Harpers Ferry Has Sweeping Vistas and Charm

Posted October 5, 2009 at 4:21pm

An excursion to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., is the ideal day trip for anyone with a love of history and the outdoors. This tiny town is only a 90-minute drive from Washington and offers a smorgasbord of museums, outdoor activities and ice cream shops.

Seated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, this hamlet — the population is a mere 307 people, according to the 2000 Census — has sweeping views and quaint charm. The town is perhaps best known as the site of John Brown’s raid on the armory in 1859, a dramatic moment in the Civil War.

The drive to West Virginia is exceptionally pretty as it winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains and Virginia wine country. If you don’t mind getting sidetracked, turn off at Hillsborough Vineyards, located on a slope high above the Charles Town Pike. This winery specializes in Italian varietals and offers tastings for $5 per person and glasses of wine at $8 and $10. The vineyard also offers a variety of fruits and cheeses, making it a perfect stop for lunch.

After a quick jaunt to the winery, it’s on to Harpers Ferry, which is made up of a gorgeous national park and a small town. Parking in the town is limited, but there is a shuttle that runs from Harpers Ferry National Historical Park to the “lower town— of Harpers Ferry throughout the day. Much of the town’s history is told through the museums on High Street. While the John Brown Wax Museum (with dusty and garish-looking historical scenes) is not worth visiting, several of the Civil War museums are worth popping into.

The Black Voices Museum is particularly interesting. The museum uses photos, artifacts, audio recordings and firsthand accounts to illustrate what black people who lived in the town have gone through over the years. It also delves into the complications brought on by having free and enslaved blacks living in one town. The Civil War Museum, located a few stores down from Black Voices, explains how Harpers Ferry changed hands six times during the war and what effect that had on the town’s economy.

Nature’s Best

In addition to being rich in history, Harpers Ferry also offers a host of outdoor activities. Perhaps the simplest and cheapest option is to hike the miles of historic trails that crisscross their way through the surrounding hillsides.

A walk up the Maryland Heights trail to Overlook Cliffs is a must for anyone with a love of hiking. The 4.2-mile round-trip hike begins in lower town and offers the best view of Harpers Ferry and the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. A slight two-mile detour will take visitors on the Overlook Cliff trail, with many Civil War-era sites located on the Maryland side of the river. But remember to bring water because there is no place to get a drink along the wooded and rocky trail.

Time to Eat

It’s easy to work up an appetite after a day of hiking. Back in the lower town there are several taverns, sandwich shops and ice cream parlors. It is not unusual to see signs in the window reading, “Your well-behaved pooch is welcome.— But there’s also another option not far away. If you’re looking for more of a fine-dining experience, hop in the car and travel the half-hour to the historic town of Frederick, Md., home to the James Beard Award-nominated restaurant Volt.

Dinner at Volt is a delightful experience. Not only is the restaurant housed in a gorgeous historic mansion, but it also features a large, quiet outdoor patio. The servers who dart through the dining room dressed in suits and tennis shoes are extremely professional, polite and attentive. It’s refreshing to be in the presence of a well-trained staff. There’s also the added bonus of catching “Top Chef— contestant and Volt owner Bryan Voltaggio cooking up a storm in the open kitchen.

The menu is broken into four courses, all of which diners are asked to order at the start of the meal. It’s a bit odd to be ordering dessert before digging into the first course, but this is a small complaint in the grand scheme. The Cherry Glen Farm goat cheese ravioli is divine. The pasta is al dente and the goat cheese is wonderfully rich and creamy, though beware: It’s a rich dish. The Wellington Farm roasted chicken is succulent, while the Pineland Farm Angus strip loin is perfectly cooked.

Stay Over

Taking in all the history and natural beauty that Harpers Ferry has to offer will probably take the average visitor more than one day. The most convenient overnight option is probably to make reservations at one of the many bed and breakfasts within easy walking distance of the historic lower town.

One such option is the Angler’s Inn, located less than a mile from the historic exhibits on West Washington Street. Owners Debbi and Bryan Kelly run the spacious four-bedroom Victorian-era home and treat guests to a hearty breakfast in the morning and fresh-baked cookies in the afternoon and evening.

Void of television, the Angler’s Inn offers a peaceful getaway to its visitors, with a front porch with rocking chairs and a sitting room with old books. Fishing enthusiasts can take advantage of the guided fishing tours that the inn offers, including smallmouth bass trips on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and trout fishing along the streams of the George Washington National Forest.