Climbing the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Harpers Ferry (pop. 300) 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 was later a strategic site during the Civil War.
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 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, when cars are banned from lower Harpers Ferry, the best first stop is the small visitors center (daily; $5; 304/535-6223) above the town along US-340. Park here and take one of the frequent free shuttles down to the historic area. Although most of Harpers Ferry is preserved as a historic site, the eastern portions along the Potomac riverfront are still in private hands, and here you can indulge your taste for fast food, wax museums, and schlocky souvenirs. A couple of companies offer whitewater rafting trips, and for another sort of adventure you can hop onboard one of the Amtrak/MARC trains, which serve Washington, D.C., on a very limited schedule. Back up the hill along US-340, near the visitors center, there’s a Comfort Inn ($50–75; 304/535-6391).