Trail Report - Maryland-Heights - Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

May 9, 2015

Written by Paul van Valkenburgh
Showing Small Pictures    

Maryland Heights is one of the most popular mountain hikes in the DC - Baltimore Region. It is in the Harpers Ferry WV area. There are two basic hikes, one which is just to the beautiful overlook and back. The other branches off to an additional (and more strenuous) leg to the top of the Mountain and visits the Civil War Stone Fort area, which is also very enjoyable.

Directions and information on where to park for this hike are at the bottom of this page.

The first section of the Maryland Heights trail is an old road that was actually built by the civil war troops that inhabited the area. Back then they didn't really consider switchbacks, so the trail just basically goes straight up! So, even though it isn't long, especially the first time you do it, you will notice the steepness! On the way up, the trail goes two different ways, but if you stay right, you will pass the Naval Battery (one of several batteries on the mountain) that was used to shoot the munitions towards the West and the town of Harpers Ferry.

You will then come to an intersection where you can go left towards the Stone Fort or stay right which takes you towards the overlook. The overlook trail is about 3 miles total and if you take the loop to the Stone Fort, it adds another 2-3 miles (with a lot more of the steepness).

To only go to the overlook, continue right at the intersection, the hill will eventually top out and then begin to head down. The trail will become more single track and it is about 1/4-1/2 mile down to the overlook. What a fantastic view!! Hiking Upward rates this one a 6 out of 5!! It really has got to be one of the most gorgeous overlooks on the East Coast. It not only sits right above the historic (and hilly and really neat to look at ) town of Harpers Ferry, but it also gives views up both the Potomac (right) and Shenandoah (left) rivers as well as the confluence below. There is an active train system through the area so you are guaranteed to hear the trains and see them cross the train bridges from Harpers Ferry into MD as well. There is lots of room on top of the overlook area and to the left are some interesting scrambles if you so choose. Watch out though as there is a huge cliff! Once you have soaked up the views, head back the same way you came. Overall (if you park on Sandy Hook Road), the hike to the overlook and back should be about 2 hours (including about 1/2 hour to take in the views).

The gorgeous view of Harpers Ferry from the Maryland Heights overlook

The confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and Harpers Ferry from the overlook

Leaves you speechless

The view from the Maryland Heights overlook at Sunset

Sheri and Sonia with the view up the Potomac River behind them

If you choose to go to the Stone Fort, you will be rewarded with some awesome Civil War history.

Harpers Ferry was a strategic area in the 1860s and was an important center of attention for both sides in the war. The Union was so concerned about keeping it, that they build this MASSIVE fort complex on top of this remote mountain to protect the area. The trail that takes you up the mountain (after the intersection) has great information signs. Apparently there were 2000 Union troops living up on this mountain!

When you get towards the top, you go through a campsite area, and see where they stored ammunition. The Union built these unbelievably long barrier fences out of rock that are still there. Finally you get the actual Stone Fort and the foundation area still exists. To me, what is so neat about it, is that because of the remoteness of the location, nobody since has even wanted to do anything with that land. So, it basically sits there as it was in the war...untouched!! And the fact that you can just sit there right in the fort and on the rocks that the soldiers (obviously painstakingly) put into place, it just really give you an eery feeling that there are spirits of these guys right there with you.

We are not talking about a little dinky fort like a kid would build. The whole area is huge for being in the middle of nowhere! The trail is technically a loop so there are two legs that go up to the fort and back to the main trail. As you walk down the return trail (doing the loop clockwise), you will pass some battery stations that look out to the South and there is great information about them on the signs. When you see read about the weight of the cannons they manually hauled up onto this mountain it will blow you away. The biggest one took 200-500 men to pull this 9700 pound cannon up this steep trail. There is a sign which talks about how Lincoln had tried to visit the troops there a few day before the battle of Antietam broke out. Apparently though with his health, he could not make it up the steep hill.

Hard to believe, but soldiers basically built a small city on this steep mountain!

Experience fantastic Civil War history - The Exterior Fort - The Interior Fort - The Stone Fort

Rock Walls of the Stone Fort

You can see how high up the Stone Fort sits ... on top of the mountain!

One of the great parts of visiting this Stone Fort is that you can sit RIGHT IN the fort where the soldiers were

The foundation of the Stone Fort

Actin' all Civil War and what not

Looking South from the Stone Fort area.... fire the cannon!!

Looking South from the Stone Fort plateau near the 100 pound battery area

Neat stuff.  The cannon for the 100-pound battery was 9700 pounds!  And it had to be carried up the mountain!

There are magnificent relics of the 30-pound battery area

Overall, only being a mild Civil War buff myself, I was blown away by the history that you take in on this hike. And it's a great workout and beautiful. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone in the DC-Baltimore area. While they state the extra length to the Stone Fort is very strenuous, I personally did not think it was all that bad. You would not want to be in poor health to try this, but if you take your time up the hills, it is no problem. Overall it took us about 4 hours to do the whole hike to the Stone Fort and back.

Directions and information about where to park:

On a nice weekend day, parking can be a pain in the area, but normally there are a couple of options. You can park in Harpers Ferry proper at the train station, then walk down to the Appalachian Trail footbridge, cross the river, then head up-river (left) towards the trailhead. This adds another 2 miles of flat distance to the hike. If you are coming on Route 340 from MD, one disadvantage of parking in town is that it is a much longer drive to go over both bridges, and all the way down and into town to the train station. Surely this is the reason Harpers Ferry (in modern times that is!) does not have much economy outside of tourism. It is just a pain to get in and out of!

To drive straight to the trailhead, as you near the Harpers Ferry area and before you cross the Potomac River bridge, take a left hand turn onto Valley Road and then an immediate left onto Keep Tryst Rd (you will see an old Motel there). Be on the lookout for the left hand turn off of 340 as it comes up on you fast as the speed limit it high in that area and you have to be ready for that left. If you hit the big bridge, you went too far! Take Keep Tryst road for a 1/4 mile and take a right onto Sandy Hook Rd. Continue down this road over a couple of narrow bridges until you have past where you see the entrance to one of the railroad tunnels in the area. After that the you will see the trailhead on the right and the dirt parking area is just on the right past that. If the first parking area is full, drive a short distance and there is another parking area on the right. Be careful about parking anywhere outside of these two lots, especially on a busy day, as Rangers will drive by and ticket and tow. One day we had to stalk spots for a half-hour.

Hope this has been enjoyable and / or helpful to anyone reading it!!


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