maryland heights: the overlook cliff trail

Sunday, November 26:  Today is sunny but brisk, a perfect hiking day, so Mike and I take a trip to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park for a post-Thanksgiving hike. Sarah and Alex went back to Richmond on Saturday and Adam is at work, so we have the day to ourselves.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is similar to the Four Corners area in the southwest USA, except that only three states come together: West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. Here at Harpers Ferry, the three states don’t actually touch, but are separated by the Potomac River and the Shenandoah Rivers, which merge here to form one channel. In the Four Corners, four states (Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico) meet at a single point. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park includes nearly 4,000 acres of land in Jefferson County, West Virginia; Washington County, Maryland, and Loudoun County, Virginia.

Today we will be walking in Maryland on the The Maryland Heights Trail.  Before we leave the house, Mike proposes we walk the entire circuit on a map he’d printed out. There are two routes on the trail.  You can choose one or both, and he hopes to do both. Since I’ve never been here and don’t know anything about it, I agree that it sounds reasonable, although I’m a little hesitant as my original plan was to go for about a 2 hour hike and then go out for lunch on our way home.

The Overlook Cliff Trail is 2.8 miles, or 2 hours round-trip from the trail head.  The Stone Fort Trail is a loop that branches off the main trail and is 4.7 miles, 3 hours round-trip. Both of these distances are from the trail head, so the total distance is less as the Combined Trail is included in both sections. Mike estimates if we do both the Overlook Cliff Trail and the Stone Fort Trail, it will be 5.3 miles, or 3-3 1/2 hours.  Since we don’t get to the trail head until 11:00 a.m., if we follow Mike’s plan, we won’t be able to eat lunch until 2:30 or 3:00.  I don’t know if I want to eat that late!

There are only two small parking lots near the trail head to Maryland Heights, and we manage to squeeze in on the edge of one.  We leave the car teetering precariously, two wheels on the asphalt and two perched on a couple of boulders in a kind of small gully. We cross the old canal to the towpath, where we walk a bit along the Potomac River to the other parking lot.

Bridge to towpath along the Potomac River

The park was declared a National Historical Park by the U.S. Congress in 1963 and includes the historic town of Harpers Ferry, notable as a center of 19th-century industry and as the scene of John Brown’s abolitionist uprising. John Brown (1800–1859) believed that armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States (Wikipedia: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park).

Potomac River
towpath along the Potomac

We reach the trail head, crossing the canal and the road to begin our ascent.

The Maryland Heights trailhead

The hike promises spectacular scenery, geology, Civil War and transportation history.

The first bend on this combined trail offers a nice view of the Potomac. The trail is a continual ascent, with no flat areas at all.

looking down at the Potomac as we climb
Maryland Heights trail
trees and shadows on the hillside

Veering off the Combined Trail, we stop by the 1862 Naval Battery. Positioned 300 feet above the Potomac River, the Naval Battery was the first Union fortification on Maryland Heights.  Hastily built in May 1862, its naval guns were rushed here from the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard.  Along with a detachment of 300 sailors and marines, the battery was equipped to protect Harpers Ferry from Confederate attack during Stonewall Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862, according to a park sign.

Naval Battery
grasses at the Naval Battery
View across the Potomac to the town of Harpers Ferry

Thwarted that spring, Jackson returned to Harpers Ferry in mid-September 1862, during the Confederacy’s first invasion of the North. Jackson’s three-day siege included an infantry battle on the crest of Maryland Heights on September 13, in which the Confederates advanced south along the ridgetop.  The Naval Battery guns were turned uphill to pound the crest, but orders to retreat forced the Federals to abandon the mountain and this battery.

Looking up from the Naval Battery

On September 22, one week after the Union surrender at Harpers Ferry, U.S. forces returned to Maryland Heights to build fortifications at better locations on the crest and slope of the Heights.  The Naval Battery lost its defensive importance and eventually became an ordnance depot.

After leaving the Naval Battery, we return to the Combined Trail and turn right.

We walk along until we come to a branch in the trail.  We have already walked 40 minutes, all uphill.  A sign at the branch tells us that the Stone Fort Trail, to the left, is a “strenuous but rewarding hike to the summit.  The route passes Civil War forts and campgrounds, scenic overlooks and weathered charcoal hearths.”  It also says the distance is 3.3 miles, or 3 hours round trip!  That doesn’t even include going to the Overlook Cliff Trail, straight ahead, which is described as a “moderate but pleasant hike to a scenic overlook of Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah Valley,” with a distance of 1.4 miles, 1.5 hours round trip.

So confusing!  Mike had estimated the entire hike, doing both trails, would take 3 to 3 1/2 hours.  This sign is telling us that from this point, after already walking 40 minutes, that if we go both directions, we’ll have to hike 4 1/2 more hours.  So, adding the 40 minutes both ways, up and down on the combined trail, the whole hike is turning into nearly a 6 hour hike!!

Mike doesn’t believe this is correct, but I can see the trail and it looks straight uphill and very rocky. I’m dubious.

We decide we’ll go take the Overlook Cliff Trail. At this point, we walk a narrow, rocky descent to the cliffs overlooking Harpers Ferry.

a tangle of trees

The sign at the branch in the trail tells us that we are “hiking the same mountain road that defeated Federal troops descended on September 13, 1862.  Despite a six-hour resistance upon the crest against a 2,000-man Confederate advance, Union defenders received orders at 3:00 p.m. to withdraw from Maryland Heights and “fall back to Harpers Ferry in good order.”  Forty hours later, with the capture of Harpers Ferry by Stonewall Jackson, Union commander Col. Dixon S. Miles surrendered 12,500 men, including the 2,000 defenders from Maryland Heights.”

Forest on the Overlook Cliff Trail

Now we going down and down the steep Overlook Cliff Trail. I feel like we’re descending nearly half of the distance we ascended to get up here in the first place.  This means we have to climb back up to get back to the combined trail.

The trail is an easy downhill until we get close to the cliff, where we must scramble over boulders to get down.  Finally, we have views of the Potomac River to our right, the town of Harpers Ferry ahead, and the Shenandoah River to the left.

A fabulous view is always worthwhile!

Overlook Cliff view of the Potomac
the Potomac from Overlook Cliff
Potomac River View
Potomac River

Harpers Ferry, formerly spelled Harper’s Ferry with an apostrophe, is the easternmost town in West Virginia. The town’s original, lower section is on a flood plain created by the two rivers and surrounded by higher ground.  (Wikipedia: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia)

The town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with the Shenandoah River on the left, and the Potomac in the foreground

I visited the town of Harpers Ferry in January of this year.  You can read about it in my post: harpers ferry, west virginia.

view of the Potomac River from the Overlook Cliff

Harpers Ferry was named for Robert Harper, a millwright who continued a ferry operation here in 1747.  The waterpower of the two rivers – harnessed for industry – generated tremendous growth in Harpers Ferry.  By the mid-19th century, the town had become an important arms-producing center and east-west transportation link.  John Brown’s raid and the Civil War brought Harpers Ferry to national prominence.  Destruction from the war and repeated flooding eventually led to the town’s decline.

The town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at the confluence of the Shenandoah River and the Potomac Rivers

After leaving the overlook, we backtrack to the first intersection.  We had agreed that we’d determine whether to do the Stone Fort Trail after we returned from the Overlook Cliff Trail.  The Stone Fort Trail is described on another sign as “a more strenuous hike, steep in spots, to the summit.  Along the way are weathered charcoal hearths and the ruins of Civil War defenses and military campgrounds.  Scenic vistas reveal Maryland Heights as a strategic mountain citadel on the border between North and South.”

Apparently, according to the National Park Service website (different from the signs!), you “hike one mile uphill past Civil War artillery batteries and through boulders to the Civil War Stone Fort. The trail curves out of the Stone Fort past breastworks and descends steeply over one mile back to the green-blazed trail.” (National Park Service: Harpers Ferry Hikes).

I’m not convinced I want to walk uphill another mile and then downhill on a rocky slope for another mile at this point.  For one, my stomach is rumbling, and two, I wasn’t expecting so much climbing! I suggest to Mike that we come another time and focus just on the Stone Fort Trail, now that we’ve already done the Overlook Cliff Trail.  Luckily, he agrees and we begin our downhill walk, passing once more by the Naval Battery and its pretty grasses.

Back at the Naval Battery on the way down

Now the path has become quite crowded, as the Overlook Cliff Trail is the most popular of the trails.  We don’t see anyone walking up the Stone Fort Trail.

Finally, we finish our walk and manage to get our car out of the precarious spot.  A group in a red sedan is waiting for our spot, but I don’t see how they will park there as the underbody of their car is so low to the ground.  I warn them they may have a tough time. We have a Toyota RAV, so our car sits higher.  As we drive up the road a bit and do a U-turn, we drive past to see the people trying their best to jockey into our abandoned spot.  It looks like they’re either going to hit the cliff or get their car hopelessly stuck.  Oh well, what can we do?  We warned them. 🙂

On our way back, we stop in Purcellville to have lunch at Jose’s White Palace and Cantina.  I get my go-to Mexican meal of a Chili Relleno and Mike gets Yucca Frita Con Chicharon (pork), the “Latin American alternative to French fries,” and a bowl of Posole Con Pollo soup (white hominy chicken and house-made sauce).  Finally, food! 🙂

Total steps today: 13,102 (5.55 miles) – almost half of which was uphill!

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