There is a perfect little town nestled in the mountains, full of history, nature, shopping, and food.
Would I lie to you?
So when your family or group of friends just can’t agree on a weekend destination, this little gem is the answer, because there’s literally something for everyone.
Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia encompasses every possible thing you might like to do or see during a weekend getaway.
If you’re an American history buff, you’ll be instantly smitten with this little town, truly unchanged by time. If you like to hike and appreciate breathtaking views, this too is the place to go.
You may vaguely remember hearing about Harper’s Ferry in history class, but the town and surrounding area itself holds an amazing pedigree.
Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park is located within three states – Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland – and a famous scenic spot in the town looks over the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers as they come together.
The town was first protected in 1944 for its historic value, then nearly 4,000 surrounding acres were also included to reflect just how much took place here.
The area was originally home to the Iroquois Nation tribes and relics have been found dating as far back as the 12th century. Much of this land was later granted to Lord Fairfax by King Charles II.
Harper’s Ferry was then settled by Robert Harper, and the adjoining town of Bolivar was established by Gersham Keyes. Both men made the area a success in farming and industry.
George Washington slept here.
Yeah, how many times have you heard that one?
But in the case of Harper’s Ferry, it is probably true. Young George went to Harper’s Ferry for his very first job as a surveyor at the age of 17.
In fact, many U.S. presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, thought it to be one of the most beautiful spots in America. Harper’s Ferry was also a favorite retreat for historical figures like Mark Twain and other notable writers and artists.
The streets of Harper’s Ferry mark the starting point of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with the Lewis and Clark National Trail. Head to the visitor’s center and they’ll show you where to walk in their very first footsteps.
As a manufacturing town in its heyday, Harper’s Ferry was also the site of the first railroad crossing over the Potomac River – and amazingly, the first structural steel bridge in the world. (Yes, the whole world!)
You can still watch the trains cross over the river and into the huge tunnels that were carved out of the mountains generations ago.
Of course, the town is most famous for its prominence during the U.S. Civil War.
Abolitionist John Brown gathered his militia here for a raid on the town that would set the stage for the Civil War. The Armory building is still there, and as you walk around you’ll think to yourself, “If only these walls could talk…”
Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was given his first command here and trained his famous brigade in town as well.
After the Civil War, Harper’s Ferry became a safe-haven for former slaves.
Following the Battle of Antietam in nearby Maryland (we’ll get to that in a minute), President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Storer College in Harper’s Ferry was the first educational institution established to teach African Americans trades and professions, and the town became known as a place that encouraged African American entrepreneurs – nearly a century ahead of the U.S. Civil Rights movement.
Every nook and cranny of Harper’s Ferry took part in some of the most notable events in our nation’s history.
Calling all nature lovers
Harper’s Ferry has been called “America’s Most Painted Town,” because it’s truly full of natural beauty and wonder.
There are dozens of hiking spots in and around the town. One of the best short hikes is from the lower part of town up to Church Street. You’ll hike up a couple hundred stone steps, but then be rewarded with a most enchanting view.
St. Peter’s Catholic Church is another one of the town’s landmarks and is beautiful inside and out. As you make your way past the church and up the hill, you’ll find old cemeteries scattered with headstones and ruins overgrown with ivy.
When you reach the top, spend some time on famous Jefferson Rock. Here you’ll witness a view of the town below that stretches out for miles – and the mountains are stunning in the fall. The only person who wouldn’t love such sight is someone afraid of heights!
Incidentally, this stretch from Church Street up to Jefferson Rock is part of the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail Visitor’s Center can give you some pointers on both short and longer hikes, all which will take your breath away. (We hope in an “I can’t believe how beautiful this place is” sense and not a “I’m going to have a heart attack from all this exercise” one.)
In fact, this spot is about the mid-point of the entire trail, so you can tell your friends you made
the famous trek!
Virginius Island is also a must-see for hikers.
It’s almost otherworldly with its ruins that tell the history of this once thriving industrial town started by the Patowmack Company in 1806. The old ruins of mills, foundries, and workers’ homes are available for walking tours as well.
The island is separated from lower Harper’s Ferry by the Shenandoah Canal, which you can cross by walking over a cool, ancient-looking bridge.
As if it couldn’t get any more historic around here, portions of the lower town are also part of the C&O Canal Path, another list-topper for hiking enthusiasts.
And there’s everything else a nature lover could possibly imagine in this neck of the woods. Marshlands, wildlife habitats, rushing rivers, waterfalls, hardwood forests – you name it, you got it.
Eat, drink, sleep.
You’ll also find plenty of fine, but affordable, dining in the town, as well as little dive joints (I say that lovingly!) with great burgers.
Not only are the town’s restaurants all located in centuries-old buildings, but they often use local ingredients and serve local wines and spirits. (The area was also famous for distilleries back in the day.)
The kids will love the candy stores and ice cream shops – of which there are several. Harper’s Ferry is also well-known for their fudge!
Part of the charm of Harper’s Ferry is that there are no corporate chains within the town. Everything is owned and run by the locals, with many of the businesses kept in the family for generations.
You’ll also find lots of interesting art, local food products, handmade jewelry, candles, and soaps – and especially kitschy West Virginia/Confederate/Civil War gifts for the history buffs. There are even a few shops that sell fair-trade organic foods and handmade goods.
I told you, this town really does have a little bit of everything.
And you know what? Couples love it, families love it, even millennials love it – and that’s saying something.
When you’re ready to head in for the night, there are several local bed and breakfast joints to choose from—and you’ll get a real historical experience because they’re all located in old Civil War-era homes, complete with period furniture.
For those of us swinging on the pendulum towards our “middle to later” ages, these B&Bs are great because they have spotty Wi-Fi and there isn’t always a TV. It’s like a little blast to the past.
They also serve gourmet breakfasts and snacks in an intimate setting, and you’re often free to roam the house. Snuggle up by a fireplace and grab a book that’s much older than you are.
However, because of their historic value and collection of breakable, rip-able, and irreplaceable artifacts, most of the local B&Bs don’t allow kids.
But there are plenty of hotels and motels just outside the town’s limits, including national chains. And you can always search for an Airbnb, which there are plenty of in this historic town.
But wait, there’s more!
If you have a couple of extra days to stay in the area, you won’t be disappointed.
Less than 30 minutes from Harper’s Ferry lies another beautiful town with lots of history of its own. Shepherdstown is a sleepy college town with great restaurants, upscale boutiques, and mom-n-pop shops.
With roots dating back to the late 1800s, Shepard College eventually became known as a prestigious teachers’ college in the 1930s. Now called Shepard University, it boasts the nation’s leading secondary educational program for students with intellectual disabilities.
Walk down the peaceful, tree-lined sidewalks flanked by old homes with pristine landscaping — and take a moment to enjoy some of the historical old churches.
And no visit to the area would be complete without a trip to Antietam National Battlefield.
The battlefield is the site of the Battle of Antietam, also known as Sharpsburg, which took place on September 17, 1862.
This is where General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac met for a battle that stood, and still stands, as the bloodiest day in U.S. history.
Nearly 23,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in action.
The museum and visitor’s center offers a deeper glimpse into the carnage of the war and how it impacted local residents, as well as advises visitors on how best to tour the hallowed grounds.
Things you won’t find anywhere else…
There are also a couple of really unique events offered in Harper’s Ferry throughout the year that make this place even more special.
From their ‘Ghost Tours’ led by lantern light, to the ‘Olde Fashioned Christmas’ celebration with the real-deal Santa and Mrs. Claus, to the seamless combination of serious and corny, tacky and elegant, there really is something for everyone here.
Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the John Brown Wax Museum for a totally kitschy take on the history of the area. These guys (the wax ones) have seen better days—it’s dark and a bit hard to take seriously, and the figures might scare the kids—but it’s one of those cool, local things you’ve just got to do.
And don’t miss the huge bookstore in town run by the National Park Service. It sells all sorts of local and American history books along with period toys and games for the kids.
Take it from me…
This writer has lost count of how many times she’s been to this magical little town. It’s truly like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
Even when it’s really busy, it never feels crowded. (And there’s not much parking, so take advantage of the free shuttles offered from the visitor’s center, which are also meant to preserve the town from air pollution.)
I grew up hiking its trails and raiding its candy stores (and thus, was a chubby kid until I started running in high school). My children spent their childhoods doing the same. I came here on my honeymoon and stayed in a peaceful, historic local bed and breakfast. I’ve attended mass at St. Peter’s for Christmas, and know every inch of this place like the back of my hand.
Harper’s Ferry is a part of my heart and soul—and trust me—it will be a part of yours after just one visit.