Harpers Ferry south
Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content
Today was hot. Today was humid. Today was not a good day to hike. But I was feeling very restless, and decided, perhaps rashly, to hit the trail, rationalizing that I would be in the shade for most of it. So I got my hiking stuff together and hit the road.
I had been eyeing the Harpers Ferry area for some time. The area has a lot of trails, even if you don't necessarily want to do the AT. Loudoun Heights and Maryland Heights, where Stonewall Jackson's men hauled their artillery during the first Civil War battle fought here in September 1862. It wouldn't be the last, as the town changed hands eight times by the time the war ended in 1865
Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers which meant that the area was always fated to be important both economically and strategically. Quaker colonist Robert Harper received a patent in 1734, giving him control of 125 acres between the rivers. He established a ferry across the Potomac, making the location the gateway to the agricultural treasure of the Shenandoah Valley. Settlers who intended to carve out a plot of land in the valley rode the ferry across the river. In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly officialized the settlement under the name, "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry." Thomas Jefferson, when he visited in 1783, was awed by the sight. He called it, "...perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."
George Washington visited the town in 1785, and 9 years later he proposed the area as the site of a new armory and arsenal. in 1796, Robert Harper's heirs sold land to the Federal Government which then built the facilities. Between 1801 and 1816 Harpers Ferry became a major industrial complex, taking advantage of the rivers to power the machinery. 1833 saw the arrival of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, with the Baltimore and Ohio railroad coming in the next year. The town was now linked by river and rail with the nation's capitol.
John Brown's attempt to spark a slave revolt in 1859 ended when Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, still Union soldiers at that point, stormed the armory and arrested Brown. The town was fought over and fought in several times during the war, causing damage to buildings and businesses.
By the 20th century, Harpers Ferry became a sort of vacation hotspot for people from Washington DC and Baltimore. as many as 28 trains per day brought the revelers into town, who also came for the horse races at nearby Charles Town. But the town's location ensured regular inundation by flood waters from both rivers. After World War II, new highways and bridges routed traffic around and above the flood plain, and the population began to decline. Today, the town between the rivers belongs to the National Park Service, with the 293 residents living up on the hills above the rivers.
Hiking is important to Harpers Ferry. The Headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is there, and the town is known as the psychological mid-point between Georgia and Maine.
I arrived around mid-morning to find the air already warm and soupy. I parked in a lot at the west end of the historic park, geared up, and headed out. A short uphill sidewalk put me on the long bridge that spans the Potomac. The AT actually passes through the town itself before continuing south on a walkway alongside US Route 340. Despite the stout Jersey Barrier separating the roadway from the pedestrians, the traffic whizzing by was still a bit unnerving.
About halfway across, the view of the river opened up on both sides, between Maryland and Loudoun Heights.
Although the sky was clear of clouds, the haze from the high humidity hung in the air. It was one of those days that not only was hot, but also looked hot.
At the other end of the bridge, I descended one stairway, crossed under the bridge, and ascended a second stairway, this one made of slabs of what looked like slate. From there, the trail went upwards with great enthusiasm. The path was rough with several washouts and liberally strewn with rocks.
All hills do end, even on the AT, and upon reaching the ridge, the trail split, with the AT continuing south and the trail to Loudoun Heights going to the northeast.
The obligatory selfie...
Usually when one reaches the top of the hill, the going gets easier. Not so much here. It did flatten out quite a bit, but in most places the rocks were thickly clustered. This was ankle-turnin' territory, and I went carefully.
Even with the rough footing, the forest was nice. There wasn't a lot of underbrush, so the sightlines were very good among the trees. The sunlight lay dappled on the ground, and even in the heat of the day, I could hear the birds singing above me. It was a peaceful scene.
I only got about 2.25 miles in before the heat and humidity, compounded by the utter lack of a breeze began take its toll. I had packed a lot of water, and I had consumed a little over half of what was in my Camelbak. I decided to yield to the obvious, and turned around and headed back.
Going downhill was a bit easier, although the steep nature of the descent caused my quads to begin to burn. When I got back to the bridge, I rested for a few moments in its shadow before climbing the stairs. Out in the sunlight, the full force of the heat and humidity made itself felt. The trip back across the bridge was only about a third of a mile, but it felt much longer. The traffic was heavier, and that did generate a bit of a breeze. I got back to the car as the last of the water in the bladder went dry. I pulled one of the three extra bottles and drained it, as I waited for the air conditioning to cool the car's interior.
I decided to visit the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is located in Harpers Ferry, up on the hill. Going inside, I found a room set aside as a "Hiker's Lounge," which was agreeably cool and was outfitted with a refrigerator, a computer, a free phone, places to plug stuff in, and a kind of hiker's exchange, where folks could get some powdered and freeze-dried food, and even some articles of clothing and a ton of bootlaces. There was a couple there who had put in at Port Clinton, PA and were bound for Georgia. They were young and energetic (she looked about 4 or 5 months pregnant) and we enjoyed some good conversation. The staff there was very friendly and expressed a sincere interest in our trail experiences. I stayed about 40 minutes, long enough to regain my equilibrium.
The other obligatory selfie...
Although the weather was oppressive, the forest was lovely and on the long drive home, I felt restored and recharged, ready for another week of work.