Harpers Ferry is best known as the site of John Brown’s raid, and it also sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Likewise, it is literally walled-in by Maryland Heights and Loudon Heights (in Virginia). One may come for the history, but at the end of the day it’s the mountains and the rivers that are the star attractions..
After crossing the Potomac into Maryland, the theme for a downstream hike shifts toward transportation. It’s fairly common knowledge that the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and Appalachian Trail merge for approximately 2.8 miles at this point. The AT runs approximately 2200 miles–from Georgia up to Maine–and this stretch on the C&O just might be the easiest stretch.
Along the C&O, the white blazes are on wooden posts. Bikers speeding by may not notice the trail markers, but they offer very obvious directions for pedestrians. As stated, this is some easy walking for AT hikers, but the trail does offer up some beautiful and interesting scenery. The river below Harpers Ferry is large and powerful, and it has wide, rocky rapids that are a popular destination for rafters and kayakers alike.
On this particular December morning, the fog hung around as the sun had a difficult time shining through the heavy cloud cover. Eventually, the river came into view, and the rapids were nothing less than spectacular. I grew up in the vicinity of the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, and I’m used to seeing large waterways tamed with locks and dams. I suppose it’s a necessary thing when coal and other resources are hauled on barges, but things along the Potomac have always been a little bit different.
In the picture above, trees and algae clog what’s left of the canal, and the railroad sits atop the wall on the opposite bank. In spite of the railroad’s obvious advantages, the C&O Canal operated until 1924. I’ve heard stories that the engineers used to blow the train whistles and frighten the mules on the canal. Nevertheless, goods headed west either by canal boat or rail in days of yore, and, in fact, the railroad is still a thriving entity.
Okay, so we’ve covered hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, trains, and canal boats, so what’s left? Oh, yeah…about a mile below Harpers Ferry, Route 340 crosses over the whole shebang. That doesn’t quite cover every mode of transportation known to man, but I don’t think airplanes or rockets will ever be part of the C&O Canal/Appalachian Trail experience. It’s really not that complicated; all you need is a bike or a pair of hiking boots.