traveling and meeting other cultures: ideas, destinations, reviews and tips
Hiking Maryland Heights Overlook
If you are planning to visit Maryland Heights during a weekend, your best bet is to come to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. Leave your car at the park visitor center and use their shuttle to come to the Harpers Ferry (what is called Lower Town). From the bus stop you will have to walk about half a mile to the beginning of the trail. Obvious minuses of this option is that you will spend more time on getting to the trail and will pay park entrance fees (which are not high - only six dollars). On a positive side, in addition to hiking Maryland Heights, you will have a chance to look at the Harpers Ferry Lower Town - a very picturesque and interesting place by itself.
If you really want to focus on hiking, another option you have is to park your car on Harpers Ferry Road (also marked as Sandy Hook Rd on some maps). There are two small parking spaces located very close to the beginning of the trail. Total capacity of these parking lots is not more than 20 - 25 cars. If you come on Saturday or Sunday (unless it's early in the morning), most likely, you will not find a space. On the other hand, during weekdays, chances are high that parking lots will be mostly empty.
This description of the hike assumes that you start at the visitor center. It will take probably less than 10 minutes to get to the Lower Town with the bus. From that point it's difficult to make a mistake - you actually can see the Overlook Cliffs from any place in Harpers Ferry. This cliff is our goal for the hike. Just start moving into cliff direction; you will cross the railroad bridge over Potomac (photo 1). At the end of the bridge where two railroads converge (photo 2) turn right and use stairway to go down and under the bridge.
Continue for several hundred yards on C & O Canal towpath (photo 4). Meanwhile, enjoy the view of Harpers Ferry across the Potomac River (photo 3) and Potomac (photo 5) itself. Soon, you will see a staircase with the Maryland Heights trail sign (photo 6). Cross the Harpers Ferry Road - here we are, the actual trail starts here. By the way, from this point you can see one of the parking lots I mentioned above.
The trail is rather steep - but that's part of the deal. After all, one of the reasons to hike places like Maryland Heights is to lose some calories and exercise your heart. Now you have an excellent chance to do both. Our goal for this hike is to reach Overlook Cliffs and enjoy the beautiful view of Harpers Ferry as well as Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. It should take about three hours (assuming that you spend not more than 10 - 15 minutes on cliffs) to complete the adventure (totally about 2.5 miles).
If you are physically fit, you will probably complete the whole hike in less than one hour. If you are not, to help overcome the difficulties of the strenuous trail, you can set for yourself several intermediate goals. The first one will be to reach the point where the trail divides into two paths: one of them will go to the Maryland Heights summit (the Stone Fort trail) and the second - to the Overlook Cliffs. This place is clearly marked with the "Hiking Maryland Heights" sign (see below). By the way, the trail "navigation" is really easy. The first part (about one mile from the start to the "Hiking Maryland Heights" sign) is green blazed. The Overlook Cliffs trail has red blazes and the Stone Fort trail is marked with blue blazes. There are signs and information displays in the park that provide useful insights on the topography, directions and historic events related to one or another place.
Before you accomplish your first intermediate goal as described above, you will see a sign and display related to the former site of the Naval Battery (photo 7). Little remains of this first Union fortification on Maryland Heights. Nevertheless, it can be a good idea to have a brief break and look around. The view of Harpers Ferry from the naval battery position (photo 8) is not that great mainly because of tree growth that blocks it - if not completely but enough to wonder how it was the old days.
A couple of hundred yards from the Naval Battery you will see the "Hiking Maryland Heights" sign (photo 9). This is also a good place to stop and study the information displayed. However, unless there is a sudden change of heart (and you decide to go for the more difficult Stone Fort trail), we continue towards Overlook Cliffs (the trail now is marked with red blazes). The road (photo 10) (indeed, this part of the trail is an old road built by Union troops at times of Civil War) is very scenic. If you are hiking late fall (or winter time), and trees have no leaves, you will enjoy views of the Potomac including the Route 340 bridge over Potomac (photo 11). But do not spend too much time on this now - the trail soon changes from uphill to downhill and Overlook Cliffs are very close.
When you reach your final destination, you will have no doubt that Overlook Cliffs (photo 12) have been worth the effort. Views are breathtaking - the Harpers Ferry from Maryland Heights Overlook (photo 13) looks like a toy town. Shenandoah and Potomac (photo 14) rivers are magnificent, and the whole valley captivates your imagination. You can spend a lot of time just watching and watching this world at your feet.
As you may guess, your way back will be much easier. When you are at Harpers Ferry, decide whether you want to explore the town (depending on how tired you are). It's a very interesting place of a great historical and cultural importance. If you have never been there, you may want to spend at least half an hour (or more) wandering around (perhaps to wake up your appetite for a separate visit just to explore the town). There are many interesting spots: peek inside the armory fire engine house (known also as John Brown's fort, photo 18) - anyway, it's on your way back to the shuttle stop. Another interesting place is the Restoration Museum - look at these excavations inside the old house (photo 15). If you dare to go upstairs, visit St. Peter's Church in Harpers Ferry (built 1833, photo 17). The Dry Goods Store (photo 16) is one minute from the bus stop.
Congratulations! Mission accomplished - next time we'll go to visit Maryland Heights Summit (a.k.a Stone Fort trail). It's a bit more difficult and longer, but not less scenic and perhaps even more interesting.