I spent Easter weekend in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Its a town I’ve had a curious history with. I passed it three times on bicycle tours, but never visited due to the difficulty of getting a bike and trailer over the stairs and pedestrian bridge on the Potomac. I finally visited the town in 2009 for the anniversary of John Brown’s raid, but my knees were in the early stages of giving out and I did little hiking. Last year my visit consisted of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters and a walk on the grounds of Storer College. So this Easter I made my visit count, and I feel like I’ve finally begun to see the town. 

I parked my car at the National Park Service Visitor’s Center on the outskirts of town. After taking the five minute shuttle bus ride into the Lower Town, I began to walk around. The historic section of the Lower Town is very small, but there’s a lot packed into it. Aside from the historic buildings and John Brown’s Fort – the armory engine house Brown seized – there are spectacular views of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the C & O Canal Towpath, and the surrounding mountains. 
And speaking of mountains, keep in mind that once you leave the floodplain of the Lower Town, everything in Harpers Ferry is UP. Bring your climbing legs. And once you have your climbing legs on, take the short walk to Jefferson Rock. Thomas Jefferson described the scene from the Rock in his book Notes On The State Of Virginia. He used a different spelling of Potomac, and his use of language reflects a different era, but its such a wonderful description I’m quoting it at length: 
“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue

Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been so dammed up by the Blue Ridge of mountains as to have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that, continuing to rise, they have at last broken over at this spot and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their disruptions and avulsions from their beds by the most powerful agents in nature, corroborate the impression.

“But the distant finishing which nature has given the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the former. It is as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountains being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in that plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around to pass through the breach and participate in the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way, too, the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, the terrible precipice hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country around that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

In 2009 I was too tired and weak in the knees to climb the stairs to Jefferson Rock. Not this time. The Rock is only three tenths of a mile hike, and I did it.