From River Rafting to Historical Haunts

Harpers Ferry Offerings Run From the Educational to the Adventure-Filled

Posted March 12, 2008 at 4:49pm

Whether you’re looking to soak up the rich history of the Eastern Panhandle, get spooked by the spirits of John Brown’s raid or have a splash in the Shenandoah River, Harpers Ferry, W.Va., offers a variety of outdoor activities and attractions for city dwellers to fill up on fresh-aired fun.

Located just an hour and a half outside the nation’s capital at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, Harpers Ferry is just close enough for a day trip or weekend escape.

The village, best known as the site of abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid of a federal armory, brings new light to the concept of “living history,” giving visitors of all ages and interests the chance to explore the beauty and charm of the Eastern Panhandle.

Rolling Like a River

When Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) decided to hit the rapids with River Riders watersport guides several years ago, she was pleasantly surprised to enjoy a scenic tour without losing her stomach.

“It was a lot of fun, [but] it wasn’t death defying,” she said. “For somebody my age, it was a good thing!”

River Riders, one of several watersport companies near Harpers Ferry, offers a range of activities for all ages and levels of adventure. Those looking for an adrenaline rush can tackle the whitecaps on a guided white-water-rafting tour, while those in the mood for a more leisurely ride can float down the river in a rented tube.

“You’re out there in a tube by yourself and you can take a picnic with you,” office manager Amanda Mullins said.

The tubing and rafting season on the Shenandoah, which Mullins describes as a beginner river, kicks off around April 1 and continues through late October. Mullins said the river is a popular destination for Washingtonians looking to beat the heat — River Riders sees as many as 1,200 visitors on hot summer Saturdays.

Though most visitors remember to stock up on sunblock to protect their skin, Mullins said even the most diehard watersport enthusiasts sometimes forget to bring proper protection for their toes.

“Definitely wear shoes that will stay on your feet — no flip-flops, no bare feet. [Riders] don’t realize it’s a river and there are rocks and whatnot on the bottom,” she said.

River Riders
408 Alstadts Hill Road
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
800-326-7238, riverriders.com

Living History

Those looking to add an educational aspect to an outdoor escape can revel in the rich resources at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Park rangers and guards lead programs on topics including John Brown and his legendary raid, the Civil War and weapon production and water-powered industries key to the area’s economy, said Park Ranger David Fox.

“We will have programs ranging from 30 minutes to 90 minutes in length, from a stational talk to a two-mile hike, so there’s a wide range for all interests and abilities,” Fox said.

The most popular exhibits involve living history and professional reenactors, who stage demonstrations on everything from cavalry to marksmanship.

“I would say the firing demonstrations always draw a crowd because the big bang always attracts an interest,” Fox said. “The extra uniforms and costuming always draw attention.”

The park’s 20 miles of hiking trails and 20 museums and living-history exhibits are popular travel destinations for families, history buffs, youth groups and even Congressional offices.

Fox said the park has seen the likes of Capito, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and many more over the years. Most recently, staffers from the office of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) dropped in for a presentation on Civil War history as part of a retreat.

“It’s probably safe to say it was the best Civil [War] tour that a lot of us folks have ever been on,” said Jessica Stanton, Rockefeller’s deputy press secretary.

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
304-535-6029, nps.gov/hafe

Spooky Sightseeing

Visitors to Harpers Ferry also can learn the village’s history from a paranormal perspective.

For 31 years, Harpers Ferry Ghost Tours has offered a nighttime walking tour complete with myths, legends and strange reports of ghost sightings.

“We had people that see things or they hear things. They would actually see people in the buildings and then they would vanish, things would move,” said Ann Kelican, who runs the tours alongside her grandmother, the company’s founder.

Kelican said she doesn’t think she’s ever seen a ghost herself, but some situations have sent shivers up her right elbow, a sign professional paranormal investigators say means a spirit is in the midst. Several ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who have visited the sites themselves also have ruled in recent years that Harpers Ferry is indeed a haunted township, she said.

Whether you believe in the paranormal, Kelican said the tour is a fun way to buff up on some of the town’s more off-beat tales.

“We get people who are looking for the history of Harpers Ferry,” Kelican said. “Just that fear of the unknown and the draw of the unknown is probably what brings people in.”

Spooky Sightseeing Ghost Tours
217 Lower Clubhouse Drive
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
304-725-8019, harpersferryghost.20m.com

Hungry Harvesting

Exploring Harpers Ferry is likely to leave you with a big appetite, which is where another of the town’s attractions comes in handy.

Whether you sample Ridgefield Farm’s fresh produce and homemade products at its stand, which opens July 1, or mix-and-match among 17 kinds of apples in the 3,000-tree pick-your-own orchard come autumn, there’s always something new to try.

Apple picking is one family-friendly option. Ridgefield cultivates dwarf trees so that “every apple is within arm’s reach,” said the farm’s owner, Alan Gibson.

Visitors also can collect vibrant bouquets of cosmos, snapdragons and zinnias in the pick-your-own flower garden.

Gibson said 70 percent to 80 percent of the visitors in the summer come from the D.C. region.

“A lot of staffers do come out here,” he said. “It’s very interesting because this past year we had a lot of interest when there would be a foreign delegation visiting. A lot of staff people brought them out to pick apples because it’s very much an American pastime.”

Gibson, who purchased the farm six years ago, was at one time a staffer for former Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.). Gibson said fellow Washingtonians can expect to breathe easy in the countryside.

“I think [visitors] can expect to find beautiful clean air and open space,” he said.

Ridgefield Farm
414 Kidwiler Road
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
304-876-3647, ridgefieldfarm.com