Harper’s Ferry – Maryland Heights

My dog does not have patience for slow walkers.

I learned this on a crisp autumn Sunday when I decided to undertake Harpers Ferry’s Maryland Heights trail with her. Although small in stature, my seven year old mutt dragged me up the mountain, weaving purposefully through large groups of family tourists, peaceful meanderers, and focused photographers. Maps indicated to allot 3-4 hours to complete the 4.8 mile loop, but thanks to my pup’s imperceivable agenda, we finished it in a little over 2.

Harper’s Ferry encompasses 4,000 acres stretching throughout Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia in the form of 20 miles of hiking grounds, a restored town, and the land and waterways that surround this. The trail I had specifically come to conquer, the Maryland Heights loop, contains the highest mountain overlooking Harper’s Ferry and peaks at the edge where Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia meet. The trail itself is littered with a rich history of the Civil War on its grounds. The loop begins across from the Upper Potomac River, ascends into the steep hills of Maryland, and retreats back down onto it’s acclaimed  overlook featuring the town of Harper’s Ferry nestled in a nook of land protruding into the water way.

I had wanted to visit Harper’s Ferry for a while, due to it’s relatively close proximity to my home. It’s boasted fall hikes also captured my interest, and so I settled on one I thought my dog could handle. Rated ‘moderate’, this hike was devoid of scrambling, trekking, and squeezing through crevasses, but I underestimated a few unforeseen obstacles in my day that made for an interesting adventure overall. They are as follows: 

  1. Parking

We arrived a little after 11, venturing through the breezy Virginia countryside and across the West Virginia border. I had done minimal research on location and had maximum dependence on the GPS on my phone, so I was hoping where ever it was leading me would take me to the location I needed to be. Tucked behind train tracks and small towns, a windy road paralleled a waterfront trail which eventually lead to a scarce parking area that indicated the trailhead. I should have foreseen my first obstacle; lack of parking. The reviews and advice I had read warned of the crowds the high-trafficked trail could attract on a nice day, and I realized as I drove past the full parking area that I should have planned an early arrival to avoid burning gas and backtracking. Initial panic began to set in as I wondered if I had driven all the way out here, pup in tow, only to have to give up and drive all the way back home. I decided to retreat a significant way back to conduct some haphazard research on alternative parking that my GPS was struggling to coordinate with. Reaching a further point of frustration, I took a deep breath before deciding I would try just one more time to find a spot in the two designated mini-lots before seeking an alternative or giving up. Driving slowly back down the windy road, holding my breath, I tried to find a gap amongst a crowded string of cars. Just as the realization that I would have to approach this from a new angle began to sink in, I saw taillights brighten, and a car slowly began to back up. Yes! In a lucky twist of fate, I had overcome hurdle number one, making a mental note to thoroughly research all parking prior to going on an adventure. 

Hopping out of my car, I rounded up my excessive amounts of unnecessary gear and my dog. More than thrilled to be out of the car, she ignored oncoming traffic and tried to drag me toward the street. Initially I took it as a combination of excited relief and anticipation to move, but in hindsight this might have been a revenge ploy to get me hit by a car for keeping her trapped in one for so long during our trip.

This lead us to obstacle number 2: Incline Steepness

We approached the trailhead from the side of the road, which required a couple of steep steps before the introductory signage with the trail to the left. The initial portion of the trail was relatively steep; all uphill, we trucked slowly along until reaching a trail sign sprouted in between a fork in the road. Out of breath and unsure as to how much height the climb entailed ahead, we patiently waited for the crowd in front of us to finish reading the information. I looked down at my pup, who was panting and eyeing the left trail, which seemed much steeper than the right. Crazy mutt. The crowd filtered away enough for us to approach the text at a legible distance, where the inscription read “Here the trail divides and the choice is yours. Time and hiking difficulties are important factors as you select your trail route.” 

‘The choice is yours’ resonated deep with in me, as I had been reflecting on current situations within my own life and how they had led to where I was, how I was unhappy with my situation, and trying to figure out what choices I needed to make to make my outcome more favorable. I didn’t have direct answers and it was terrifying me. I felt like my life was this quicksand; I wasn’t physically going anywhere but down and I did not have the necessary supplies around me to get myself out. I had to be innovative and all those innovations were exclusively by-products of the decisions I would make. Problem was, I was so fixated on the quicksand pulling me down that I wasn’t making any decisions at all. Defeat was consuming me and I was standing still.

The sign had two trail heads listed in a larger font, the first labeled as ‘The Stone Fort Trail’, and the text beneath it read “To your left, is a strenuous but rewarding hike to the summit. The route passes Civil War forts and campgrounds, scenic overlooks, and weathered charcoal hearths. Distance: 3.3 miles. Time: 3 hours round trip’.

The first thing on my mind was the time. Three hours?? And it didn’t even include the portion of the trail with the scenic overlook I had come out to see. This was a strenuous detour. Was I really up for taking a challenging route that lead to nothing specific? My dog had started pulling on the leash, trying to guide me up the left half of the mountain. She had caught onto something and was ready to go.

The second trail head read: ‘The Road to Retreat: You 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 pm to withdraw from Maryland Heights and “fall back to Harper’s ferry in good order.” Forty hours later, with the capture of Harper’s Ferry by Stonewall Jackson, Union commander Col. Dixon S. Miles surrendered 12,500 men, including 2,000 defenders from Maryland Height.

The Overlook Cliff Trail: To your right, is a moderate but pleasant hike to a scenic overlook of Harper’s Ferry and the Shenandoah Valley. Distance: 1.4 miles. Time: 1.5 hours round trip.’

I looked at my pup, up the steep trail head, back at my pup, and then within. Sighing, I realized we had not come all the way out here to simply take the road to retreat, and gave into my dog’s demands. The steep trail it was.

My dog was on a mission. Despite the challenge this hike presented, she refused to let anyone ahead of us simply stay ahead of us. Treating this like a race, she pulled me past any contender just trying to enjoy their day. This speed with the new and seemingly never ending incline resulted in me having to stop halfway, at another trail sign. As I filled up my dog’s water bowl and snacked on a Cliff bar, intending to replenish my easily drained energy reserves, I began to read the sign:

‘Tired and breathless?’ Um, yes. ‘You are experiencing the hardship of a Union solider climbing to reach his work place (a fort) or his home (a tent or log cabin). Try ascending this road hauling a 9,700 pound gun tube or a week’s supply of water’. Although the single water bottle, backpack full of snacks, and camera I had brought felt like a 9,700 pound gun at the moment, I doubted I was experiencing the same level of exhaustion and exertion as these individual soldiers during that time. 

The inscription went on to outline other responsibilities and a memoir from the soldiers who endured this fortuitous trail required of them, ending with a tidbit that made me feel like a conqueror: ‘Your perseverance to reach the summit was almost – but not quite – shared by President Abraham Lincoln when he visited Maryland Heights on October 2, 1862. After a formal review of the army, Lt. Charles Morse guided the presidential party toward the summit: “I showed the way until we got to a path where it was right straight up, when Lincoln backed out. I think it must have reminded him of a little story about a very steep place; at any rate, they turned and went down the mountain.” I glanced down at my dog, who wide mouth smiled, panting ferociously back at me. We were about to go where Lincoln couldn’t go before. This instilled some determination in our mission. I packed up all of our gear, and the pooch and I carried on.

The trail was all up hill for nearly 2 miles. It was hard to discern when the ascending would end, which I found myself wondering for nearly the entirety of the uphill portion. However I did notice one important characteristic of this portion of the trail: my fellow hikers had started to thin out…

Which brings me to obstacle 3: Crowds.

I knew this was a popular spot, but I hadn’t anticipated the amount of people who would be joining me in my endeavor. Obnoxiously thick at periods, it was hard to enjoy the quiet of nature when the amount of people made it anything but that. You also had to do a lot of dodging and weaving, the job my dog had spearheaded. However, the closer I got to the top of the mountain, the more still the world seemed to become. We were alone as we explored the Civil War Campgrounds that were littered less than half a mile from the peak. The only thing that worried me about the lack of fellow hikers was the lack of my confidence that I was following the trail correctly. At one point I started to move forward toward an awkward brush with low hanging branches that seemed like it was part of the trail when I felt my dog pulling the leash in the opposite direction. I turned and noticed the trail had shifted sharply and the continuation of it was to my left, almost behind me. 

“Alright,” I said to my dog as I let the leash go slack. “You’ve been promoted to navigator.”

She didn’t even wag her tail or look back at me. She just kept pulling me ahead on the trail. She was taking her promotion very seriously. I accepted that as a good thing.

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We reached the Interior and Exterior portions of the Stone Fort, which was made up of a deteriorating stone wall that overlooked a nice view of the water and town near it. According to my map on AllTrails, this was the highest point. Now it was all downhill.

The trip down was incredibly peaceful. We might have seen 3 or 4 people total on this portion of the trail. It was quiet, and it felt calm. I realized the challenge of the trek up was met with the reward of solitude. I wish ol’ Abe could have seen this.

The trail ran thin in numerous spots on the way down, causing some brief distrust in my navigator. I’d quickly squash this with a map check, instilling my overall faith in my dog’s dedication to her job. She might deserve another promotion if she got us out in one piece.

The final part of the loop that met back on the main trail had a steep decline, that my dog wanted to sprint down for reasons unknown to me, before merging back onto the portion that lead to the overlook.

The concept of the overlook was confusing to me, because the trail that lead to it was entirely downhill. I had assumed that I would again be trekking up a magnificent mountain, but instead I just climbed back into the crowded pathways and zig-zagged down to the protruding rocks that bubbled over the opening to the edge, revealing an astounding and open view of the town of Harper’s Ferry, framed by the Shenandoah River feeding into the Upper Potomac River, the left side of the view backdropped by Virginia Mountains. At this point, I could see three states. And not going to lie, it was pretty cool. 

I solicited a few people to take a few pictures of me and the navigation hound, who was not to thrilled that I chose to pick her up in the photos. She wouldn’t even look in the camera. She was too busy darting her eyes around, trying to find the path that would take us home.

We sat down, drank some water, and had a couple of snacks while enjoying the view and contemplating the trip. I was used to doing full 8-10 mile day hikes, pushing upward and onward to reach a view to reflect on before heading on down and feeling finished. This hike was a little different. Shorter in time and mileage, the layout didn’t quite fit this specific pattern, but that didn’t mean the trek came without reward.

I learned on this hike a lesson that I have been taught many times; you can’t cheat hard work to reach a reward. The most demanding part of the mountain had contributed to my favorite part of the hike; the silence on the other side. Sure, the overlook was incredible and absolutely necessary as part of the loop, but if you ever undertake this trail I encourage you to fight the urge to take the easy way out and go onward and upward. You may not solve your entire identity crisis, but you will learn that if you keep moving forward and up, the ground will level eventually, and clarity of some sort will be reached.

I looked down at my hound next to me, raising my eyebrows as if to ask: ‘Ready to go?’ She looked back up at me in understanding and hopped to her feet, dragging me on to mine in the process. We had our next part of the adventure ahead of us, a brewery stop on the way home, but first we had to tackle another ascent back up the overlook trail to return to the car. I told you this hike was all backwards. Oh well, overcoming each obstacle in stride was part of the process. My dog agreed, as she resumed her sprint-pace back up the trail, nearly knocking an older couple over as she jerked past them.

“You all are too fast for me,” the woman out of the couple said.

I looked back at her and apologetically shrugged, trying to indicate this was all my navigator’s decision.

‘In stride’, I reminded myself, shaking my head at my rude dog. ‘In stride.’

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