Remember to wear sturdy shoes, so you can make the short but moderately strenuous climb farther up the stone stairs, past the lovely St. Peter's Church, to Jefferson Rock. At this spot, looking over the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, President Jefferson called the view "stupendous," and said it was worth crossing the Atlantic to see.
If you don't feel like climbing the stairs to Jefferson Rock, you might enjoy a stroll over the walking/railroad bridge across the Potomac for a view of the mighty river. On the way, you'll pass the old armory fire house, known as John Brown's Fort, where Brown and his men took their last stand. On the other side, you'll find the bottom of Maryland Heights and the ruins of Lock No. 33 on the C&O Canal.
Virginius Island, a long curl of land along the Shenandoah, offers visitors an easy stroll among trees and stone ruins. This was once a booming industrial center with a rifle factory, iron foundry, cotton mill, granary, and lumberyard. It's a silent reminder of what once was. The short history trail, about a mile long, offers some explanation of what remains, and the lovely flat site is a great place to rest or let the children run.
If you're ready for a strenuous hike, head over the railroad bridge to walk up the cliffs of Maryland Heights to one of the most spectacular views in the state. The hike can take 3 to 5 hours, but the view of Harpers Ferry and the confluence of the two rivers makes the effort worthwhile. The park service provides trail maps for the hike to Maryland Heights as well as to nearby Weverton Cliffs, which also boasts a very good view. If you're planning more than a day's hike, the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal join briefly and pass right by Harpers Ferry, on the opposite side of the Potomac, making the town a great stop on either route.
River & Trail Outfitters, 604 Valley Rd., Knoxville, MD (tel. 888/446-7529; www.rivertrail.com), offers half-day white-water rafting trips down the Shenandoah and Potomac, which pass by the town. Although this can be quite an adventure during high-water season (Feb to mid-Apr), most of the time it's a fun raft trip through beautiful scenery and a few rapids -- suitable for families. Guides share local history, legends, and corny jokes. Prices depend on the season but generally run $55 to $95 per person. River & Trail also offers guided hikes up Maryland Heights, C&O bike trips, cross-country ski trips in winter, and Monocacy River paddle trips. Experienced paddlers can rent a canoe or kayak; lessons are available for every level.
Fishing is permitted in both the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, but adults may require licenses; check with the visitor center.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.