My personal hiking preference are for the grand views of the new and more rugged mountains of the west. However, a benefit of hikes here in the mid Atlantic are the history that accompanies the trails. It is among the reasons I enjoy visiting Harpers Ferry and hiking up Maryland Heights, where the Union solders defended against Stonewall Jackson’s invasion into the north during the Civil War.
- Maryland Heights – Overlook Cliff Trail & Stone Fort Trail loop
- type: in & out with a small loop
- distance: 6.7 miles
- elevation change: 1,588 ft
- time: 3:48 hours (2:55 moving)
- location: Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia (directions to the visitor center and main parking)
On our current visit, we hiked first to the Maryland Heights Overlook Cliff and then to Stone Fort. This was to avoid the crowds that end up gathering at the Overlook Cliff as the day went on. Effectively, we hike the loop section to Stone Fort counterclockwise. This meant we took the steepest part of the Stone Fort Trail downhills. On our previous visit in 2018, we headed to Stone Fort first and hiking it clockwise because we typically prefer to take the steeper portions on the uphills to save our knees and ankles. We decided on the counterclockwise direction mainly to avoid the crowds, which was more important to us than our knees for the hike.
Majority of the hikers visiting Maryland Heights will only hike the 4.6 mile Overlook Cliff trail (from Harpers Ferry, alltrails).
Also of note, the pedestrian bridge across the Potomac is now open once again. It had been closed in late 2019 and early 2020 due to a train derailment (NPR).
As a National Park, there is an entrance fee (NPS). The cost for 3 day pass is USD$20 per vehicle or USD$10 per person arriving on foot or bike. The more economical way is always getting the American the Beautiful Annual Pass that covers all national parks for USD$80.
parking & shuttle service
Due to the popularity of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, parking use to be quiet the mess around the historical town. During our first visit in 2018, we literally saw a fight almost break out in the parking lot of the train station over a spot. While the train station (google map) is still the most convenient parking location, it is not the only means of parking by a long shot during your visit. As with most of the parking in the park, make sure you display your America the Beautiful Annual Pass (other annual/lifetime passes) or your entrance pass on your dashboard (NPS). On our current visit, we found that the train station parking spots were full before 9am.
This was similarly the case for the parking just off HWY 340 on the way into town (google map). You’ll find this is a popular parking spot for kayakers.
Majority of the visitors will end up parking at the Visitor Center (google map). This is the recommended parking location for visitors to Harpers Ferry by the NPS and there are plenty of parking here.
A shuttle service (NPS) that runs every 5 minutes covering the 2 miles into Harpers Ferry. The bus runs from 9 a.m. and end between 5:45 p.m. and 6:45 p.m depending on season.
In years past, you typically could find a few spots along Harpers Ferry Rd/Sandy Hook Rd near the C&O Canal Towpath. However these spots were not blocked off. These were not the safest spots and there were stories of cars being towed for parking outside these spots previously so this probably saves everyone the headache.
and then crosses the Potomac River over the pedestrian bridge. Our first time hiking here was in January of 2018.
After the bridge, the trail turns left onto the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath while the AT turns right. Immediately on the towpath to our right was lock 33.
Looking up, we can also see the Maryland Heights overlook that we’d be hiking to. There are also climbing routes here should you have the experience and the desire for a shorter route up (NPS).
To our left was the Potomac River, which is quiet scenic here with a few boulders sticking out of the water creating a few water features.
On this trip, we were joined by our in house naturalist friends, Bradley and Brenna. They are seen here as we left the C&O turning left on the pedestrian bridge.
Across the street was previously the trailhead of the Maryland Heights hikes, now at 0.7 miles into our hike. This was also the beginning of our uphill, the first push is two third miles to the Naval Battery at a 12.1% grade. The first view point in this section overlooks the Potomac. The sign here is now mostly illegible when it was still fine a couple years ago. This gives you an idea of the traffic that the trail here sees.
The wide trail continues up a small drainage overlooking a stream.
At the top of our first uphill, we come to a split in the trail. We took the right option to visit the Naval Battery overlooking the Potomac. We would take the other way to skip around the Naval Battery on our way back down. Based on the information placard here, the Naval Battery was built in May of 1862 with guns rushed from the Navy Yard in Washington D.C. to help protect Harpers Ferry from Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign that spring. Jackson was repelled that spring but returned in the fall during the Confederacy’s first invasion of the North in which he would be successful in taking Harpers Ferry. The Confederates advanced to the top of the ridge of Maryland Heights above this position and where we would going later on our hike. After the Union army retook Maryland Heights, batteries were building further up on the ridge relegating this site to a ordnance depot.
After the Naval Battery, we would have another uphill covering 0.4 miles at 15.4% grade incline. Along the way, we pass two junctions for the Stone Fort Trail. The first at 1.5 mile mark of our hike and the second at 1.8 mile mark. We would return to these on our way back.
After the second junction for the Stone Fort Trail, we start our descent for the next half mile at -14.2% grade to the Maryland Heights outlook.
The outlook is at the 2.3 mile mark of our hike and was already pretty busy by the time we arrived just before 11am.
If you are willing to scramble around a little, you can still find a view to yourself. However, please leave no trace and carry out your garbage. We saw plenty littered around and grabbed them.
The view here is a great view of Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. There was a little more ice in the rivers on our last visit in January of 2018.
Also on that visit, we were able to scramble to the left of the main viewpoint to get away from the afternoon crowd. We were also lucky enough on both trips to catch a freight train crossing the bridge below us.
Unfortunately for our current trip, the area was closed for the season due to Peregrine Falcons nesting in the area. So really, this is pretty fortunate for the wildlife here.
While we didn’t end up spotting any Peregrine Falcons, our resident naturalist Bradley did capture a few other birds along the way. They included a Eastern Bluebird,
Red Bellied Woodpecker,
and one of the many Turkey Vultures circling the mountains.
After hanging out at the overlook, we continued on our hike to head up to Stone Fort Trail. We retraced our steps for half mile back up the hill arriving at the junction for the blue blazed Stone Fort Trail. The overlook trail would start down hill, but we continuing up.
The next 0.2 miles was at a 20.7% grade ascent bring us to the former site of a 30-pound battery. These were the batteries build in the fall of 1862 to replaced the Navy Battery we had visited earlier. Facing south, the 30-pound Parrett rifles commanded the summits of Loudoun Heights and Bolivar Heights. These are also 2 future hikes we’ll have to return to in the future. The remanence of the site included the moat and wall dug around the position. On our previous visit, we found the foundation of a building within the fortifications in the woods.
The traffic on the Stoney Fort trail was much less than that to the overlook. As such, we saw more wildlife including a deer.
It was only a few more steps from here at 21.2% grade for us to reach the top of the ridge of Maryland Heights. Bradley and Brenna found a few Paw Paw plants along the ridge here, so we’ll have to come back during the fall.
Our next point was the site of the the 100-Pound Battery at the highest point on the ridge as recommended by Brigadier General John G. Barnard. It was constructed in April 1863 and had a 360 degree target range.
Today, our view was to the east down the Potomac.
We continued along the ridge for another mile going around some rock features and around more Paw Paw trees. Our final destination was on the ridge was Stone Fort, in the winter of 1862-1863 as an infantry blockhouse to ward off Confederate attacks along the crest. However, the super structure of was never finished and this was transformed into a commissary and storage area.
There was more views of the Potomac from here,
but there were also plenty of trees to block the views.
We stopped for a break, but our stomached informed us it was time to finish the hike. From fort the way to continue on the loop is to head east over the what looks like the edge of the foundation of the fort. The trail is easier to follow going the other direction.
On the other side, we drop to the flat former grounds of the civil war fort and campgrounds. There were several information placarded explaining the fort and the solder’s lives.
Our long downhill begin with 0.4 miles at -12.2% grade that increases its steepness to -22.1% grade for the next quarter mile to return to the junction with the overlook trail. Typically this section would be easier on the uphill as it get a bit rocky and the steepest portion of the hike so it can be tougher on the ankles. We headed up this section on our hike the first time through, but again we wanted to head to the overlook first to avoid the bigger crowds in the afternoon.
Once we were back on the overlook trail, we retraced our steps the rest of the way for the last 1.5 miles except for taking the trail to skip the Naval Battery.
After returning to town, we found our lunch plans there disrupted by the number of other visitors. So we had to find alternative places for food on our way home. On our previous visit we were able to get a bite at the Inn, through I don’t remember much about the meal even though the ambiance was that of an old salon.
The rating below are based on an unevenly distributed scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). For full description of the ratings and the categories, see the explanation here.
view: 3. The Maryland Heights Overlook is the highlight of the hike providing for a perfect view of Harpers Ferry sandwiched by the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. It is as picturesque of a mountain town and you can get. Add in the Civil War history and the Appalachian Trail headquarters in town, the hike is well worth it. Heading up to Stone Fort provided for another view onto the Potomac Rivers and more historical sites. The big negative of the hike is how busy it gets on a nice weekend day, but it’s understandable for previously mentioned highlights. The Stoney Fort trail can be hiked for a little bit more solitude, though it’s not much.
difficulty: 1. Neither the hike to the Overlook or to the Fort was overall difficult. Plenty of visitors hike to the Overlook that aren’t your typical hikers.
technical: 1. The trails here are well signed and very busy, so it is pretty easy to follow.
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