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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Trail Trials: Maryland Heights

Hey guys!

This is the beginning of a new series of posts called "Trail Trials." Basically, I will go to hiking destinations and inform y'all if they're worth going to (which will be the case for the majority). Much like my other post series, "Town Profiles," think of these posts as the 'Yelp Reviews of Hiking.' And, spoiler alert, I will be posting pictures of the scenery and overlooks, so if you're the type of person who doesn't like to look the sights before experiencing them for yourself, I suggest you omit these articles. However, I encourage everyone who visits these sites to reply to their respective posts and tell everyone what you thought of the hike. The posts I write are only based on my experience, and while I take lots of pictures, no picture can ever capture the feeling of being in the open air, standing on a lookout point, and seeing everything for miles around. They cannot invigorate the senses of touch or smell, and only limits the sense of sight. And they most certainly cannot stimulate the adrenaline rush of standing at the edge of a 200 foot cliff. With that said, I hope you all enjoy these posts as much as I enjoyed hiking the trails.

View of the Potomac a short way's up the trail

Maryland Heights is located directly across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, WV, along the C&O Canal Tow Path. The trailhead is about a mile's walk from Harpers Ferry . However, if you're lucky and find parking off of Harpers Ferry Road, the trail is located directly next to those lots. The trail itself has seen its fair share of history. In the early 19th century, the Antietam Iron Works used the bluffs for logging and charcoal production. During the Civil War, Union troops used the trail to establish fortifications overlooking Harpers Ferry. Needless to say, it's just as much fun to learn about this place as it is to hike it.

There are two different trails on Maryland Heights: the Overlook trail and the Stone Fort trail. The Overlook trail is 3 miles round trip and takes you directly to the bluff overlooking Harpers Ferry. It's also an easier climb, with only a couple short, steep grades along the path. In total, this trip should take about a 1.5 hours to complete, depending on how long you stay up at the lookout point. The Stone Fort trail, on the other hand, is about 5 miles total. This trail will take you up to the peak of the mountain where the stone fort is and finish up at the overlook. The walk up to the fort is much more strenuous and will probably take experienced hikers 3 hours to complete. However, in spite of its extended length and increased difficulty, this trail is my recommendation. For one thing, this trail takes you around the entire mountain instead of just the overlook. Secondly, it's not that often you can see a Civil War fort as well-preserved as this one, so why pass up on the opportunity? That said, it is imperative to pack accordingly for these hikes. Definitely bring some water and some snacks if you so desire. Also, bring some hiking buddies along. It will make the trip much more enjoyable.

Earthworks for the naval batteries

The grade and difficulty of the initial ascent is fairly average. Take your time and find your pace, especially for novice hikers. Over time, the grade becomes increasingly difficult before it gets easier. You don't want to tire yourself out too quickly. Also, if it's your first time at Maryland Heights, take the time to appreciate the scenery and learn about its historic value. For instance, Maryland Heights was initially under Confederate control during the early years of the war. However, troops withdrew in June 1861 to assist the war effort in Virginia, and the Union took over the position. In 1862 during the first major Confederate offensive, Stonewall Jackson and his troops attacked the fortifications and reclaimed the position, only to withdraw a few days later to assist General Lee at Antietam. It would be the last time Confederates would control the bluff. Shortly after Jackson's withdrawal, General McClellan of the Union Army retook the position and held it until July 1865. However, this position would be continual site of contention between Confederate and Union forces throughout the rest of the war.

A bit further up the mountainside are the reminisces of the naval batteries. These Union fortifications were built in mid 1862 and contained battery units and artillery positioned to protect Harpers Ferry. However, Jackson's counterattack in late 1862 forced Federal units to retreat and abandon the position. Today, you can see the earthworks where cannons, magazines, and wooden fortifications once were.

You will reach a fork in the trail further up the way. The trail to the right will take you directly to the overlook and the one on the left up to the stone fort. Take whichever you feel comfortable with, but the rest of this post will describe the latter. The trail itself is the original road that Union Colonel Dixon Miles withdrew his troops to Harpers Ferry (and were later captured by Confederate forces). Union troops used the same road in 1863 to refortify the summit. However, the trail wasn't initially intended for troop movement. In fact, it predates the Civil War. The road was constructed in the early 1800s by the Antietam Iron Works to supply the factory timber and charcoal. Dispersed along the trail are several charcoal sheaths--level areas on the mountainside used to burn wood into charcoal.

The trail heading up to the stone fort gets very steep for a good half mile or so. Once you get past this rough area, the rest of the trail is pretty flat. About a mile from the fork in the trail are the Civil War campgrounds. Along the trail, you will start to see stone walls and mounds of rock. Further into the camp are deep depressions in the ground and fallen columns of rock, traces of the huts and chimneys that used to stand there. Usually, officers lived out of cabins and huts while volunteers and low-ranking militiamen slept in tents. The trail then takes your around the exterior fort and into the interior fort. Inside this area of the fort are the remains of powder magazines and artillery parks.

The Overlook

One of the most impressive features of this fort is the 100-pound Parrott rifle turret. The nearly-five ton artillery piece was mounted on a rotating wooden platform, allowing it to shoot 360 degrees. It was one of the biggest and most powerful cannon constructed during the Civil War. The trail leads you to where this might gun once stood along the outer wall of the fort. The trail continues through the rest of the fort and out towards more naval batteries and magazines. The end of this trail connects to the overlook trail, and it takes about another 10-15 minutes to reach the lookout point.

The overlook itself is a beautiful spot. It presents a great view of historic Harpers Ferry and is positioned directly over the train tunnel. There are many great spots on the overlook to chill and relax. In fact, there are a couple spots on the bluff that have some soldier carvings on them (I won't tell you're going to have to find them yourself!).

In summary, Maryland Heights is a great trail to explore. If you're a novice or haven't walked many physically-taxing hikes, I would suggest starting with the Overlook trail first to get acclimated to the terrain. All others, definitely try the Stone Fort trail first! It will make a nice day-trip addition when visiting Harpers Ferry. Try it out and let me know what you think with a reply below! Thanks for reading guys!


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