There is a very beaten path in Harpers Ferry. Particularly in the fall, when the leaves in the low-lying mountains turn to gold and the small West Virginia town—the perfect distance for a D.C. day trip—makes its last call for outdoor sports before winter. In a town of under 300 people, it’s hard to “get off the beaten path”. The place thrives on—exists on—tourism.
Sometimes you need to look for different paths.
One of my favorite ways to travel is to focus on the road that leads to a destination before thinking about the destination itself. There is a very very beaten path TO Harpers Ferry—one that’s over 200 years old. But it’s largely overlooked.
The path to Harpers Ferry wasn’t beaten so much as it was carved, nearly 200 years ago. Flanked on one side by the C&O Canal and on the other by the Shenandoah Canal, the path to (and from) Harpers Ferry is literally a towpath.
It’s possible to walk into Harpers Ferry from the west along the former Shenandoah Canal towpath. The trail originates in Harpers Ferry National Park and, unfortunately, most visitors opt to take a bus for the 1.5-mile jaunt into town. Once you pass Harpers Ferry, you can continue along the C&O towpath, taking it, theoretically, all the way into D.C.
The Shenandoah and C&O Canals were built largely by hand in the early 19th century. America’s canal history gets lost somewhere in between Oregon-bound covered wagons and steam locomotives. In today’s contemporary, automobile-focused transportation scene, where trains seem take all credit as the “old-fashioned” mode of transportation, canals rarely get noticed. But at one time, canals were the edgiest technology. George Washington envisioned connecting the east coast American settlements to the Great West via canal, and it was he who created the Potomac Company, the company who built the Shenandoah Canal in 1807.
The company was later bought by The C&O Company, who began a mega, cross-country building project—a canal that originated in Georgetown and continued all the way through Pennsylvania. It was never completed, but 185 miles of the canal still remain, largely intact.
Huge portions of the canals today have been converted to bike and walking paths. In the 1.5 miles between Harpers Ferry National Park and the Lower Town, the path runs parallel to the former Shenandoah Canal, still alive with green algae. About halfway across, the ruins of the Potomac Power Plant, a water-powered pulp mill whose lifeline was once the canal, hints at the industrial powerhouse canals once were.
On the other side of Harpers Ferry, the C&O towpath continues, sharing space for a bit with the Appalachian Trail and running parallel to the Shenandoah River.
Have you ever found a beaten (or unbeaten) path that others didn’t notice?