One of the most significant pilgrimages teasing the American psyche is hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). Although not a religious pilgrimage, many people approach the trek with reverence and wonder, assigning it a place in our collective identity. To understand its significance, a vacation getaway is recommended to historic and beautiful Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where two great rivers—the Shenandoah and the Potomac—come together. This is one of the few places where the AT actually runs through the middle of town and its rugged landscape draws thousands of visitors each year. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) is charged with the organized effort to maintain the trail and it is headquartered in Harpers Ferry.
Publisher Brian King has been with the ATC for almost 30 years and during that time a few things have changed, he says. Particularly, the increase in the number of visitors, of course—and that most of them are day hikers now, instead of thru-hikers.
“But, one thing is obvious, the age demographic has also changed. It used to be mostly older hikers, but now the average age trends younger,” says King. “You find people in transition hiking the AT, either recently retiring or just graduating.”
Harpers Ferry is only a 1.5-hour drive from Washington DC and the area is rife with history. It has added great restaurants and accommodations to an amazing list of natural amenities. By description, Harpers Ferry and nearby Bolivar are two tiny 19th century villages situated at the eastern-most point of West Virginia, bordered by the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park surrounds both towns, providing visitors with tours, museums, river activities, hiking and biking trails—all within easy walking distance of their living history villages. Primitive beauty—the confluence of the two rivers and the steep terrain surrounding Harpers Ferry—draws visitors from all over the world.
Visitation to the park is definitely up, says Chief Historian Dennis Frye, a prominent Civil War historian who makes frequent appearances on PBS, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel and A&E. Frye has helped produce award-winning television features on the Battle of Antietam and the abolitionist John Brown, whose historic 1859-raid on Harpers Ferry got him hanged. The Civil War Battle of Antietam in nearby Sharpsburg, Maryland proved to be the bloodiest single day in American military history.
“People are still fascinated by this battle,” says Frye. He also served as associate producer for the movie Gods and Generals, coordinating roughly 3,000 re-enactors for the film’s battle scenes. Frye currently leads customized tours for institutions like Smithsonian, National Geographic and for colleges and universities throughout the nation.
While all of this may be interesting historically, most people want to eat and experience a bit of adventure. Dining at Bistro 1840 on High Street (a bit of a wait on a busy weekend), diners enjoy exceptional sandwiches, soups and salads in a century-old building that has been upgraded and expanded to include patio dining in the rear. Fresh, local ingredients are used in a delightful menu overseen by Executive Chef Christian Evans.
Outside, across the river, rock climbers work their way up a rocky outcropping above the railroad tunnel and bikers ride in small packs along the tow path beside the Potomac enjoying a feast of outdoor activity. And of course, there is the trail.
What better way to learn about the AT’s lure than by planning a visit to coincide with the annual FlipFlop Festival in April? ATC Executive Director Ron Tipton says hikers who want to break up the 2,175-mile hike stretching across 14 states, and also avoid trail congestion and competition for shelters, often begin in early spring at the Harpers Ferry halfway point and head south. Then they come back in the heat of summer to hike north, taking advantage of somewhat cooler weather in the northern states. Hence, the FlipFlop.
“Creating a festival just seemed like a good way to call attention to this amazing outdoor opportunity,” says Jordan Bowman, a spokesperson for the ATC. Information Specialist Laurie Potteiger, says alternative approaches to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail have become more popular as the growing number of northbound thru-hikers encounter crowded conditions on the southern end of the Trail.
“A FlipFlop thru-hike can be started a little later in spring when weather conditions are milder. Starting mid-Trail can offer advantages over a southbound thru-hike. A hiker can start earlier (not waiting until June) and can start in terrain that is not as extreme or as remote as Maine,” says Potteiger. The conservation aspect of alternative thru-hikes appeals to some hikers, too. Knowing that choosing an alternative hike can help alleviate crowding and its social and environmental impacts can be a strong motivator to do something non-traditional. The 2017 Flip-Flop Festival will take place on April 22-23, in conjunction with Earth Day celebrations.
Jefferson County CVB’s Heather Morgan McIntyre says regional visitors who enjoy outdoor activities in smaller weekend increments continue coming through the summer and into the fall for the annual Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival. The Ledge House Bed & Breakfast, Laurel Lodge and the Light Horse Inn are all convenient to the town’s center. Accommodations are also plentiful in nearby Frederick, Maryland, only 30 minutes away. McIntyre admires the people of the area and the quality of life here.
“The cost of living is lower in West Virginia, and yet, elegant and lively Washington DC is just over an hour away,” says McIntyre. “Jefferson County is not a bad place to retire, either—you get the best of both worlds.” Whether visitors come for the serious athletic pilgrimage, to be steeped in history, or just for a weekend jaunt, experiencing this historic village and the surrounding countryside is a must-do.
Photography courtesy of Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and Appalachian Trail Conservancy