is why it takes a lot longer than I’d imagined. Since I was half dead at this point, I decided to just turn around. Maybe I’ll make it back one day, but now you know not to make the same mistake I did!
To access the hike, you’ll have to go across the bridge to the other side of the river. Then you’ll go to the left parallel to the street on a walking path. After walking a few minutes, you’ll see a bridge on the right hand side of the path. (There are a few bridges but this is the first one you’ll see.) Go across the bridge and across the street to the entrance of the hike. There’s no big sign or anything but you’ll see there’s a cleared path that starts up the mountain. After a few minutes walking up, you’ll get to the welcome sign that has the map of the trail.
Hopefully, there will be enough people there to follow so you don’t need to find the way yourself. But definitely make note of where the hike starts because it’s difficult to find if you don’t know where to look.
Also important to know is parking! I skipped a few spaces in town and headed towards the official parking lot. Big mistake. Not only did it cost $20 (!!!) to get in, but it’s so far away that you’ll either need to do a 2-mile hike or take a free shuttle between town and the parking lot. Of course the money does go to the U.S. Park Service but it’s still a steep price. (However it would be included if you have a Park Service membership.)
Harpers Ferry is an incredibly cute town just a few hours away from other places like Washington, DC and Baltimore. It’s so small that I can’t imagine spending more than a few hours to a day here but is worth putting on your itinerary if you’re in the area.
Tags: harpers ferry, north america, united states, west virginia