WHERE, HOW AND WHEN
To reach Harpers Ferry take I-270 to Frederick, then Routes 15 and 340 into the town. Admission to the park is free, and most of the shops are open weekends until November. The park is open all year.
We climbed up and up the steep path, stopping only when the children detoured to scramble out onto one of the huge rocks jutting out from the mountain and overhanging the river.
"You're not afraid to let them do that?" Our nervous friend clutched the hands of his own son and daughter to keep them from following.
Suddenly, as we came around a bend in the path, rights in front of us was a clearing with the crumbling ruins of old church. "Do you suppose anyone else known this is here?" asked eight-year-old Jeffery, wide-eyed in amazement at our "discovery."
In the autumn, when swimming at pools and beaches is just a pleasant memory, my family likes to spend weekends exploring one of our favorite spots to visit is Harpers Ferry, about a 45-minutes ride from our home in Rockville if you're optimistic about traffic and closer to an hour if you are a pessimist like me.
A short history lesson, as I tell my children on the ride there: Harpers Ferry is the town where abolotionist John Brown helped slaves escape and made his daring but unsuccessful raid on the United States arsenal just before the Civil War. Remeber the song "John Brown's body lies amoulderin' in the grave"? Harpers Ferry is where it lies "amoulderin'."
There's a lot of local history, not too hoked up, for Civil War buffs like, our Chicago guest, and beautiful scenery for nature lovers and amatuer photographers; Harpers Ferry is sort of nestled in the Appalachian Mountains at the point where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet - "one of the most stupendous views in America," according to Thomas Jefferson. As an added inducement, there are a river to wade in and ducks to feed, something for everyone.
We started at the Visitors Center, where we saw an introductory film about the town and picked up a self-guiding walking tour. Actually, there's a choice between two tours; we did them both. "Come on, come on," clutching their guides the children dashed ahead of us up the stairs and onto the path up the mountain. There are a lot of stairs in the town, so comfortable shoes are an absolute necessity and clogs, which one of my daughters were wearing just won't mke it. She ended up climbing barefoot.
We followed along slowly and saw the Master Armorer's House and the Arsenal Foundation on Shenendoah Street and the tavern on Potomac Street and finally caught up with the children on the Virginius Island Trail. They were lying on a rock pretending to sleep as they waited for us. "Are you slow" they said. "We've been here for hours."
After we explored our "discovered" church - which turned out to be St. Johns Episcopal Church, built in 1952 - we climbed on until we ran smack into a stone wall and, beyond that, a cemetery. "John body!" my daughters breathed, and we picked our way carefully among the graves and headstones until we found it. The cemetery is no longer in use, but it contains the graves of many Civil War soldiers as well as old-time residents of Harpers Ferry.
We climbed back down the mountain and started the second walking tour, we led up High Street where several shops are located. "Look", my husband said, " a wax museum. We've got to go in." The rest of us trailed behind him reluctantly, wax museums not being one of our favorite things.
Two of the children whipped through so quickly that they were out in the sunshine before I'd finished reading about the first exhibit, and Jeffery kept his eyes almost closed and confessed he didn't like it "very much," but everyone else got absorbed in actually reliving the scenes from John Brown's life. "Look," my daughter Carrie pointed in delicious horror to a bloody and almost breathing John Brown, "his tummy's moving up and down." I had to look away. The privately own Wax Museum has a modest admission fee - $1.25 for those over 12, 75 cents for those between 6 and 12, under 6 free.
By this time we were tired and hungry and more than ready for our picnic lunch, so we crossed over the parking lot to the banks of the Shenandoah where we shared our corned beef sandwiches with the very tame and friendly ducks who ambled over to say hello. After that it was shoes off for everyone and wading in the cool water, stepping carefully from one smooth, slippery stone to another.Even our nervous friend rolled up his pants legs and joined in; he said that was the safest thing we had done all day.
We usually stay in Harpers Ferry about four hours. There are other guided walks to try, which take longer, but we have never done them; two miles away are the Harpers Ferry Caverns, which have guided tours and admission charge, but we have never gone there, although we plan to do so next time. There are also white-water rafting nearby and campgrounds in case you want to stay for the weekend.