Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
The small town of Harpers Ferry, located at the juncture of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers in a scenic place known as The Point, has a storied past. In 1783 it was visited by Thomas Jefferson, who stood on a rock (now called Thomas Jefferson's Rock), viewed the scenery and described it as "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature". Radical abolitionist John Brown captured the armory in Harpers Ferry in 1859 in a crazy scheme to incite a slave rebellion. Brown was captured in a nearby engine house known as John Brown's fort by - ironically - Union Colonel Robert E. Lee. An important strategic railroad location and armory, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times during the civil war. It's most famous day was September 17, 1862. General Stonewall Jackson, having just captured Harpers Ferry, launched a desperate march to nearby Sharpsburg and broke the Union charge at the Battle of Antietam, turning the battle into a tactical draw.
I spent a few hours at Harpers Ferry National Park. A lovely little town, Harpers Ferry is a quick visit and a scenic photo location. Its pretty views distract from the town's historic significance. A major flashpoint for the beginning of the civil war and a crucial setting for one of the most sigificant days in the war's history, Harpers Ferry is an excellent place to add to your itinerary while visiting West Virginia and Maryland.
General Notes About Harpers Ferry National Historical Park:
We had made no plans to go to Harpers Ferry. It was on the list only as an option if we had a block of time to fill. Well, we did a great job of covering Antietam the first day and the morning of the second day and we needed to find some place for lunch, so we decided to go there for a short trip. We figured we'd drive into town, grab a bite to eat, snap a few pictures and head back towards the cabin.
This only shows how little we researched Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Harpers Ferry seems more like a little theme park than it is a real town. The historic section of town is run by the National Park Service. There are probably only 50 parking spaces for nonresidents in the entire town, so realistically speaking, you can't park there. Instead, you drive through the town and along a road in the wilderness for a few miles, ending up at the Visitor Center for Harpers Ferry National Park. There you pay the $6 entrance fee, park your car, and ride a shuttle bus BACK along the road in the wilderness and into the town.
It sounds like I'm belittling the whole process, but I'm not. It's actually a very good system. The town doesn't have the space for tourist parking. This system provides plenty of parking for everyone and keeps the town pedestrian-safe. The shuttles run every 10 minutes and they're free. (Make sure you verify when the last shuttle bus runs from town - I think it was at 6:45 p.m. but you should confirm that before you get off the bus.) The $6 fee covers your access to the town as well as the rest of the park for three days. We were just caught off-guard by all this because we hadn't checked out the town at all during our preparations.
All this is to say we quickly realized our visit to Harpers Ferry was going to be more involved than we intended. We found a restaurant for lunch (review below), then wandered around the town for awhile. We hiked up to Thomas Jefferson Rock (see comments below), then went down to the river side to enjoy the beautiful scenery. We walked across the river on the train track over to the mountain tunnel, then promptly turned around and came back because there is really nothing to see over there. LOL We grabbed a bunch of pictures at The Point, then walked over to see John Brown's Fort and back into the town.
We ended up spending several hours in Harpers Ferry, and enjoyed it very much. My wife actually liked visiting there more than she did going to Antietam. I said in the Antietam trip report that I got a tick in Antietam, but it may have come from our hike to Jefferson Rock because I discovered it later that evening. Otherwise, I enjoyed the short excursion to Harpers Ferry as well.
Thomas Jefferson Rock - A park ranger at the visitor center told us that we could hike up to Thomas Jefferson Rock for a nice view of "The Point," or the place where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac River. Pointing at a map, she said, "You just climb up these stairs up to the church, then go up this trail for a ways, then pick up the Appalachian Trail and the rock is right up there." I was not encouraged by what she said. She used the word "up" five times. I don't like climbing - it's very hard on my knees. I wanted to ask if they could just airlift me in but chickened out.
When we got to town, my apprehension only got worse. This hike starts with a climb up some old rock steps from High Street leading to a catholic church. I could just hear the priests at this church using those steps in the confession booth as penance for their parishioners - "Three Hail Marys and two sets of stairs, my child." They were very steep and precariously uneven, as you can see in the picture above. And there were a lot of steps!
I had all but decided not to do the hike, but as we walked up the hill from that point, we saw there was a road off to the side that led up to the church. The road is called Public Way and you can see its intersection with High Street in the picture to the right. Going up Public Way was much easier than those stairs, so I decided to give it a go.
We took the street up to the church and then hiked up the path past the old church ruins. In no more than 5-10 minutes from the church, we reached the rock. It was a steep hike but you can stop and rest on some rocks along the way if you want and it's really not far at all. It looks worse on the map than it actually is.
The view was beautiful. Thomas Jefferson Rock is a famous place and you can understand why Jefferson marveled at the view from here so many years ago. We spent some time there, enjoying the view and taking pictures, then made our way back down.
I thought Thomas Jefferson Rock was definitely worth the hike. If you have trouble climbing stairs, walk up the hill (passing all the shops to your right) and look for a side road to your left that cuts back up towards the church. It's a much easier and safer climb than trying to navigate those old steps. Obviously this isn't feasible for someone who is wheelchair-bound or has extreme difficulties with stairs or inclines, but for the rest of you, if you take your time and rest against the rocks that line the walkway periodically, hopefully you'll find that it's not too far.
Other Site Seeing - The streets are lined with old time shop displays for you to look at. The shops are little mockups of what stores looked like 100 years ago. In some cases, people in period costume sit in the shops and tell you about what you're seeing. There are also several little museums along the streets.
One of the main focal points in Harpers Ferry is The Point, the corner of the shoreline where the Potomac and the Shenandoah. The Point is very easy to walk to, fortunately, and as you can see in the picture to the right it's a wonderful view. On your way you'll pass John Brown's Fort. The Point is a great place to take pictures of the rivers. If you have a long lens you might be able to catch some Eagles in flight around the top of the mountain across the river.
Included in the $6 fee is access to many battlefields around the Harpers Ferry park. We drove up to Bolivar Heights Battlefield, a summit overlooking the town of Harpers Ferry that is only five minutes from the visitor center. Bolivar Heights offers terrific panoramic views in three different directions. If we'd had more time and better weather we would have driven through the park and enjoyed more of the views.
Park Rangers - The rangers at all three parks were great, but one in particular deserves special mention. We met Ranger William Banks at the visitor center for Harpers Ferry. He was terrific. Even though it was late in the day, he was enthusiastic and full of information. You'd ask a question and he'd have three maps out in front of you, with a highlighter in hand to mark out the answer to your question. He even marked out on a map the directions to 7-11 for me so I could buy a drink. LOL He probably does these spiels 50 times a day, but he still manages to be excited about it as he talks to you. He does a tremendous job.
Quarter Master Family Tavern - - 16 High Street, Harpers Ferry West Virginia
We went to Harpers Ferry primarily to grab some lunch. We ended up getting more than we bargained for on the visit, but we did manage to eat while we were there.
As we walked up High Street, the main tourist drag through the town, we stopped at the Quarter Master Family Tavern. We went in the main entrance and found the primary dining room to be a bit noisy, so we went downstairs and found a stone room that was cool and quiet.
The menu was a bit foo-foo, with stuff like hummas, crab spread and the likes, but there were plenty of options for us low-brow types. LOL The offerings include a lot of burgers, deli sandwiches and veggie stuff. Entrees were in the $10 - $15 range. Beers were $4 each. Sodas were $2 each, but you only got one refill. (It costs only a couple cents to fill a glass from a soda machine - I thought this was pretty chintzy.) I ordered a mushroom-swiss burger ($11) and my wife got a BBQ sandwich ($15). The prices were a little high for these selections, but we were on the main drag of tourist town so we expected to get hosed on the prices there. Actually, for a tourist trap situation the prices weren't too bad at all.
Especially since the food was very good. My burger was excellent and very large. My wife couldn't eat all of her sandwich but she enjoyed what she could eat of it. They don't serve French fries at the Quarter Master but we did get potato chips with our meals. Anastasia, the waitress who took care of us, did a great job too. We felt bad about her running up and down the stairs all the time but she seemed to have no trouble with it.
Definitely a thumbs-up for the food quality and convenient location on High Street.
Harpers Ferry Battlefield Travel Photographs
We have linked to several photos from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on this trip report page . . . but not ALL of the pictures we shot. After you've read the trip report, be sure to check out the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Photos to see all the great tourist sites and get excited about your trip! View Harpers Ferry National Historical Park travel pictures here .
Civil War Trip Reports
Civil War trip report (general notes) - Many of our observations applied to more than one battlefield or to the trip in general. This was particularly true with regards to planning and booking the trip and the items we brought with us on our vacation. Rather than duplicate those comments in the Antietam, Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg trip reports, I've included a separate page for these general comments here.
Antietam National Military Park trip report - We spent one and a half days touring Antietam National Military Park. Read this trip report to learn about our cabin, a great restaurant . . . to avoid, suggestions for improving your visit, and much more.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park trip report - We visited Harpers Ferry National Historical Park for a half day. While we weren't there for too long, we still had a good time and identified several tips and observations that might help you as you plan for your vacation.
Gettysburg National Military Park trip report - We made two trips to Gettysburg. The first was an overnight stay as part of our June 2009 vacation to Washington DC with our two 16 year-old boys. We all loved it there and when we got home, my wife and I planned a second trip for the two of us in July 2009. We devoted a great deal of time to the Gettysburg battlefield and came up with several tips and suggestions that should help you save time, money and mix-ups on your vacation.
Vicksburg National Military Park trip report - We spent a fast two days in Vicksburg to travel the battlefield in March, 2010. We spent a great deal of time traveling around the battlefield, and stayed overnight in Vicksburg. Good tip for a hotel, not so good experiences with restaurants unfortunately. But you can learn from our mistakes.
Living Civil War History - Civil War Reenactment in Jefferson, Texas - In May, 2010 we traveled to Living Civil War History a civil war reenactment in Jefferson, Texas. This trip report describes the event and provides reviews of two restaurants you don't want to miss.
Texas Civil War Museum - Fort Worth Texas - We have driven past this facility literally hundreds of times - it is within 10 miles of our house. Every time we see it, one of us will say to the other, "We need to check that place out - is it open?" Well, we finally broke down and went for a visit on February 27, 2010. Yes, it is open. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice it was inside too! Check out the trip report from the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
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