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A Hiker’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Harpers Ferry

Ready to take a hike? Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is a must-visit location for hiking enthusiasts and those interested in the famous Appalachian Trail. 

Considered the psychological halfway point of this 2,200-mile hike, Harpers Ferry is the ideal location for learning more about the AT and gives visitors the opportunity to hike along the trail itself. 

During your cabin getaway in Harpers Ferry, be sure to check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and hike along the trail itself.

 

The Significance of Harpers Ferry

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The small town of Harpers Ferry, located in northeast West Virginia, is a charming getaway that offers Southern hospitality, lots of history, and a wealth of outdoor activities. 

A little over an hour from Washington, DC, Harpers Ferry is a fantastic escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and allows visitors to get out and appreciate the beautiful nature of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Harpers Ferry has been a key player in the history of the United States, specifically during the times leading up to the Civil War and the war itself. Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and with a significant railroad, the town was considered an important strategic point and ended up changing hands between the Confederate and Union armies multiple times throughout the war.

Prior to the war, Harpers Ferry was the location of John Brown’s Raid in 1859. Abolitionist John Brown gathered a group of fellow abolitionists and attempted to incite a slave revolt, which ultimately failed. While the raid ended in the execution of John Brown, it is considered the prelude to the Civil War and one of the main events that sparked the war.

While Harpers Ferry is a paradise for lovers of American history, it is perhaps even better known to outdoor enthusiasts. The region around Harpers Ferry offers endless options for outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain biking, tubing and whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and more.

Harpers Ferry’s biggest claim to fame in the outdoor sphere is that it is considered the halfway point of the famed Appalachian Trail. While it isn’t the exact halfway point, it is often called the “psychological” halfway point; the spot where exhausted thru-hikers can consider themselves to be halfway through their journey. 

If you are interested in the Appalachian Trail and its importance and would like to have the opportunity to actually hike along this amazing route, visiting Harpers Ferry is a must. 

 

The Appalachian Trail

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The Appalachian Trail is one of the three major long-distance hiking trails in the USA, alongside the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, and is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. Coming in at 2,193.1 miles long, this trail spans fourteen states as it follows the mountains and valleys of the Appalachian Mountain Range. 

The trail begins (or, for some hikers, ends) at Springer Mountain in Georgia, while its northern terminus is at Katahdin, Maine. The trail has millions of visitors every year, with around 3,000 brave hikers, known as thru-hikers, attempting to walk the entire trail, and around ¼ of them completing it. 

Those who don’t wish to hike the trail all at once are called section hikers, meaning they only hike select sections. Section-hikers will find Harpers Ferry to be a great destination that allows for a beautiful hike along a popular section of the AT.  

There are two ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail; northbound and southbound. Northbound is the most common route, as it allows hikers to begin in Georgia in the early spring and follow good weather as they hike north, finishing in Maine before winter sets in and makes the Katahdin summit impossible. 

The Appalachian Trail was first conceived by Benton MacKaye in 1921 and completed in 1937. The trail is a unit of the National Park System and is officially called the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the title bestowed upon it after the National Trails System Act in 1968. 

As an extension of the National Parks in the United States, the Appalachian Trail is a way to preserve nature and bring awareness to the importance of having these wilderness areas open to everyone. 

The trail, lovingly called “The Green Tunnel ” by thru-hikers due to the enclosed tree cover over the majority of the trail, has its own culture surrounding it. Thru-hikers, who meet each other at night when they stay in one of the 250 trail shelters, often become friends without even knowing each other’s real names. Trail names are common on the AT, often reflective of a person’s habits, personality traits, or physical attributes. 

For these thru-hikers, the town of Harpers Ferry is considered the halfway point of the trail. In terms of mileage, the exact halfway point is located in Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania, but mentally, hikers get to celebrate their achievement when they reach Harpers Ferry.

Fans of the Appalachian Trail or those who are considering hiking it one day will enjoy hiking a section of it when they visit Harpers Ferry. It is a great location to get a taste of the Appalachian Trail, meet some thru-hikers, and learn more about the history and importance of the AT at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters. 

 

Hiking the AT in Harpers Ferry

Photo Credit: Jonathan A. Mauer

If you are looking to get a taste of hiking the Appalachian Trail, Harpers Ferry is one of the best destinations. While there are plenty of great hikes in the area, there are few places in particular where you can learn as much about the AT, meet current and former thru-hikers, and hike along multiple sections of the beloved trail. 

Not only do the hikes around Harpers Ferry give you a chance to hike the AT, they also offer stunning views and long vistas of Harpers Ferry, the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and the Appalachian Mountains.

 

Maryland Heights Trail

Photo Credit: the.depths.of.nature via Instagram

There are three routes you can choose from when hiking the Maryland Heights Trail, each including time on the Appalachian Trail as well as the loop to the Maryland Heights Overlook. This overlook is a must-see for visitors to Harpers Ferry, allowing a picture-perfect vista of Harpers Ferry, the confluence of the rivers, and the expansive mountain ranges beyond.

The shortest route available for this hike is Lower Town to Maryland Heights Overlook, a moderately strenuous hike of 4.5 miles. If you include the Stone Fort Trail on this hike, it becomes 6.2 miles and provides a chance to see the Civil War Stone Fort and artillery batteries. The longest route at 6.5 miles is considered strenuous, starting from the Visitor Center instead of Lower Town and taking you along the Maryland Heights Loop and the Stone Fort Trail. 

Camp Hill and Appalachian Trail

This trail offers multiple side trails, allowing hikers the opportunity to create whatever route they prefer. The typical routes are between 2-3 miles roundtrip and are considered moderately strenuous.

Once you leave the Information Center in Lower Town, the trail will take you up toward Jefferson Rock. Take the Appalachian Trail past the Lockwood House, and from there, you have three route options: continue on the AT to meet with the Loudoun Heights Trail, take the lefthand route to the highly-recommended Cliff Trail, which circles back to Lower Town, or take the blue-blazed trail above and to the right for a path to the former Storer College and finishing at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters. 

Loudoun Heights Trail

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The 5.9-mile out-and-back Loudoun Heights trail is considered moderately difficult and is a wonderful way to experience the Appalachian Trail and see some great views of Harpers Ferry and the surrounding nature. 

This hike features multiple overlooks, allowing visitors the chance to see amazing scenes of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, Harpers Ferry, and an eastern view into Pleasant Valley. The Split Rock overlook is one of the most popular viewpoints in the area. 

Jefferson Rock

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This short hike is a great way to get a taste of the Appalachian Trail as well as indulge in some interesting local history. The trail starts at the stone steps between the African American History Museum and Civil War Museum in Lower Town. You will pass St. Peter’s Catholic Church before the path intersects with the Appalachian Trail and leads you to Jefferson Rock.

Jefferson Rock is a great viewpoint to see the stunning mountains and the confluence of the Potomac River and Shenandoah River. At this spot, you will get to see the same vista that Thomas Jefferson saw in 1783 as he passed through Harpers Ferry. Jefferson even wrote about the view in his journal, stating that “This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

The rock itself makes a great photo opportunity, but do be sure to heed the signs reminding you that climbing on the rock is not allowed. This historic structure is fragile and unstable, meaning it can be dangerous. 

Harpers Ferry Two-State Hike Through History

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This 2.8-mile lollipop-loop trail starts at the ATC headquarters and takes you to some of the top sites in Harpers Ferry, such as the site of the Storer College, the Lockwood House, Jefferson Rock, and, of course, the Appalachian Trail. It is a great route for those wanting a fairly easy hike that packs a big punch of historical significance and feelings of accomplishment. 

From the ATC, you can reach the Appalachian Trail in just over half a mile. Carrying on past Jefferson Rock, keep following the white blazes until you reach the pedestrian bridge. As you cross the bridge, you will pass from West Virginia into Maryland, so you can say you’ve hiked on the AT in two states! 

Bears Den to Harpers Ferry

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For a good workout and a real long-distance hiking experience, consider the Bears Den to Harpers Ferry trail. This 19.2-mile point-to-point hike starts at the Bears Den hiker hostel near Bluemont, Virginia, and finishes in Harpers Ferry. Since it is a point-to-point hike, you will need a vehicle shuttle, whether you set it up with your own cars or book a shuttle service.

On this trail, you get an authentic AT experience with long miles and the chance to hike with fellow thru and section hikers. Due to its length and elevation gain, this trail is considered strenuous but rewards hikers with beautiful views and a sense of accomplishment that they have done long miles on the Appalachian Trail.

The AT Conservancy in Harpers Ferry

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The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, originally called the Appalachian Trail Conference, was first formed in 1925 and has a long history of protecting and managing the Appalachian Trail. The headquarters were moved to Harpers Ferry in 1972 and have been there ever since.

The mission of the ATC is to ensure that the Appalachian Trail stays protected and is advocated for so that every generation has the chance to enjoy the beauty of this American treasure. The ATC works hard to keep the trails managed and safe for hikers, as well as providing invaluable information to those considering the journey.

In Harpers Ferry, you can find the headquarters in a very special location: the building that now houses the ATC was once the site of John Brown’s fort. Inside this historic building, visitors can chat with the friendly staff or even thru-hikers that are likely inside relaxing on the couch or picking up their mail full of supplies for their hike. 

The ATC headquarters has a small museum with exhibits on the Appalachian Trail, photos and logbooks of the thru-hikers that have visited, and a gift shop. This is a great place to visit during your time exploring Harpers Ferry. 

 

Hiking the AT in Harpers Ferry

Harpers Ferry is one of the best places to explore the piece of American heritage that is the Appalachian Trail. Known as the longest footpath-only trail in the world, the AT has a unique culture and offers hikers the chance to see the best of the Appalachian Mountains. 

Considered the halfway point of the AT, Harpers Ferry is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as well as being a fantastic starting point for section hiking along the trail. Take the opportunity to visit the beloved Appalachian Trail during your Harpers Ferry cabin getaway.

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