Climbing the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Harpers Ferry (pop. 286) embodies the industrial and political history of the early United States. Protected since 1963 as a national park, its many well-preserved wood, brick, and stone buildings are palpable reminders of early American enterprise: Besides the country’s first large factory, first canal, and first railroad, scenic Harpers Ferry saw abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 rebellion against slavery, and it was later a strategic site during the Civil War. Harpers Ferry was also home to Storer College, an African American college that operated here from the 1860s until 1955.
Small museums, housed in separate buildings along Shenandoah and High Streets along the riverfront in the “Lower Town,” trace the various strands of the town’s past. From the Shenandoah River, the Appalachian Trail (AT) winds south down what the third president called “one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature,” Jefferson’s Rock. Crossing the Potomac River to the north, the AT climbs up to Maryland Heights for more spectacular vistas.
Especially in summer, the best first stop is the small visitors center (304/535-6029, daily, $5 per person, $10 per vehicle) above the town along US-340. Park here and take one of the frequent free shuttles down to the historic area, as parking elsewhere is limited. Although most of Harpers Ferry is preserved as a historic site, there is considerable pressure to “develop” surrounding lands, so get here while it’s still nice. The eastern portions along the Potomac riverfront have remained in private hands, and here you can indulge your taste for American food, wax museums, and schlocky souvenirs. There’s excellent cycling, a couple of companies offer white-water rafting trips, and for another sort of adventure, you can head down to the cute red clapboard depot and hop aboard one of the Amtrak/MARC trains, which run to Washington DC on a limited schedule. To get the most out of a visit, stay overnight at the lovingly restored, circa-1790s, Federal-style brick-fronted Jackson Rose Bed and Breakfast (1167 W. Washington St., 304/535-1528, $140 and up).