Friday, December 21, 2012

Maryland Heights

Harpers Ferry from the Maryland Heights viewpoint
6.7 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park parking fee required

Maryland Heights offers the classic view of the churches and Civil War-era buildings of Harpers Ferry nestled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. With views like these coupled with a chance to learn about the area's critical and explosive role in the Civil War, it's no wonder that Maryland Heights is one of the most popular hikes in the DC area. 

I hiked this trail with a group of fellow interns in late July. We left Rockville mid-morning and took I-270 northwest to Frederick, then US 340 west to Harpers Ferry. I tried parking at the lot at the base of the trail on the Maryland side of the river but the lot was already full, so I doubled back and drove over to the West Virginia side of the river. To reach the Maryland trailhead (and trim 1.2 miles round trip from the hike), turn left onto Keep Tryst Road from US 340 during the long downhill before crossing the Potomac River. Then turn right onto Sandy Hook Road and drive past the foot of the Maryland Heights cliff until you reach pass the trailhead to the right. There is a small parking area on the right. We parked at the train station in Harpers Ferry, where we purchased a week's pass for the park for $10. 

We walked down to the Point, where we passed by an old fire engine house now known as John Brown's Fort. In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a militia raid on the federal armory located at Harpers Ferry; Brown's plan was to seize armaments and spur an uprising among enslaved peoples in Virginia, arming them for a rebellion to end slavery in the South. However, after seizing the armory, the planned uprising stalled when no one answered the call to arms; when the Army arrived, Brown and his men retreated to the fire engine house here at the point and made a last stand before being captured. Brown's subsequent execution led Northern abolitionists to regard him as a martyr and Southern plantation owners to view his as a terrorist, intesifying the polarization between the free and slaveholding states and catalyzing the bloody Civil War that broke out just 18 months later.

From the Point, we crossed the Potomac River on the Appalachian Trail bridge, which paralleled an old railroad bridge. Supports for old bridges littered the river. To the right (east), there was a beautiful view of Loudoun Heights rising above the Potomac Water Gap. Beneath us, we saw many people tubing on the river.

The Potomac River at Harpers Ferry
Once across the river, we took the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath west, following it for a little less than half a mile. Here, the canal is essentially dried up; however, there were still nice views of the Potomac, with a few paths leading steeply downhill to the side of the river. At times, there were views between the trees to the church steeple and antebellum buildings of Harpers Ferry across the Potomac. About 10 minutes along the towpath from the bridge, we came to a path to the right that spanned the dry canalbed and crossed Sandy Hook Road to the trailhead.

The trail, a broad former road, immediately began to climb at a moderate grade. In the next three-quarter miles or so, the trail ascended continuously, with a few historical signs along the trail to tell of the area's Civil War history. The first major historical stop along the trail was the Naval Battery, a former Union defensive position where two major guns were mounted high above the river and town below. A trail looped around the footprint of the former battery- while no views were available, the size of the battery's footprint gave an impressive idea of the size of the artillery used in the war.

A little further from the Naval Battery, we reached a trail junction: the trail to the right led directly to the viewpoint at Maryland Heights, while the trail to the left led to more Civil War fortifications. We took the trail to the left, which followed a former road built by the Union Army to haul equipment and weapons to a fort atop the ridge. This trail was remarkably steep- steeper, certainly, than your average Mid-Atlantic trail. This made for a very tiring stretch of trail on a hot, humid day. It was hard to imagine how cannons could possibly be lugged up such a road.

The trail finally leveled out as it approached the top of the ridge. We walked among the remnants of a Union stone fort, where only a handful of scattered stone walls remaining.

Stoneworks from the former Union fort on Maryland Heights
From the stone fort, we followed the ridge of Maryland Heights south. The ridgeline provided pleasant, flat walking, a welcome respite from the climb up. We saw a few deer and many more people as we followed the heavily vegetated ridge. Eventually we came to the site of a former 100-pound battery. From this spot, there were impressive views east to the Potomac River's water gaps through South Mountain and Catoctin Mountain at Point of the Rocks further downstream. Sugarloaf Mountain was also visible in the distance, rising out of the otherwise flat-looking Piedmont.

The Potomac River flowing east of Harpers Ferry, with Sugarloaf in the distance
We continued along the ridgeline, which soon began a very steep descent. We dropped downhill quickly, passing the site of another former battery before coming to a junction with the trail that led to the viewpoint. Taking the left hand fork, we descended a little further via a few switchbacks to reach the open top of the cliffs. These cliffs rose precipitously out of the river and offered a huge view of Harpers Ferry, Loudoun Heights, the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and Shenandoah Valley.

The Potomac River west of Harpers Ferry
We enjoyed the view before returning to the original trail to finish the loop. Back on the C&O Canal, we were able to look up and see the cliffs where we had just been.

View of Maryland Heights from below
Back in Harpers Ferry, we had a very late lunch, made even later after we were ignored by the staff of Secret Six Tavern for ten minutes after we were seated; so instead we ate at a restaurant a little closer to the train station and had a good end to an excellent hike.

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