Family Fun on a D.C. Day Trip to Harpers Ferry

In the historic West Virginia town, a candy-fueled adventure with spooky wax figures, whitewater rafting and killer views

We were surrounded by candy. But not just any candy. These sweets had stories: GooGoo Clusters, the first “combination” candy bar; circus peanuts, the inspiration for Lucky Charms cereal marshmallows; peanut brittle made from a George Washington Carver recipe; and Lemon Gibraltars, the first commercially made candy in the U.S., from 1806.

“I have to live here,” my 4-year-old daughter declared. “Here,” specifically, is True Treats, a historic candy store where you can buy goodies from the very beginning of snacking—bag of roasted bugs, we’re looking at you—to today’s popular Bubble Tape. But “here” could also refer to the charming town where you’d find such a history-loving shop: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Circus peanuts from True Treats

Just over an hour’s drive northwest from downtown D.C., Harpers Ferry packs a lot of past into its 390 acres. George Washington chose the town, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, as the site for a U.S. Armory. Thomas Jefferson climbed to a lookout point now known as Jefferson’s Rock and pronounced the setting “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”

But the main reason Harpers Ferry is now a National Historical Park lies with a surprisingly small brick building located almost at the very point where the Potomac and the Shenandoah meet. Here, in 1859 in the armory’s fire engine house, abolitionist John Brown and his followers made their last stand after their raid of the U.S. Armory failed to incite an antislavery uprising. He was captured, tried and hung, but the event helped tilt the nation into civil war.

John Brown Fort

We saw these events dramatized at the cheesy/spooky John Brown Wax Museum on High Street—not to be confused with the John Brown Museum, which, like most of Harpers Ferry’s Lower Town, is part of the National Historical Park. In our family, given the choice between official exhibits and animated wax figures, wax always wins.

The last tableau in the wax museum was particularly chilling, as the John Brown figure, poised on the steps of the gallows, suddenly raised his head and seemed to look directly at us. “Let’s get out of here!” my 11-year-old daughter squeaked, clutching my arm. 

Getting outdoors is actually another reason people flock to Harpers Ferry. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is headquartered here, at roughly the halfway point on the famed 2,200-mile trek. We note the number of people walking around town with chiseled calves and serious backpacks. You too can hike a part of the Appalachian Trail, but be sure to veer off on the path to Maryland Heights Overlook. Here you can capture a killer Instagram view—preferably around sunset—of one town, two rivers and three states: Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Rafting with River Riders

My family opted for whitewater rafting with outfitter River Riders, which also offers kayaking, tubing, biking, ziplining and an aerial adventure park. Since I have younger kids, general manager Tyler Tummolo suggested we raft the Needles, a scenic section of the Potomac with gentler waters.

Our expert rafting guide, John Ford, was full of fun facts including that George Washington was a whitewater enthusiast. “But he actually was really bad at it,” Ford said. A music education teacher during the colder months, Ford serenaded us with an Irish river chantey as he paddled around rocks and through watery dips and crests.

We floated past Lower Town and under the bridge that connects Harpers Ferry with Maryland Heights—yet another perspective on this historic spot. The exciting climax of the excursion was the section called White Horse Rapids. My 7-year-old son stood at the prow of the raft, gripping a strap as we plunged and bucked before emerging at the other end, soaked but safe.

And we weren’t done with adventure yet. Back at River Riders’ Adventure Park, everyone got a turn ziplining—except the 4-year-old, who was deemed too young. It was my first time, and as I hurtled at almost 50 miles per hour through the trees, over a parking lot and above a field, there was only one thing to say, one phrase that encapsulated our thrilling, history-filled day in Harpers Ferry: “Woo-hoo!”