Updated on June 23, 2020
Hiking Loudoun Heights Trail from Harpers Ferry
A nice winter day when a thin sheet of snow blanketed the earth. I headed off to the historic town of Harpers Ferry for some hiking and exploration.
Usually, I consider hiking in winter, among lifeless tree branches, dull. In comparison, summer leaves were a much better sight to behold. Snow was the only thing that could rival all signs of summer lives, aesthetically.
So after some snow fell over the mid-Atlantic region, I decided to head outside and explore nature. Harpers Ferry wasn’t too far from Washington DC that I lived, it’s a small town rich in history and natural scenery, and I made it my destination today.
I parked my car at Harpers Ferry Train Station, where one of the few parking lots in town was located. It seemed to me that one technically needs to pay NPS (or have a pass) to park at the train station.
Situated in a gap of the Blue Ridge Mountain and at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry was a town of important geological location.
A primitive ferry was established in 1733 by peter Stephens, who later sold the business to Robert Harper in 1747, and thus the town got its name.
The town witnessed the great transportation race connecting Ohio valley to the East coast, between Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad and Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal in particular. Coincidentally, construction of both the railroad and the canal started on the same day of July 4, 1828. The canal ran parallel to Potomac River in its entirety from Washington DC to Cumberland, and its construction managed to reach Harpers Ferry first, and thus somehow secured the right of way along the river farther West. The railroad failed in the race to reach Harpers Ferry, and to avoid mountainous terrain in Western Maryland, crossed Potomac River into (West) Virginia. Ultimately, technology prevailed and the railroad reached Cumberland 8 years before the canal. The railroad also brought prosperity to Harpers Ferry as a gateway to Ohio Valley.
Right next to the train station, Federal Armory buildings used to line the banks of Potomac River. The site of the Armory was chosen by George Washington in 1794 to produce military arms.
In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown, in an unsuccessful attempt to gather arms for black rebel, raided the Federal Armory. The event has been called the dress rehearsal for the Civil War.
Next to the reconstructed John Brown’s Fort was Arsenal Square. After Virginia seceded from the Union and its militia tried to seize the armory and arsenal, retreating federal forces burned the arsenal to the ground.
After that, I took a stroll heading West along Shenandoah River.
Despite being in a strategic location, the mountains surrounding Harpers Ferry made it a hard to defend, military wise. The town changed hands 14 times during the Civil War, the most notable being the Battle of Harpers Ferry in September 1862. The battle could have a thrilling plot to rival Gettysburg not too far from here. But unfortunately, it’s a battle that the Union lost, and in short to a not-so-glamorous reason because the Union Commander Col. Miles chose to keep most troops near the town, instead of occupying commanding positions on the surrounding heights. As a result, its battlefields received much fewer visitors than the famous Gettysburg, and few would associate Civil War with such a little town.
The destruction of the federal armory and the subsequent Civil War, during which the town changed hands multiple times, had a devastating blow to the town’s economy. A brewery was erected on the shores of Shenandoah River in 1895, in an attempt to revitalize the town, which didn’t fare too well with West Virginia’s prohibition in 1914.
Interestingly, the prohibition organization “The Sons of Temperance” had their meeting hall right next to the town’s brewery. I guess the two neighbors weren’t too nice to each other.
At the western end of Shenandoah Street there was an NPS managed parking lot. Most hikers to Loudoun Heights started from here.
Loudoun Heights Trail
Here’s GPS tracking for the entire day:
Snow was only a few inches and melting on the trail, which was pretty beaten from fellow hikers, so no specialty gear was necessary.
And apart from traffic below and some shooting range nearby, I was enjoying some good solitude.
By the way, the first part of the trail was also Appalachian Trail.
Two hours after I crossed Shenandoah River (including a lunch break), I reached the end of trail, Split Rock. It offered views of the town of Harpers Ferry with two rivers that surrounded it. Maybe not as spectacular as from Maryland Heights across the river, but still rewarding.
The return trip wasn’t too eventful, only that snow was melting at a visible speed, even on this northern slope of the hill.
Once back in Harpers Ferry, I took some more tour of the town before heading back home. That included NPS Service Information Center and the hill behind the town.
Finally at the train station, I ventured across Potomac River to take a closer look at Harpers Ferry Tunnel.
There were two bridges heading out of Harpers Ferry Tunnel. The dual-track bridge carried only railroad traffic continuing North as B&O’s mainline. The single-track bridge continued West as Shenandoah division. The latter also carried a footpath for people to walk across Potomac River, which was part of the Appalachian Trail.