Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Weverton Cliff

The Potomac River cuts water gaps through the Blue Ridge below Weverton Cliff
9 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park parking fee required (Federal lands pass valid)

Weverton Cliff provides a sweeping overview of the water gaps cut by the Potomac River as it traverses the Blue Ridge Mountains. This hike is an opportunity to hike in two states with a view of a third and includes the only overlapping stretch of two of America's most famed routes, the Appalachian Trail and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. If you love history and natural scenery equally, here's one place where you won't have to choose one at the expense of the others: the great river views of this hike occur along one of the most historically critical landscapes of this nation. It's possible to make a shorter hike to Weverton Cliff by starting at a closer trailhead in Maryland, but I recommend hiking the route described here from Harpers Ferry to fully appreciate this land and its history.

I hiked this trail with my family on a cold winter day; high temperatures that would only be in the 20s didn't dissuade us from embarking on our annual Christmastime hike. We drove to Harpers Ferry from Fredericksburg; most hikers will probably visit from the DC metro area and will find the fasest route to be taking I-270 to Frederick, merging onto I-70 west briefly, and then taking US 340 west towards Harpers Ferry. After crossing the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers on US 340 heading west, we turned onto Union St and followed it until reaching Washington St, where we turned right and descended into Harpers Ferry. In the lower town, we made a left turn onto Shenandoah St and then a left again onto Potomac St to come to the train station, where we parked to start the hike.

From the train station, we followed an elevated path along abandoned railroad tracks towards the east. A grassy field below marked the former site of the United States Armory. George Washington selected Harpers Ferry to host the nation's second armory, which produced weapons from the Jefferson Administration through the end of the Civil War. Harpers Ferry was chosen in part for its ample hydropower that came from the rapids of the Potomac.

In 1859, events at the US Armory in Harpers Ferry became the spark that set off the American Civil War. Located at the time in the state of Virginia- West Virginia had yet to secede from its eastern neighbor- Harpers Ferry had a large store of armaments and was not far from the plantations of antebellum Virginia. Infuriated by the creep of slavery into newly-admitted western states, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Dred Scott Decision, and recognizing the common humanity of people regardless of race, abolitionist John Brown chose Harpers Ferry as his target for a large-scale slave rebellion. Hoping to spark a widespread uprising of slaves against their masters, or perhaps even to precipitate a war, Brown assembled a small contingent of fighters to seize control of the armory. They believed that as news from their revolt spread throughout the countryside, slaves would join them at Harpers Ferry and together, they would be able to march south and deliver emancipation. Their plan failed: after successfully raiding the armory, few recruits joined them. The raid was crushed by a contingent of Marines led by Robert E. Lee and Brown was captured. A little over a month later, Brown was hung, but not before delivering a soon-fulfilled prophecy: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Twelve months later, South Carolina seceded from the Union.

John Brown's Fort, a fire engine house in which Brown made his last stand in his standoff against Lee's Marines, is one of the few remaining structures from the raid. The building has been moved since the raid, but the materials of the building remain those of the building in which Brown was apprehended. The Armory was dismantled after heavy damage during the Civil War and the armory site has been long abandoned.

John Brown's Fort at Harpers Ferry
John Brown remains one of the most controversial figures in American history, barely less divisive today than he was in the autumn of 1859. His ardent belief in abolition and his willingness to sacrifice his life for the cause made him a martyr to Northern abolitionists; Union soldiers marching into battle sang "John Brown's Body," a song that commemorated him. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, upon Brown's hanging, that Brown would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross." To many white Southerners, John Brown was a terrorist. The widespread endorsement of Brown's actions in the North shocked white Southerners: their countrymen were cheering on efforts to kill them. Northerners, in turn, were becoming more disgusted by the day at the failure of white Southerners to recognize the humanity of their slaves. Mutual feelings of moral abhorence set America on an irreversible path to war. Historical interpretations of Brown have largely depended on the loyalties of the viewer: Brown is simultaneously venerated and deemed a madman. He was a violent man, the murderer of Pottawatomie, and an unselfish one who gave his life for emancipation.

I contemplated this past as I stood at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, still just meters away from the car. Rugged cliffs rose above the confluence: Maryland Heights across the Potomac, Loudoun Heights across the Shenandoah. Standing in West Virginia, I could see Maryland across the Potomac and Virginia just slightly further east across the Shenandoah. Old bridge piers crowded the river, giving reminder of the importance of the town of Harpers Ferry throughout American history.

The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers at Harpers Ferry
Harpers Fery lies roughly at the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail, about a thousand miles from either Springer Mountain or Katahdin. We followed the Appalachian Trail across the Potomac on a railroad bridge. The truss bridge carried the track of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad and a pedestrian walkway. From the bridge, we had good views east over the Potomac-Shenandoah confluence and ahead to the massive cliffs of Maryland Heights.

Once in Maryland, the Appalachian Trail descended off the bridge via a spiral staircase and intersected with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath. We continued following the Appalachian Trail north, which overlapped with the C&O Canal Towpath heading east. Just a few meters past the bridge, we found a nice riverside spot with a view back across the Potomac to Harpers Ferry with its church steeple and historic lower town.

Harpers Ferry viewed from the Maryland side of the Potomac
Harpers Ferry
We continued along the C&O Towpath for roughly 3 miles. The towpath was sandwiched between the C&O Canal and the Potomac River; at spots, small side paths led down to the river for nice views of this mighty river, the second largest river to drain into the Chesapeake Bay. About halfway through the C&O Canal Towpath section of the hike, the trail passed beneath the span of the US 340 bridge over the Potomac River. At a few spots along the trail, there were small beaches along the Potomac which were covered with tiny shells.

The Potomac River downstream of Harpers Ferry
While the river occupied attention on the southern side of the towpath, the canal was the main point of interest north of the trail. The C&O Canal was born out of grand dreams in the nation's early years as European Americans gradually began settling the lands of the Ohio Valley to the west of the Appalachians. After the construction of the Erie Canal in New York, it became clear that accessible trade routes between the East Coast and Midwest could be extremely lucrative. Thus, in the 1820s, the US government authorized the construction of a canal that would connect the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River watershed, a water route for trade from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. Work started in the late 1820s but ended at Cumberland, Maryland in 1850, still over a hundred miles from Pittsburgh. By the time the canal had been built, railroads were already supplanting canal barges as the most efficient means of transportation in the growing United States. Today much of the canal remains and the towpath once used by mules to tow boats upstream through the canal and through slackwater is now principally used by cyclists and hikers.

C&O Canal Towpath
Having followed the towpath for just under three miles along the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry, we arrived at the junction where the AT split off from the towpath. Here, we followed the white blazes and took the left turn at the intersection to leave the towpath, crossing railroad tracks and coming out to a road. We spotted white blazes for the AT across a sharp bend in Keep Tryst Road and followed the white blazes as the trail returned into the forest. At this point, the trail began the first real stretch of elevation gain of the hike, climbing slightly uphill before crossing under US 340 at the highway's bridge over the small gorge of Israel Creek. Older road traces were visible below the AT and were especially noticeable at the US 340 bridge, where the remnants of an older, lower bridge still stood over Israel Creek. After passing under US 340, the trail climbed slightly uphill and passed a parking lot for AT access about half a mile after leaving the towpath. Hikers wishing to skip the towpath stretch of the hike can park here to cut the hike down to a 2.5-mile round trip.

The trail briefly paralleled Weverton Cliff Road before coming to the intersection of Weverton Cliff and Weverton Roads. We crossed Weverton Road to continue uphill and north along the Appalachian Trail.

In the next mile and a bit, the trail ascended fairly gently up the slopes of South Mountain, which forms the principal crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through Maryland. The trail was often rocky and had switchbacks at points but otherwise the ascent was not terribly difficult. 1.2 miles after passing the Weverton Cliff trailhead parking, the trail arrived at the top of the ridge. Here, the AT made a sharp left turn that was marked by a sign indicating that the AT was heading north. An unmarked trail broke off to the right here, heading downhill. We took this unmarked trail, which led down towards Weverton Cliff. A short descent brought us quickly down to a set of rocks with partially obstructed views of the Potomac and the surrounding countryside.

The Potomac River water gap at Harpers Ferry
By scrambling about the rocks at the end of the trail, I was able to get a good overall view of the surounding area. The cliff looked directly down over the Potomac River's water gap through South Mountain. To the west, I could see the Potomac River flowing through another water gap at Harpers Ferry, cutting between Loudoun and Maryland Heights. To the east, the Potomac River stretched out towards Catoctin Mountain and its final water gap before its great turn to the south towards Great Falls and the nation's capital. Farms in the Piedmont stretched out to the east, with the tiny town of Knoxville visible below nearby and Brunswick visible a little further down the river. To the west, I spotted the church steeple of Harpers Ferry through the water gap and could see the many-layered Valley and Ridge beyond. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad snaked along the river, its tracks still carrying cargo for CSX today, nearly two centuries after the ties were laid for the first common carrier railroad in the United States.

The Potomac River below Weverton Cliff

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