Dreaming of Travel: Make Nature Your Focus in Harpers Ferry
An Easy Day Trip or Camping Weekend with Kids to West Virginia
Planning and visualizing our next adventure really lifts spirits here at Happyly, and as part of our travel series, we’re featuring bucket list items that are quickly climbing the ladder of likelihood as more and more people view ideal vacations and day trips differently than they did before COVID. Many more view outdoor adventures as the most appealing way to spend a weekend.
We are fully prepared to nourish our wanderlust, whether near or far, and encourage you to join us. Consider journeying to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia just an hour and fifteen minutes outside of Washington, DC. Whether staying overnight at an Airbnb or just traveling there for the day, it is a quick, manageable escape that leaves you refreshed and fulfilled.
A visit to Harper’s Ferry feels like time travel. Many of the buildings are structurally consistent with their 1880s facade and nearly the entire town is a living-history museum. It is remarkable to behold how well-preserved the period is in the local architecture and historical relevance and to top it off, the natural beauty is breathtaking.
We have previously enjoyed rafting or tubing adventures with River Riders in this neck of the woods or renting bikes from Harper's Ferry Bikes, but if a day steeped in history or a relaxed day of wandering the beautiful hikes and nature walks are more your speed there are endless ways to enjoy a full day in this charming town!
Tips and Tricks to Start
- Parking is available at the visitor's center and paid parking is available sparingly in town (next to the train station). From the parking lot in town, it’s an easy two-minute walk to The Point Overlook.
- If you park at the visitors center, jump on the shuttle or prepare for a ½ mile walk to town.
- Walking along the water, there are numerous places to cut through to sandy/rocky beaches and enjoy a picnic, stone throwing and playing. This path is wonderful because you can plan your own adventure and distance that suits your family.
- Bring your favorite camera or use portrait mode to get beautiful family pictures for your holiday card. The different textures and natural light is a recipe for capturing precious moments.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Managed by the National Park Service, this nearly 4,000-acre area spreads from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia into both Maryland and Virginia. It is known as a stop on the Underground Railroad and the site of many important historical events. Washington himself led the construction of the Harpers Ferry Armory, which among many things, supplied the weapons for the Lewis and Clark Expedition and played a role in the abolitionist raid of John Brown.
The ruins of one of the Arsenal Buildings is pictured above. The town was also a Civil War boundary between Union and Confederate forces, and these periods and events remain carefully marked by the many 19th Century buildings that still stand.
Harpers Ferry marks the starting point of the Shenandoah as it meanders down through the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. The Potomac meets the Shenandoah at The Point, and the town's elevation provides a spectacular view of the parting riverways. Descend the stairs (or walk around for additional access points that don’t require climbing) to walk along the Shenandoah and put your feet in at the water’s edge. Wildlife abounds, as do the photo ops! Snakes, fish, and deer seem to be everywhere!
The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is located right in Harpers Ferry, known as the “psychological halfway point” of the 2193-mile trail. The A.T. is the longest hiking-only trail in the world, and it runs right through town and links to 22 miles of nearby trails with all different lengths and levels of difficulty.
Harpers Ferry is the meeting point for The C & O Canal Towpath, The Potomac Heritage Trail and The Appalachian Trail. Check out All Trails for 19 available hiking and running trails with detailed reviews for nature lovers near Harpers Ferry. For a moderate trail of 1.8 miles, we recommend the Harpers Ferry Appalachian Trail Loop for lovely scenic views. If you are feeling ambitious and have some time on your hands, you can get dropped off and make your way back to DC on foot (only 63 miles to Georgetown).
Maryland Heights/Overlook Heights Trail
Before or after exploring Harper's Ferry, follow the pedestrian path along the train tracks, over the bridge and along the river to embark on a challenging but 100% worth it hike to Overlook Heights. The up-and-back hike is around 4.5 miles, and the first mile and a half are entirely uphill. It continues uphill, but with some reprieve for a while past a scenic flat spot where you will find the Naval Battery, a fortification built in 1862. You can either extend your journey toward the Stone Fort Trail by going left at the split, or head straight to Overlook Heights. Climb up the rather wide trail, until you are above the Overlook, when you will be directed to head down a more rugged trail to your viewing spot. You can cut through the woods to shorten the journey, but only if you don't mind the steeper descent and/or ascent back. Once you navigate past a rocky outcrop, you will have to catch your breath – not just from the hike but from the sheer beauty of the view. It is truly spectacular, and if you have any complainers in your group, this will quiet their doubt in a second. We absolutely loved this hike.
Right along the Appalachian Trail, above town and the impressive St. Peter’s Catholic Church is the historical rock named for Thomas Jefferson. Another vantage point of the incredible views of Harpers Ferry, Jefferson took in the sight on October 25th, 1783 from these slabs of rock. He later called it “one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature” in his Notes on the State of Virginia.
Walking or climbing the rock is forbidden, but it is certainly still worth the climb to experience it. Unfortunately, the rock is not handicap accessible.
White Water Rafting or Tubing on the Shenandoah or Potomac Rivers
For a more adventurous day, consider rafting or tubing the Shenandoah or Potomac Rivers! We've used River Riders in the past for tubing and loved our experience.
If you're thinking about rafting, there are a few things to consider. During the springtime, the rivers are traditionally higher in this area, meaning that if you want a more rugged experience, rafting in the spring is your best bet. During the summer and fall, they mellow out from class 1-3 rapids to class 1-2, meaning virtually no rapids at all. That being said, with your Personal Flotation Devices (PFD's) on and a trained professional on board, rafting is a relatively safe and fun time at both of these levels. Overall, these rafting trips are best cut out for ages 6-8 and up (50 lbs). They last about 2-3 hours and prices start at $64 for kids and $68 for adults. Check here for up-to-date, varying prices and details.
For Tubing, you have the option to venture on a white water or flat water experience. With younger kids, you'll want to stick to flat water, as the white water is recommended for kids from ages 10-12 (approximately 5 feet tall). Have no fear though, flat water float trips are just as fun and very relaxing. Children must be 30 pounds to participate and trips last from 45-90 minutes. Every trip is self-guided, but it's very manageable and safe as long as you're wearing your PFD provided by River Riders. Prices start at $27 and vary depending on the time of week/year.
Explore the Area by Bicycle
- Rent bikes at Harper's Ferry Bikes to enjoy the area on two wheels! They have electric bikes ideal if you plan to cover a lot of ground. They might not be able to accommodate smaller kids though.
Prices are $16.50/hour, $33 for 2 hours, $55 for 4 hours, and $77 for a full day.
- River and Trail Outfitters is another option to consider if the kids are 12 and older and you're looking for some cruisers. They recommend checking out the nearby scenic section of the trail along the C&O Canal and Potomac River. Fees run around $21 for a half day and $31 for a full day.
Quaint Shops & Ice Cream
After the climb up the many stairs to the rock, you’ve all earned a treat. Creamy Creations on Potomac Street will take you down memory lane, or check out True Treats Historic Candy for another opportunity to walk through history with a timeline for your sweet tooth.
Bolivar Community Park
After the sugar kicks in, make your way over to the Bolivar Community Park. The little ones can run free and play at this playground less than a five-minute drive from Lower Town. There is a lot to do and a great way to break up the afternoon.
According to local legend, the North came to the Pre Civil War Spring House located on the park grounds to get water during the day, and the South came at night, just another of the many little bites of history available around every turn!
*Please note that the playground is still currently closed for COVID-19 restrictions.
Harper’s Ferry Brewery
Take in a gorgeous view of the memorable little town from above at Harper’s Ferry Brewery. When planning your trip (which obviously is better on a weekday to avoid the risk of crowds) keep in mind the brewery is closed on Tuesdays. You can see Maryland and West Virginia from this Virginia address, nestled in the cliffs with unparalleled views.
There are a variety of seating areas and they are constructing an impressive two level deck. Family and pet friendly, it’s a great place to unwind after a long day on your feet wandering the area. Alternatively, you can spend the entire day on the brewery grounds enjoying the ample green space (bring a soccer ball, picnic blanket or a kite) and the Harper’s Ferry Adventure Center is conveniently located right next door.
Harpers Ferry and West Virginia in general are a nature lover's dream. If you enjoy camping and glamping, you have a variety of fun options available within minutes of the trails and water activities. The Harper’s Ferry Campground is a waterfront RV and camp tent option with beautiful views. The amenities are basic but there’s nothing quite like waterfront camping to relax and enjoy life together.
If you’re looking for more amenities or cabin rentals, the KOA is close to downtown and has ample sleep options. Worth noting that RV sites are close together and many of the facilities are older. Still, it maintains rustic charm and mini golf is generally a winning option for the whole family.
The last of 100 ferries that used to cross the Potomac, the historic ferry runs on a wire and carries cars, bikes and pedestrians across the river. It is $5 dollars each way or $8 round trip and only takes five minutes to cross. The ferry station sells groceries and bait and also provides motorless boat rentals. It won’t save you any time in transit if you are DC bound, but it is on the way and adds less than 20 minutes for a unique experience the kids will love.
Additionally, when you go this way, there are many strawberry farms and farm stands along the way to stock up on fresh local produce!
Let us help you get outdoors with Hiking WIth Kids: Tips & Tricks or seek inspiration from the safety of your home in Dreaming Up Your Next Adventure.
To really get your imagination in motion, check out the recent blogs by Colin Boyd Dreaming of Safe Travel: Dry Tortugas and Why Mojave National Preserve is Our Favorite Park.
If you have a perfect getaway or a favorite landscape, please share with us at email@example.com. We love hearing from you!