If you live in or near Washington DC, you can easily make a Harpers Ferry day trip, just like I did from Gettysburg PA recently.
It was only a one hour drive for me, but it may take about 90 minutes from Washington.
I haven’t been to Harpers Ferry for about 20 years and forgot how much there is to see and do there. The town offers magnificent views of two mighty rivers plunging together, and sits on the edge of three states and four national park sites.
That’s just the start. Harpers Ferry is also known for its rich history, natural beauty, architecture and hiking trails. This small West Virginia town was visited by George Washington and was a favorite vacation spot of Thomas Jefferson.
So tag along as I tell you about everything you need to know before your Harpers Ferry day trip.
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About Harpers Ferry WV
Harpers Ferry is a small town located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.
Steeped in history, the town has roots dating back to the early days of our country’s founding.
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But the true history of the area started well before that.
Harpers Ferry was founded at the place where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers carved a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is said that the might rivers eroded the earth an estimated thickness of a thumbnail every 100 years.
The Blue Ridge are part of the well known Appalachian Mountains and are comprised of the second oldest mountains in North America, formed nearly 1.2 billion years ago.
Visiting Harpers Ferry WV For The Day
With a current population of just under 300, visiting the historic town of Harpers Ferry really feels like stepping back in time.
In this small town you’ll find museums, exhibits, historically themed shops (like old fashioned candy stores) and numerous restaurants and coffee shops. You’ll also find challenging walking trails in and around the town.
Since Harpers Ferry WV played a pivotal role in both the Civil War and the abolitionist movement before the war began, it is a popular destination for history buffs. But it’s also a town that offers great views, interesting architecture and wonderful nature walks.
If you’re looking for a quaint small town that offers something for everyone in the family, then a Harpers Ferry day trip should definitely be on your radar.
What Happened At Harpers Ferry WV?
Before you go on your Harpers Ferry day trip, you’ll probably want to know a little bit about the history of this mountainside town.
Harpers Ferry has a long and storied history that dates back to the colonial era. In 1763 millwright Robert Harper recognized the potential of the power of the two rivers for a mill.
As a result of the mills, the town quickly became a hub of industry, with the rivers providing power for mills, factories, and other businesses.
In addition to its industrial importance, Harpers Ferry played a crucial role in the nation’s early history. Located at the crossroads of major trade routes, it became a key transportation hub for goods and people traveling between the North and the South.
Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition stopped in Harpers Ferry in 1803 and purchased 15 rifles from the U.S. Armory located there before joining up with Clarke.
John Brown’s Raid At Harpers Ferry
If you’re going on a Harpers Ferry day trip, you’ll learn about the role the town played in John Brown’s raid in 1859.
Brown, an abolitionist, led a group of men in an attempt to seize the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and spark a slave rebellion. His raid was part of a plan to establish an independent stronghold of freed slaves in the mountains of Maryland and Virginia.
Brown and his 18 men captured and held the federal arsenal for 36 hours, but they were then surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines, led by Colonel Robert E. Lee (1808-70) and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart (1833-64).
Brown was wounded and captured while inside the fire engine house pictured above, and later convicted of treason and hanged. The event is considered the spark that increased tensions between the North and South, contributing to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The U.S armory at Harpers Ferry, now covered by an embankment of dirt and rubble, produced the deadliest weapons of its day from the early 1800s until the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Gutted during the Civil War, the armory was later razed to make way for elevated train tracks. A stone obelisk on the rise marks the original location of what became known as John Brown’s Fort.
During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry was the site of a critical battle between Union and Confederate forces. The town changed hands several times during the war, and its garrison of 12,000 Union soldiers was captured by Stonewall Jackson in September of 1862 on his way to Antietam.
Harpers Ferry is now a National Historical Park and a great place for a road trip to explore its rich history and natural beauty.
Visitors can walk in the footsteps of John Brown and other historical figures, visit museums and exhibits, and enjoy hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities in the surrounding mountains.
Another great day trip is to Bethlehem PA, especially at Christmas! See what’s so special!
What You Can See During A Day Trip To Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry and the National Park Service are closely intertwined. In 1944, the federal government designated Harpers Ferry as a National Historical Park in recognition of its significance to American history.
Today, the park encompasses more than 4,000 acres of land, including much of the historic town, the rivers and surrounding wilderness, and several other sites of historical importance.
The National Park Service operates several facilities within the park, including a visitor center, museums, and exhibits that showcase the town’s rich history and cultural heritage.
Park rangers lead guided tours and educational programs that provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the town’s past and its significance to American history.
The Provost Marshal’s office is one of my favorite stops in Harpers Ferry. Take a moment to notice the details in this reconstructed office, including the chalkboard in the back with “prisoner status” information.
Cornelia Stipes, a Harpers Ferry widow, ran a boarding house in this building during the Civil War. The upstairs is set up as it would have been in the 1860s with a “sky parlor” and officer’s quarters.
Other buildings that you can walk into during a Harpers Ferry day trip include Philip Frankel & Co. Boots and Shoes and Hats and Caps. This was an actual store that sold merchandise from 1858 to 1860. Researches used newspaper advertisements to furnish the store as it would have been in the 1850s.
You can also walk into a Dry Goods Store and get an idea of what shopping for groceries was like in the 1800s. The details of this room include, not only the merchandise, but the advertisements and notices that are stuck on the door and walls.
I didn’t get to see John Brown’s Wax Museum while I was there because it was closed, but lots of people say it’s something to see.
Outdoors: Nature And Hiking At Harpers Ferry
In addition to its historical importance, the park is also a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
The joining of the two rivers brings lots of visitors during the summer months to sit on rocks, go tubing, or even white water rafting.
The Appalachian Trail passes through Harpers Ferry, and visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and other outdoor activities in the park’s scenic wilderness areas.
In addition to the Appalachian Trail, there are lots of other hiking trails in Harpers Ferry to explore.
Breakdown Of Harpers Ferry Things To Do On A Day Trip
Of course, if you’re a history lover, you’re going to love this charming West Virginia town, but there is a lot more than just history.
Here’s a quick look at things to do in Harpers Ferry.
Historic Downtown: What they call “Lower Town” in Harpers Ferry is a must-see for anyone interested in history or architecture. You can just wander the streets and enjoy the sights, or take a guided tour to learn more about the town’s history and culture.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park: The Harpers Ferry National Historical Park encompasses much of the town’s historic district, as well as the surrounding nature areas. Visitors can explore the many museums and exhibits that are located within the park.
Outdoor Adventures: The Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet in Harpers Ferry so make time to enjoy the outdoors with activities like kayaking, canoeing or fishing. The rivers also provide a wonderful backdrop for picnics and gatherings.
Hiking And Trails: The world-famous Appalachian Trail passes through Harpers Ferry, and visitors can enjoy hiking with lots of stunning scenery.
Shopping: I was really impressed with the unique stores in Harpers Ferry that feature everything from jewelry and gifts and to Victorian wares and hiking attire. True Treats Historic Candy is as much a museum as it is a place to buy sweet (and nostalgic) treats.
FAQs About Harpers Ferry
Does Harpers Ferry Have A Ferry?
No. Harpers Ferry no longer has a ferry. It was named after John Harper who ran a ferry in the 1700s. He died in 1782 and is buried in Harpers Cemetery.
Is Harpers Ferry Dog Friendly?
Many of the businesses in the town of Harpers Ferry are pet friendly, but dogs are not allowed on the National Park Service shuttle buses or in any of the NPS buildings.
A One-Day Itinerary For A Harpers Ferry Day Trip
For a one day visit to Harpers Ferry, here’s a suggested itinerary that covers some of the town’s top attractions:
9 a.m. – Grab a bite to eat at Battle Grounds Bakery and Coffee, which serves breakfast and lunch and is conveniently located near parking if you get to Harpers Ferry early.
10 a.m. – Explore the town, which includes many historic buildings, landmarks and wayside exhibits. Don’t miss The Point, Jefferson Rock, St. Johns Episcopal Church Ruins and the beautiful St. Peters Roman Catholic Church.
Noon – Enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the park’s scenic overlooks or by the river. If you didn’t pack a lunch, there are many restaurants in Harpers Ferry, including delis, pizza, sandwich shops and ice cream establishments.
1 p.m. – Take a hike. There are several hiking trails that offer stunning views of the surrounding wilderness areas and the rivers. Maryland Heights Trail is my favorite. Though steep, it offers spectacular views as a reward.
5 p.m. – End your day with dinner at the Anvil Restaurant, which offers classic American fare in a cozy setting.
This itinerary provides a great introduction to Harpers Ferry, but of course, there’s much more to see and do in Harpers Ferry.
If you like exploring old towns, the stone architecture in Harpers Ferry reminds of Waterford, Va.
Fees For A Harpers Ferry Day Trip
Unfortunately, there are fees involved for a Harpers Ferry Day Trip.
Passes for the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park can be purchased online or at the Cavalier Heights Entrance Station near the park’s Visitor Center, Bolivar Heights, Maryland Heights, Harpers Ferry Train Station, and River Access Parking Lot.
If you’re not accustomed to using your phone for purchases (that would be me), I recommend you purchase a pass ahead of time.
Vehicle passes are $20; motorcycles are $15; $10 per person arriving on foot or bicycle.
You can also purchase a Harpers Ferry Annual Pass for $35.
Harpers Ferry Day Trip Parking
This is probably the most important part of this post on taking a Harpers Ferry day trip. Parking is extremely limited so you need to know your options ahead of time.
Pro Tip: Don’t try to avoid the fees. The town officials are very vigilant about parking offenders.
Main Harpers Ferry Parking Lot: 171 Shoreline Drive, Harpers Ferry, WV. This lot can accommodate several hundred vehicles, but fills up quickly in the summer months. This location is also the park’s Visitor Center and starting point for the shuttle bus to Lower Town. This is the recommended place to park.
(NOTE: Pets are not allowed on park shuttle buses or in park buildings).
River Access Parking Lot: Located at the junction of Highway 340 and Shenandoah Street. There are only 36 spaces and they are intended for those wanting river access. If you happen to get a space here it is a bit if a hike into Harpers Ferry.
Train Station Parking Lot: Located off of Potomac Street in Lower Town. This is where I parked because I arrived in Harpers Ferry very early. It fills up quickly.
Other Parking: There are a few metered street parking spots maintained and monitored by the town of Harpers Ferry, but you are still responsible for paying the park entrance fee even if you use a meter.
Bolivar Heights and others. There are a few other parking lots that involve quite a walk into town, and you still can’t avoid the parking fees.
Important Tips For A Harpers Ferry Day Trip
Harpers Ferry is a unique town, so there a few things you should know before planning your Harpers Ferry Day Trip.
- To say parking is limited is an understatement. Either arrive very early in the morning during the busy summer season or plan to park at the Visitor Center and take the shuttle bus to Lower Town. It really is the best way.
- Wear walking shoes. No matter where you are going in Harpers Ferry, you will be doing a lot of walking uphill, sometimes using granite stairways that are uneven and slippery when wet.
- Bring water and sunscreen. Being outside is part of enjoying Harpers Ferry. Make sure you’re prepared for hot weather.
- Trash: Believe it or not, there are NO TRASH CANS in Harpers Ferry. Anything you bring into the town, you must take with you.
How Do You Get To Harpers Ferry?
If you’re taking a day trip to Harpers Ferry from Washington DC, you take I-495 to I-270 N to Frederick, MD. Then take the exit for Rt. 340 S toward Harpers Ferry. At the Harpers Ferry stoplight, turn left.
The total distance is about 66 miles.
You can take a long weekend trip and also visit the historic sites in Winchester Va.