Let me start this post by sharing that Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is my favorite Washington DC-based day trip and I don’t know if anything will ever unseat it! First, it was one of the first places we ventured to outside of the immediate DC metro area after moving to the National Capital Region. Second, I love that I can easily adjust our route and activities based on the activity level and schedule of our travel companions. Third, I love that this one small town has connections to so many events and movements in history including: Lewis and Clark, slavery, George Washington, historic canals, and even a historic role in the manufacturing of interchangeable guns in the early 1800s.
With limited time in the park, I recommend that people focus their time on the lower town during their first visit to Harpers Ferry. I recommend you print or save to your phone, the National Park Service Lower Town District map. This map is a fantastic guide and I find it more useful than the traditional NPS park map. I will also use the Point of Interest (POI) numbers listed on this map to help guide you around various aspects of this trip.
The following itinerary for the Lower Town District is what I recommend for first time visitors who want to complete an overview of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in one day (3 or more hours in the park):
Activity 1: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Visitor Center
I highly recommend starting your visit at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (HFNHP) Visitor Center (171 Shoreline Drive, Harpers Ferry, WV, 25425). Situated on the thoroughfare just outside of town, the HFNHP Visitor Center is located roughly 2 miles from the historic Lower Town. It is here that you will grab the shuttle to the Lower Town.
The HFNHP Visitor Center is small compared to the majority of National Park Service (NPS) visitor center’s. Unlike many NPS visitor centers, this location’s main purpose is to serve as the fee collection and transportation hub of the historical park. To enter, visitors without a National Park Pass will need to pay the park entrance fee and will then park in any of the numerous parking stalls. Once parked, make your way via sidewalk to the HFNHP Visitor Center.
Once inside the HFNHP Visitor Center, view the topographical map to get an understanding of the unique geography of the town. This will help in understanding the town’s strategic strength as you explore its history later on in your visit. The HFNHP Visitor Center also has National Park Passport Stamps (for my fellow NPS nerds), park maps, a small for-purchase book selection, park rangers and/or volunteers who can answer questions about the park, and bathrooms (which are always important, especially if you just drove in from DC).
After you have taken care of business at the visitor center, take the shuttle to the historic town. The bus driver may give a short talk on the shuttle (I’ve experienced trips with and without a talk), but it is a short ride so do not expect a lengthy historical overview if a talk is given. You will be dropped off at the bus shelter and you should make note of this location as you will pick up the shuttle in the same location later to get back to the visitor center. The pavilion is covered and will provide some coverage in the elements as you orient yourself to the Lower Town area.
Activity 2: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Information Center
I highly recommend starting your time in the Lower Town at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Information Center. The Information Center provides an excellent overview of the park and will give you the needed knowledge to understand the importance of the historic town before you set-out on your adventure. Additionally, National Park rangers and/or volunteers will be on hand to answer any questions you may have about the park, related historical events, and surrounding area.
The HFNHP Information Center is easy to find and is just down the street from where the shuttle bus drops you off. To find it from the bus shelter, stay on the right side of the road and walk slightly south-east along Shenandoah Street to the HFNHP Information Center. Along the way, take time to admire the beauty of the hills and rivers surrounding Harpers Ferry. Once you get to the Information Center, walk inside and begin the self-guided tour.
Activity 3: Get to Know John Brown
Abolition activist John Brown’s famous raid took place in Harpers Ferry in October 1859. To Learn about John Brown’s story and the role Harpers Ferry played in it, visit the John Brown Museum [POI 15] on Shenandoah Street. It is location across the street and east one block from the Information Center.
Once inside, and after the shocking God-like mural of John Brown, read the wall panels in the entrance lobby. These panels, as well as those in the next room, will give a bit of perspective on John Brown and the time leading up to the raid. The museum has three films spread throughout and I recommend viewing them, especially if you are not the panel-reader type.
Upon conclusion of the John Brown Museum, cross Shenandoah Street and walk east to the John Brown Fort. The fort has been moved from it’s original location, but is still intact and worth a quick stop.
Activity 4: Explore the Shore
After you have concluded your time at the John Brown Museum and/or Fort, follow the wide path under the railroad bridge towards the water’s edge to a place called “The Point.” The Point is a beautiful overlook of the confluence where the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac River. From this point in West Virginia, you can see Maryland across the Potomac River and downstream on your left and Virginia across the Shenandoah River and downstream on your right.
The Point is also one of my favorite photography locations in the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The rivers and hills make a wonderful backdrop for for a group shot or selfie – so be sure to bring a camera!
If you have the time and inclination, walk across the footbridge on the left. This footbridge is part of the Appalachian Trail and will connect with the C&O Canal Trail once across the Potomac River in Maryland. The footbridge not only has good views of the river and Harpers Ferry, but you can tell people that you walked part of the Appalachian Trail!
Activity 5: Wander Around Lower Town
Once you have explored The Point, I recommend strolling around Lower Town. There are several historic buildings that are part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park that are open and welcome self-guided visitors. I’ve included a handful below that I recommend:
Armory Site [South of the Train Station]
At the top of the embankment is the original site of the John Brown Fort. Down the hill (use the steps, it is steep) is a replica of the frame of a Lewis and Clark canoe and information on the armory buildings, including details on the excavation that occurred a few years ago.
Meriwether Lewis Exhibit [POI 24]
The Meriwether Lewis Exhibit is a single room exhibit that highlights the elements around the his collapsible boat frame that was tested in Harpers Ferry. The boat, was taken on his expedition with William Clark. The exhibit also references the journals from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. While small, it is a must-stop for any Lewis and Clark fans.
Restoration Museum [POI 2]
The Restoration Museum is a great example of what one can find behind the walls and under the floors in the historic buildings of Lower Town. Several placards walk visitors through the structure and findings. Originally, we skipped this building on our tours with out of town visitors, but now we make sure to stop as everyone has enjoyed the few minutes it takes to wander through, read the signs, and learn about life in the historic village.
Harper House [POI 25]
Even if you are not interested in the historically significant house, which was owned by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Noah Swayne and housed George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as guests. Also, if the history of the structure does not appeal to you, make a stop to check out the cool historical wallpaper and furnishings!
National Park Service Bookshop [POI5]
The the way back to the bus pavilion, stay on the right side of Shenandoah Street until you reach the Bookshop (it’s just west of the bathrooms). The Bookshop (how very old-timey is that?) has a large selection of books on Harpers Ferry, the Appalachian Trail, John Brown, and the Civil War, among others topics. They have a lot of kid-focused items for purchase, so it is a must-stop if you are traveling with children. It also has a selection of trinkets and NPS-branded paraphernalia, including National Park Monopoly, National Park Jenga, and National Park Trivial Pursuit. Finally, they have instant coffee and hot chocolate by the cup, for those visiting on cooler days. Once you have finished at the Bookshop, carefully cross over Shenandoah Street and make your way back to the bus pavilion. The shuttle bus runs semi-frequently (every half hour) year-round, but picks up pace during the busy tourist season.