Having just returned from a weekend backpack trip to Harpers Ferry I’d like to help you plan your own trip there! My trip was months in the making and was organized as a group event for Virginia Backpacking but you can just as easily pick up your bags this week and hike it yourself. Here’s what you need to know.
This is an end to end hike. Essentially you’re hiking from point A to point B. These types of hikes lend themselves to having someone join you for the hike and using two cars. Leave one car at the end and carpool to the start point. The two points you need to know about are Harpers Ferry National Park Visitor Center and Gathland State Park. Parking at the National Park Visitor Center requires a fee ($10 at the time of writing this article). You also need to complete a form to park there overnight. Contact the Visitor Center via the link above to request the form in advance. Gathland State Park has no fees to use the overnight lot off Arnoldtown Road.
Starting Your Hike
While you can choose either location to start your hike I recommend you begin from Gathland State Park. This is a personal preference because you’ll avoid a significant climb in elevation compared to starting in Harpers Ferry. I also like the idea of hiking into town the next day where I know a hearty meal at a local restaurant awaits me! Click here to see a Google map of the hike starting at Gathland State Park including the elevation profile.
Once you put on your pack in the parking lot at Gathland, cross the street you drove up to get here, walk up past the bathrooms and look for the sign shown above at the top of the hill. It’s about 3.5 miles to your stop that night at the Ed Garvey Shelter. The hike there is mostly gentle slopes of elevation changes up and down.
Ed Garvey Shelter
I had heard that this is one of the nicer shelters in Maryland and I have to agree. The shelter has a loft, a picnic table, plenty of seating, a fire pit, a nearby privy, and sleeps 14. If you choose not to sleep in the shelter there is plenty of open space to set up a tent as well as trees to string a hammock. The night we were there I counted 20 backpackers. Only 1 slept in the shelter and there was still plenty of space for more tents and hammocks. The tent area on the privy side had a convenient bear pole for hanging food. No need to spend time trying to hang a bear bag from a tree! Here’s a slideshow of the shelter area.
The one challenge with this shelter is the water source. If you need to refill your water bottles you’ll need to hike downhill 0.4 miles. That means hiking back up that same section with full bottles. A few of us joked about having to drink half a bottle just to make it back to the top. As an alternative you can try carrying in more water as part of your hike and avoid the trip down to the spring.
The Hike To Harpers Ferry
Hopefully you get a good night sleep and feel refreshed for day 2 of your hike to Harpers Ferry. The first half of your hike continues along the ridgeline. After a few miles you’ll see the sign post below. I highly recommend taking the side trail 0.2 miles to Weverton Cliffs. You’ll be treated to an amazing view of the Potomac River from a high vantage point (our featured image toward the top of this article). This is a great spot to take a break, drink some water, and eat a snack.
Hike the 0.2 miles back up and continue along the Appalachian Trail South. You’ll begin a steep descent shortly after this point so tighten your laces before you begin. Eventually you’ll come to a road in a small residential area. Continue directly across the road looking for the white blazes on nearby trees. You’ll follow this section of the trail for a little bit while passing under a major road (see below) then come out to yet another road at a very sharp curve. You’ll need to cross this section of road so pay careful attention to any cars that may be coming from either direction.
After crossing the sharp turn in the road you’ll take a right up ahead and cross over a set of train tracks. Look for the gate across the tracks and you’ll see a few sign posts just beyond the gate. I’ll tell you that it isn’t clearly marked which way the Appalachian Trail continues. When you get to the sign posts on the other side of the tracks TURN RIGHT!!! You’ll continue on this section of trail for about 2.5 miles with the river on your left and train tracks on your right.
When you reach the railroad bridge you should see the two signs below.
Climb the stairs to walk across the bridge via a section for pedestrians.
Welcome to Harpers Ferry! Feel free to stop at one of the local restaurants for a well earned meal. You can also take in some of the historical shops along Shenandoah Street. When you’ve had your fill of Harpers Ferry you have two options to travel back to the Harpers Ferry National Park Visitor Center where one of your cars likely awaits you. Continue down Shenandoah Street just past the historic shops and you’ll reach a bus loading area on your left where you can catch a shuttle back to the parking lot. Your other option is to continue on the trail just to the left of the road and hike the Visitor Center Trail. It’s 1.6 miles back to the parking area. As you near the Visitor Center, 97 stone steps await you passing by intermittent waterfalls on the way up.
At the end of it you’ll have hiked about 10 miles if you took the shuttle back and about 11.5 miles if you hiked back to the Visitor Center.
Be sure to share this with others you think may be interested and feel free to ask any questions you may have about the trip.