Autumn in the Mid-Atlantic region is sublime, in my opinion. The weather is generally glorious, cool and crisp with lots of sunshine. The brilliant hues of fall foliage make everything seem to glow, like an Instagram filter has been applied to the landscape. It’s at once exhilarating and cozy, a perfect time to indulge in outdoor adventures — then nestle in back at home with warm food and snuggly kids.
We recently took advantage of the season on a day trip to Harpers Ferry. Just over an hour’s drive from DC, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet, the West Virginia locale is a nice escape from the bustle of the city. And while fall is an excellent time to go, it’s a great destination any of time of year, with a pleasant mix of active recreation, historical explorations, and small-town site-seeing.
It had been quite a few years since we’d been to Harpers Ferry, Owen still a toddler the last time we visited. But it was a go-to for active fun back in the pre-kids day, especially for tubing excursions on the river. The shallow water, mellow flow, and adventure outfitters in the area make it a perfect place to spend a day on the water.
This time, though, we went for the exploring and hiking. Located along the famous Appalachian Trail, there are a few good options for tramping with the kids that wind through the woods, lead to overlooks with stunning views, and offer some active recreation in a pretty, rural setting.
We arrived in town, but immediately drove up to the parking area located about five minutes up the road. Part of the National Park System, it costs $20 to park (but if you have a 4th grader and the free National Park Pass, you don’t have to pay). A shuttle took us back into town, where many of the “shops” along the main street are actually museums offering a glimpse into the town’s past. There’s a clothing store, blacksmith, boarding house, industry museum, and more. You can walk into John Brown’s Fort, learn about the Civil War in Harper’s Ferry, and see the oldest surviving building in the town among many other historic sites.
Several eateries are located in the area for a meal or snack pre- or post- hike. We stopped for some fuel before walking across the bridge, the B&O Railroad Potomac River Crossing, to Maryland for some hiking. There are several trail options, from easy, flat nature walks to more strenuous uphill hikes. We opted for the popular Maryland Heights Overlook Cliffs Trail, about a two and a half-mile ascent to the cliffs overlooking the river and the town of Harpers Ferry. It was a bit challenging for the kids, but not too difficult. And the views at the top were a fantastic reward!
After hiking back down, we stopped for an ice cream treat, walked around a little more, then caught the shuttle back. While we headed back home that evening, Harpers Ferry also makes for a nice weekend trip to experience even more activities. There are many options for lodging, from quaint inns and chain hotels to cabins and campgrounds. During the warm months, tubing and paddling on the river are popular pursuits. And hiking and biking can be enjoyed during most of the year. The Harpers Ferry Adventure Center also offers zip line tours (as well as tubing and rafting excursions).
Still, I highly recommend going in the fall — and planning on chili for dinner after.
Harpers Ferry is located in Jefferson County, WV, about 70 miles from DC. The park is open daily from 9am – 5pm with the last shuttle bus departing Lower Town for the parking lot at 6:45pm. There is parking in town, though it’s restricted. Parking in the lot is $20 and includes ranger programs, and access to park museums, exhibits, and trails. It’s good for three days.
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