Mountain Mama Vacation Homes

Shenandoah & Potomac: Harpers Ferry’s Rivers

The small West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry, just a short one-hour drive from Washington, D.C., is full of both natural beauty and fascinating American history. As with its rivers, the two are intertwined.

Harpers Ferry emerged as a pivotal gateway for pioneers venturing up the Potomac River. Settlers moving into the Shenandoah Valley and beyond would stop here to restock provisions.

To give you a head start on appreciating the Shenandoah and Potomac in all their glory, we’ve put together an extensive guide on Harpers Ferry’s two rivers to guide your next Mountain Mama getaway.

When you arrive, you’ll already have all the information you need to explore the rivers and make the most of your time both in and out of the water.

A Tale of Two Rivers

To understand the relationship between the rivers, we need to start at the beginning – the headwaters!

The Shenandoah’s headwaters are located in the Alleghenies and the Blue Ridge Mountains, forming two forks that later converge into the Main Stem Shenandoah River in Front Royal, Virginia. The Potomac, meanwhile, starts about 100 miles to the westin Fairfax Stone, West Virginia.

The two rivers then meander through the Appalachians before meeting at the confluence, the place where Harpers Ferry was founded nearly three hundred years ago.

At the confluence the Shenandoah empties into the Potomac, which then flows all the way to the Chesapeake Bay and finally into the Atlantic Ocean.

What to Expect

Sections of both rivers are flat and meandering, but immediately around Harpers Ferry, it gets a bit more exciting, with enough power to support local whitewater adventures.

A variety of leafy trees line the banks, including sycamore, dogwoods, and tulip poplars, and provide shade for summer strolls. Local wildlife loves all that shade, too. You could spot red-tailed hawks or bald eagles during a visit to Harpers Ferry or turtles sunning themselves on river rocks.

The Harpers Ferry Rivers in History

The Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers have defined what’s now known as Harpers Ferry since long before its establishment as a town. These rivers have both played a vital role not just in the history of Harpers Ferry but in that of the entire United States. They have provided power, a means of transportation, and much more for centuries.

The Famed Ferry

Photo Credit: Lissandra Melo

In 1751, Lord Thomas Fairfax sold entrepreneur Robert Harper 125 acres of land, which Harper used to establish a ferry across the Potomac River and transport colonial settlers further westward. Though initially little more than a remote ferry outpost, Harpers Ferry continued to grow, and in 1763, the Virginia General Assembly officially declared the town “Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harpers Ferry.”

George Washington’s Armory

Photo Credit: Lissandra Melo

Nearly 30 years later, President George Washington chose Harpers Ferry as the site of one of the first federal armories in the then-fledgling United States. Washington’s reasoning? The Shenandoah and Potomac’s “inexhaustible supply of water” which would generate power for large-scale arms production.

Of course, the Harpers Ferry Armory would become famous across the country less than a century later when abolitionist John Brown led a small militia to take over the town in 1859.

The Civil War

Photo Credit: Nat Thanapohn

The Civil War broke out shortly thereafter, and due to its strategic importance as both an armory and a point of river transport, Harpers Ferry became a bitterly contested battleground. The town changed hands between Union and Confederate forces eight times over the course of the war, the scars of which can still be seen today in buildings preserved from the era.

Activities Around the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers

Though you might come to Harpers Ferry to learn more about Civil War battlefields or John Brown’s Raid of 1859, the Shenandoah and Potomac are attractions in their own right.

Kayak, Raft, or Tube the Rivers

Photo Credit: Zack Frank

Visitors to Harpers Ferry can kayak, whitewater river raft, and even ride inner tubes on the rivers. Whether you bring your own gear or rent from companies like Harpers Ferry Adventure Center and River Riders, getting out on the water allows you to cool down during hot summer days and take in the scenic beauty of the Shenandoah and Potomac.


Photo Credit: Alexander_Safonov

The water may look great for swimming, but be sure to take the necessary precautions.  We should note that the National Park Service (NPS) prohibits swimming in the rivers at Harpers Ferry due to the presence of sinkholes and unexpected strainers.


Photo Credit: Rocksweeper

If you prefer to stay dry, though, you can also enjoy both rivers from the comfort and safety of the banks. There, you can do some local fishing for smallmouth bass, catfish, sunfish, and more native species.

The River Access Point on Shenandoah Street serves as a put-in point to the shallows of the Shenandoah River, though you might want to arrive early to snag parking at this popular spot. For those seeking a bit of local expertise, several Harpers Ferry companies also offer guided fishing trips on both the Potomac and Shenandoah.


Photo Credit: Lissandra Melo

You can hike along the rivers all year along but fall is a great time to catch the changing colors of nature. There are numerous trails that surround Harpers Ferry and its rivers, including many day hikes that will bring you near the banks. A short stretch of the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail runs through here and features a taste of local river history and gorgeous scenery to boot.

The trail passes directly through Harpers Ferry near Jefferson Rock, where Thomas Jefferson once took in views of the confluence, then proceeds to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters before looping around Lower Town.

If you’re willing to hike a bit further on the A.T., take a walk or bike along the C&O Canal Trail (MM 69.5) to Weverton Cliffs, an excellent spot to stop and watch a colorful sunset. But words and photos can’t really do those views justice — they’re best experienced in person.

Plan Your Visit to Harpers Ferry’s Rivers

The Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers have shaped Harpers Ferry in countless ways and continue to define the town today.

To learn more about these rivers and their significance, book a stay at Mountain Mama to see them for yourself. Many of our rental cabins are just a short drive from the rivers or located right on the water for prime Potomac and Shenandoah views.


Ready to book?

We have provided everything you need and what’s more,
book direct and you’ll enjoy the best rates for our rural holiday home.