Full of centuries-old Civil War sites, crumbling ruins and churches, Harpers Ferry is a must for any history aficionado. Set in a stupendous spot where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet, it also boasts many lovely nature spots and viewpoints.
Tucked away in the Shenandoah Valley, West Virginia’s easternmost town is sandwiched in between both Virginia and Maryland. Most known for abolitionist John Brown’s raid on its armory, it has lots of interesting museums, historic sites and landmarks.
While Civil War sites dominate many visitors’ itineraries, hiking, biking and kayaking in its idyllic surroundings are also popular things to do in Harpers Ferry. As well as the Appalachian Trail, pretty rock formations and waterfalls can be found in the nearby woods and mountains. On top of this, its two rushing rivers offer outstanding outdoor activities and unbelievable views.
12. White Hall Tavern
Since the 1850s, White Hall Tavern has been a place people come to debate, drink and discuss local events. Very well-preserved, its authentic interior, informative displays and historic interpreters now instead entice tourists to pop their heads in.
Quite nondescript, the atmospheric old tavern lies beside John Brown’s Fort. Its proximity to the US Armory led officers to petition about the poor influence and dangers posed by the public house. As a result, the army bought and removed the front part of the building in 1856 to reduce the threat of fires spreading.
Nowadays the tavern offers an interesting snapshot into the past with artifacts and exhibits covering its history and the workers and soldiers who frequented it.
11. Ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church
Just a stone’s throw from the tavern, visitors can find the incredible old Ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Perched atop a grassy bluff overlooking both rivers below, its crumbling walls, windows and remains certainly make for a striking sight.
Also used as a hospital and barracks during the Civil War, the church was severely damaged by fire during the fierce fighting for Harpers Ferry. Although restored, it was later abandoned when the new St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was built nearby.
At the scenic site, you can now read all about its fascinating history which dates back to 1852. The rugged remains of the church, its almost overgrown knoll and prominent viewpoints also make for some fabulous photos.
10. John Brown Wax Museum
Just one of the town’s many musts for history buffs is the small yet comprehensive John Brown Wax Museum. Set right in the center, it provides guests with an in-depth look at the infamous abolitionist and his daring raid on Harpers Ferry.
Inside its tall red brick building are countless waxwork models, dioramas and exhibits that highlight the life and legacy of the influential figure. These cover his efforts to help enslaved people escape to freedom and his attacks on the town and armory.
Both audio descriptions and innovative lighting help bring the extensive displays to life before your eyes. In total, nearly ninety life-size wax figures dot its three floors with the museum having first opened to the public in 1962.
9. Antietam National Battlefield
One of the country’s most significant Civil War sites, the Antietam National Battlefield lies twenty minutes drive north in neighboring Maryland. Here visitors can hike about its fields and farms and learn all there is to know about the bloodiest day in American military history.
On September 17, 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate troops clashed with Union forces not far from the Potomac River. After twelve hours of savage combat, over 22,000 soldiers were killed, missing or wounded and he retreated.
Scattered about the huge battlefield are moving monuments and informative plaques with a national cemetery lying beside it. Its excellent visitor center details the tactics, troop movements and turning points of the battle. Umpteen artifacts and exhibits also explore the key figures involved.
8. River Riders
After having explored so many historic sites, River Riders’ exciting outdoor activities and adventure sports are a fantastic way to relax and unwind. With so much beautiful scenery and nature on show, why not sign up for one of their cycling, kayaking or rock climbing tours.
Aside from whitewater rafting and tubing down the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, outdoor lovers can also hike and fish along their banks. The company also has exhilarating zip lines, fun obstacle courses and lofty canopy tours to try out.
All the activities they offer take place in pristine spots amidst the mountains, rivers and valleys. Due to this, you can bask in their splendor while enjoying excursions with an experienced guide.
7. John Brown’s Fort
Situated in a very strategic spot, John Brown’s Fort lies right at the point where the town’s winding rivers meet. Originally erected to guard the Harpers Ferry Armory, it then later achieved fame as the renowned abolitionist’s refuge during his daring raid on the town.
Now the armory’s only surviving structure, the simple edifice was built in 1848 to house guards and fire engines. A decade later, it gained notoriety in the nation as John Brown and his men barricaded themselves in the firehouse with their hostages. Local militia and marines stormed the building and Brown was hanged two weeks later in Charles Town.
Besides taking in its fine features, you can also read the numerous plaques that relate its captivating story. Countless other historic sites, viewpoints and river walks also lie next to the ‘fort’.
6. St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church
One of these is the lovely St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church which is arguably the most impressive building in Harpers Ferry. Soaring above the rooftops, its steeple makes for a stirring sight with the mountains and forests rising up in the background.
The only church in the town to survive the Civil War, the pseudo-Gothic building was completed in 1833. As well as a big belltower, its gorgeous grey and red sandstone exterior also showcases some stupendous stained-glass windows.
Inside is just as attractive as pretty pews, statues and religious artworks dot the church. Some photos and displays also document its history. Exiting the church is just as special as entering, thanks to the phenomenal views of the valley and rivers before you.
5. Appalachian National Scenic Trail
A wonderful way to see more of the town’s surroundings is to hike along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. As Harpers Ferry is located near its midpoint, many people set off in either direction to explore the nearby mountains, valleys and woods.
One of the longest and loveliest trails in the States, it remarkably stretches about 2,200 miles in total through fourteen states. While it would take months to complete, dipping in and out of the rambling route is a great way to see more of the country.
The shortish sections near town take you through some stunning scenery and past divine viewpoints with rock formations and waterfalls on show. As it pretty much marks the halfway point, Harpers Ferry is a celebrated milestone for hardy hikers attempting the whole trail.
4. Jefferson Rock
Alongside the Appalachian Trail in the center of town, you can find ginormous Jefferson Rock. It is noted for its distinctive shape, precarious setting and panoramic views over the river valley.
Named for Thomas Jefferson, the striking landmark consists of large slabs of shale piled atop one another. Under the uppermost piece of rock are four stone pillars that help keep it propped up. Next to them is a plaque with the former US President’s description of the amazing rock formations and sweeping views. He visited Harpers Ferry in 1783 while he traveled around the state of Virginia.
Due to its heady height, the colossal rock boasts breathtaking views over the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Valley and rivers below.
3. The Point
Another simply unmissable viewpoint can be found where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet at the eastern tip of town. Known as ‘The Point’, it offers unrivaled views of the rushing rivers and the majestic mountains rising all around them.
At the rivers’ confluence are numerous displays that explain the history of the area and clarify what you are actually looking at. Next to it for instance is a dilapidated railway bridge that was destroyed during the Civil War and atmospheric ruins from the armory.
These make for some fantastic photos with the rivers, forests and mountains in the background. The Point is also noteworthy and nice to visit as the three states of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland can be spotted from its shores.
2. Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters
As well as housing the headquarters of its conservancy group, the center has engaging activities and exhibits on the Appalachian Trail. Visitors interested in the remarkable route can come here to learn all about its fauna and flora, history and landscapes.
Since 1925, the organization has worked to protect, preserve and promote the terrific trail. On top of its educational exhibits and helpful staff, there are also brochures, merchandise and supplies to pick up in its gift shop.
As the headquarters is considered the ‘psychological half-way point’, thru-hikers check in here and receive a much sought-after polaroid photo. Besides being a nice memento of the arduous trek, their smiley pictures also go up on the wall alongside thousands of others.
1. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
As the town is home to a huge number of historic sites, much of it is protected as part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. While many museums and landmarks relate to both John Brown and the Civil War, pristine nature spots and viewpoints are also included within it.
Established in 1944, it encompasses dozens of sites, the historic center and parts of the Shenandoah River valley. Connecting many of its crumbling remains and scenic overlooks are charming cobbled streets with the Appalachian Trail winding its way here and there.
Very well-maintained, it is the most visited historic site in West Virginia. All the picturesque forests, mountains and rivers surrounding it only add to the popular park’s undoubted allure.