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Thomas Jefferson described it as “worth the voyage across the Atlantic.” While he was referring to the fantastic view of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers from a large shale rock formation, the same could be said about the charming town of Harpers Ferry itself. If your family includes any history buffs, nature lovers, train enthusiasts, or adventure seekers, this is a town you will want to explore.
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Getting To Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
To experience Harpers Ferry, you must go to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Parking options in the Lower Town (the historical part with all the good stuff) are extremely limited. You can try circling the Lower Town to find a metered parking spot, but you are better off saving the time and stress and parking at the Visitor Center at 171 Shoreline Drive, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. Note: If you enter “Harpers Ferry National Park” into your GPS, it may take you right into the middle of this large national park that covers parts of West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland – also known as “the middle of nowhere.”
Once you arrive at the Visitor Center, you have two easy options for getting to the historic Lower Town. You can take a quick national park shuttle bus that runs every 10 minutes or take a pleasant 1.2-mile (approx. 30 minutes) downhill hike into the historic Lower Town. Many prefer to take the hike into town and then take a shuttle bus back after a busy day of exploring (avoiding the uphill return hike). This combination has been my personal preference, as kids seem to feel about twenty pounds heavier on the uphill return trip!
Historic Lower Town
Once you arrive in the Lower Town section of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, you will find that it looks as it did in the 19th century. Many of the old buildings on the main street have historical interpretive exhibits. Lower Town is compact and easy to navigate. The most popular site in Lower Town is John Brown’s Fort, located on the corner of Shenandoah Street and The Point (the overlook where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers converge). While it does not cut the figure of an imposing fort, the one-story former engine house is the most famous building in Harpers Ferry and one of the more important, albeit lesser known, in U.S. history.
John Brown’s Fort
The fort is where Abolitionist John Brown and his followers were under siege and eventually captured by the U.S. Army in 1859, after their failed raid to seize weapons at the nearby National Armory and create an insurrection to free enslaved people in the surrounding area. This event was a significant catalyst for the American Civil War that would break out a year and a half later. Harpers Ferry was later the sight of several Civil War battles, with the town changing hands between the Union and Confederacy an incredible eight times during the war.
No trip to Harpers Ferry is complete without a visit to the famous Jefferson Rock. Within the compact Lower Town, find the intersection of High Street and Church Street, take a few flights of stone stairs, pass the old St. Peter Catholic Church (an excellent place to catch your breath), and arrive at Jefferson Rock. This is the site where Thomas Jefferson admired the view of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The short excursion up the steps provides some exercise for a magnificent view and is one of the best photo opportunities in Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry, WV is a family travel destination for history buffs, nature lovers, and adventure seekers. Here are the best things to do!
Hiking In Harpers Ferry
Does your family want to hike north to Maine or south to Georgia? Harpers Ferry is the rough midpoint and headquarters of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, the most extensive hiking trail in the world. Hiking enthusiasts can visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to learn more about the trail’s history.
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Appalachian Trail Bridge
Even if you aren’t planning an epic months-long Appalachian Trail hike, Harpers Ferry is one of the most scenic spots along the iconic trail and has several excellent hiking trails for all levels. From Lower Town, walk across the iconic Appalachian Trail Bridge that spans the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers to access the Appalachian Trail for some of the more popular hikes.
In addition to the previously mentioned hike from the Visitor Center into Lower Town, visitors can hike a flat route on the Appalachian Trail along the C&O Canal Towpath, along the Potomac River for as long as they want, and then turn around. Fun fact: You could take the Towpath all the way to Washington, D.C.
Maryland Heights Trail
The Maryland Heights Trail is the most popular hike in Harpers Ferry. This 4.5-mile hike (3 hours) ends at the Maryland Heights Overlook, which provides stunning views of the historic Lower Town below. This hike is a bit more effort but is still relatively moderate. Bring along plenty of snacks and water. You will be rewarded at the top with an impressive view of Harpers Ferry, situated between the connecting Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. The outlook provides plenty of rocks for a quick family picnic or snack before undertaking the far easier and faster trek back down.
Harpers Ferry also provides one of the more picturesque places for train watching. Harpers Ferry sees a decent amount of freight traffic, and the town still has a historic train station that has regular but not frequent service. Kids can enjoy watching the trains chug along the bridge spanning the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers before disappearing into the large tunnel to make their way through the mountain. The combination of the old historic town and the beauty of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers convergence provides a pleasant backdrop for train watching. The Application Trail Bridge runs parallel to the train tracks, providing a close view of the trains.
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Harpers Ferry is a major destination for river adventures. One of the more popular ways to cool off in the summer is to take a tubing trip down the beautiful Potomac or Shenandoah Rivers. The Potomac River has the more adventurous tubing, while the Shenandoah River provides a more relaxing experience. There are trip packages that feature both – an adrenaline rush followed by a relaxing float. A nice feature of both rivers is that they are pretty large, so if you are looking for a lazy day floating with your family, there is plenty of space to avoid louder tubing groups (such as DC interns!). While there is plenty of river for everyone, I appreciated the ease of moving aside to explore something with my daughter while we waited for a larger and louder group to pass.
Aside from the popular tubing trips, there are several options for canoeing, kayaking, or even more adventurous white-water rafting. Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, River Riders, and River and Trail Outfitters are the three largest providers in the area. All three have a variety of tubing, canoeing, kayaking, and zipline adventures for families.
Kid-Friendly Restaurants Around Harpers Ferry
There are a variety of food options in Lower Town. The Rabbit Hole Gastro Pub on High Street is probably your best choice for a casual meal. Creamy Creations on Potomac Street is a popular spot to grab a post-hike ice cream. Children and adults will enjoy visiting True Treats, a historic candy store on High Street that claims to be the only research-based candy store in the country, with over 500 candies organized chronologically based on when they were first introduced.
If you venture out of Lower Town, two nearby locations are worth a visit. Boxcar Burgers in the nearby town of Brunswick, Maryland, has the best burgers in the area. This is only a 12-minute drive from Harpers Ferry Historical Center. Their specialty is the “Boxcar Burger,” a 1/3 burger served with lettuce, tomato, pickled beets, and their signature sauce.
Harpers Ferry Brewing Company is another short drive away. You need to eat somewhere after your day of exploring, so why not a family-friendly brewery with incredible views? The brewery routinely has excellent food trucks and serves up a decent pizza. This is a popular location for those finishing up a day of adventure. Fortunately, the brewery grounds are massive and well-staffed to accommodate the larger crowds.
When You Go
Getting To Harpers Ferry From LA
There is enough to do in Harpers Ferry for a long weekend trip; however, given the proximity to Washington D.C and Baltimore, it would also make an excellent addition to trips to those cities. Flying into the DC area, you have three airports to choose from – Reagan National (DCA) in Washington DC, Dulles International (IAD) in Loudon County, Virginia, or Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) outside of Baltimore, Maryland. Of the three, Dulles Airport is the closest to Harpers Ferry. For Civil War history buffs, Harpers Ferry is also close to Antietam, Manassas, and Gettysburg.
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Where to Stay In Harpers Ferry
There are a variety of Airbnb and local bed and breakfast options in the Harpers Ferry area. For hotels, the Holiday Inn Express and Suites in neighboring Brunswick, Maryland, is an excellent family-friendly value, and the Clarion Inn located in Harpers Ferry is an even closer and more budget-friendly yet well-reviewed option. For more luxury accommodations, there are local boutique resorts such as The Hillbrook Inn in nearby Charles Town, West Virginia.
To check the areas where you want to stay, or book an VRBO, use this interactive map by plugging in the dates you want to stay.
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