Saturday, January 26, 2013

Walking along the AT: Harper's Ferry

Date: June 21, 2012
Direction: NOBO from John Brown's firehouse across Potomac, then SOBO
Distance: ~1 mile along trail
Start (NOBO): John Brown's firehouse, WV
Turnaround Point: North side of bridge over Potomac River, MD
End (SOBO): Stairway spur off of Appalachian Trail

Lampost with two white blazes, signifying a turn on the AT at Harper's Ferry, WV

If they even think of Harper's Ferry, most people know it as the former site of a United States Armory where John Brown attempted to start a slave revolt in 1859. A few more, particularly Civil War history buffs, will recognize it as a key strategic point in the early part of the war, and the site where 10,000 Union troops surrendered to the Confederates after being surrounded in September 1862. A few more people will vaguely remember it as one of the first (or last) Amtrak stops on the Capitol Limited from D.C. to Chicago.

However, for hikers and fans of the Appalachian Trail, Harper's Ferry is known for something else. It is the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the non-profit group who heads up the maintenance and conservation of the Appalachian Trail. Although not directly on the trail, it is fairly close to it, and is considered the traditional and ceremonial halfway point of the trail, even if the actual halfway point is in Southern Pennsylvania. For many hikers, the HQ and visitor's center would merely be a quick stop for water, email, and a picture on their journey northward (or southward). For Erin and I, it would be our turnaround point on a short hike. It was only about a mile from the National Historic Site in the older part of the town, how hard could it be?

Harper's Ferry is a very scenic place. Located at the juncture of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, close to where the Potomac bisects the Blue Ridge, it is surrounded by high ridges and hills. The lower part of town is also the older part of town, where most of the historical buildings and the ruins of the armory can be found. The upper part, where most of the people live and where the ATC headquarters is, is high up on a ridge behind the old part of town. In other words, you have to go uphill or downhill to get anywhere. For an out of shape hiker like myself, this meant any distance would be at least a bit uncomfortable.

In addition to the elevation changes, there also was the temperature to consider. As about everybody in the United States can attest, the summer of 2012 was really warm. It had been warm during the length of our trip, which had taken us from Grayson Highlands up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and through Shenandoah National Park. Although it was pleasant up at Grayson Highlands, the rest of the trip had been quite warm. As Harper's Ferry was rather low, we didn't even have the slight elevation advantage we'd get up on the Blue Ridge. The temperature was well over 90, and probably close to 100. I don't recall it being overly humid, but the temperature was so high even a bit of humidity would push the heat index up into triple digits. It wasn't exactly ideal hiking conditions.

Nevertheless, we decided to push on, riding the NPS shuttle bus from the National Historic Park's visitors center to the historic part of town. We took the obligatory pictures of the old buildings and the firehouse where Brown and his doomed compatriots made their stand. We then walked over to the riverside, taking some pictures of the Potomac cutting its way through the Appalachians and trying to stay in the shade of the few trees that were around. Finally, we couldn't put it off anymore, and decided to begin our trek along the A.T.

We walked the short distance up to the railroad bridge, which also included a walkway for the Appalachian Trail to cross. By the banks of the river a hiker was taking a nap, letting his clothes dry as he likely waited for the cooler and shadier hours of the day to continue on his way. The bridge wasn't terribly long, but the heat made it feel longer. We made it to the Maryland side of the trail, making this the sixth state I had touched along the AT. We stood there for a while, looking back at Harper's Ferry and the high ridges surrounding it on the other side. The trail went down stairs to join the footpath along the old Chesapeake and Ohio canal, continuing its long path north to Katahdin. We, however, turned around, our goal much closer.

Crossing back underneath a railroad viaduct, we then had to determine where exactly the trail went. We looked around, and eventually found the white blazes that showed us the way to go, in this case through a small area between buildings, before reaching a set of stone steps. These steps were historic, having been there since the early days of the town. In other words, they were uneven, they were large, and they were steep. And for most of their run, they were in the sun.

It was here than Erin and I disagreed on our course of action. Erin wanted to walk up through town, returning along the Appalachian Trail. I believe she thought it would be less arduous, less steep, and possibly have more shade. I, on the other hand, wanted to continue along the trail, perhaps fearing that if we walked a different way up to the ATC vistors center, I would talk myself of walking back on the AT. Particularly if the visitors center was really close to the old part of town. Keep in mind that we hadn't quite pinpointed where the visitor's center was, so for all we knew it was just in the back of all the historical buildings, and not up a great big hill.

For the time being, I won the argument, and we continued on up the trail. We passed the old church on the hillside, and ruins of other old buildings. We eventually made it up the old stairs, found a water fountain to refill my water, and mercifully had some shade to walk through. We stopped briefly at Jefferson Rock, admired the view, and continued walking up, this time on a dirt track much more typical of the AT. Knowing how the At enters and exits Harper's Ferry, I knew that if it started heading back down to the highway we'd have gone too far, so I was wary of any downhills along the path. Fortunately (or unfortunately, for my lungs), we didn't run into too many.

Eventually we came to a set of stairs that branched off the trail, going out of the woods and back into town. We weren't sure if this was where we needed to get off to get to the ATC Visitors Center, but we didn't want to miss the turn off and get stuck having to backtrack. Erin hurried ahead up the steps, scouting out the situation. She found some buildings, some NPS vehicles, and a cemetery, so I followed her up.

It turns out we were still a ways from the ATC Visitors Center. However, we had found a back way to get to the NPS Historic Park Headquarters. After a quick break for water and shade, we walked on through town until we hit Washington Street, the main street in town and the street where the ATC Visitors Center could be found. We had done most of the uphill climb on the AT, so after a couple blocks of walking we were there.

We spent just a short time there, enough to look around, renew my membership with the ATC, and get some water. We were only there a short time, although we did see a few thru-hikers. Like them, we were at the halfway point of our trek, although ours was much less significant, although I'm sure I was just as sweaty as any of them. The ATC was selling cold Snickers bars, but I didn't buy one. I regretted that within minutes of leaving, just as I regretted forgetting to take a picture of the place.

Instead of finding the AT again and walking back down, we chose to walk back along Washington Street. Although not as steep as the stairs, it was still plenty steep going down, and I'm glad we chose the trail to come up on. Much of the walk down was in the sun, and I'm pretty certain it would have sucked going up that way. For once, it appeared walking along the AT was both the scenic choice and the sane choice.

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