If you have young children, and don’t own a car, you know what a pain weekend trips can be. For a relatively painless alternative, Harpers Ferry fits the bill. In the foothills, just a short train ride from Washington, Harpers Ferry offers plenty for the whole family.
My wife and I have taken our 2-year-old to Harpers Ferry twice without a car, and we all had a blast. It’s easily done without the hassle or expense of renting a car. All the locations mentioned below are on this Google Map.
Getting there: The Harpers Ferry train station is right in the middle of downtown, and everything is walkable from the station. The Amtrak Capitol Limited stops here once per day each way 7 days per week, and the MARC Brunswick line stops here multiple times each way on weekdays only.
It’s faster than driving — only 70 minutes from Union Station or 45 minutes from the Rockville station, which is right next to the Rockville Red Line stop. And best of all: toddlers love big trains.
We like to take the Amtrak line which leaves Union Station at 4:05 pm and arrives in Harpers Ferry at 5:16 pm—perfect timing for napping toddlers. The second time we did this trip, the conductor even remembered my son’s name and gave him high-five, as well as a kid’s book. My little guy was in paradise. Make sure to walk to the lounge car which has floor-to-ceiling windows for great sightseeing on your trip.
If you need to leave later in the day, the MARC train leaves Union Station at 4:55, 5:40, and 7:15pm. It costs less too, but isn’t as fun.
Where to stay: You have two choices for accommodations with kids that don’t require a car, the Town’s Inn and the KOA Campground. We’ve stayed in both, and which one you stay in depends on whether you plan to spend most of your trip in town or at the campground.
The Town’s Inn is the only hotel in downtown Harpers Ferry. You can walk there from the train station in 2 minutes. Best of all, it’s in the middle of everything you will want to do.
The KOA Campground is a mile from the train station. You can either walk there or take a National Park Service bus. The walk is a pleasant one through Harpers Ferry and the next-door town of Bolivar, except for one crossing of a 6-lane expressway at an intersection with no walk signal. Most of the walk is part of the Appalachian Trail, so you’ll see hikers. I walked to the campground, with my supplies in a big backpack and my little guy in a stroller.
Or you can take the NPS bus, which runs between downtown and the NPS Visitors’ Center every 10 minutes. The NPS Visitors’ Center is a pleasant 10 minute walk from the KOA Campground. The primary purpose of the bus is to shuttle visitors who drive from a vast parking lot at the Visitors’ Center to downtown, which is great because this keeps cars out of downtown Harpers Ferry.
What to do downtown: There are basically 2 fun things for kids to do downtown. They can play in the Shenandoah River, and watch NPS reenactments of 19th century Harpers Ferry. Both are within a 5 minute walk. And pedestrians essentially rule the road, as there are few cars in downtown, so you can feel safe with your kids running around free.
The Shenandoah is a 3 minute walk from downtown. My 2-year-old built sandcastles on the banks of the Shenandoah while throwing rocks in the river for hours. And about every hour, a freight train goes by about 100 feet from the river which leaves the toddlers’ mouths hanging open.
For the older kids, the NPS puts on a great show of reenactments throughout the day. Kids can write articles for an old-time newspaper, then churn butter and talk to a Union solder all before lunchtime. Older kids also love the ghost tours which depart from downtown most evenings.
Keep in mind that the downtown restaurants don’t currently serve breakfast, as they make most of their money off of day trippers. Fortunately, the Town’s Inn sells breakfast food and has refrigerators and microwaves. Also, the Country Cafe serves a fantastic breakfast, and is a 2/3 mile walk from downtown and 3 blocks from the fabulous Bolivar Public Playground.
What to do at the KOA campground: The Harpers Ferry KOA is a kids’ paradise. A regular pool and kiddie pool, super pillow for jumping, playground, arcade and mini-golf make the day fly by.
And you don’t have to bring a bunch of food to cook, because there are free pancakes on weekends for breakfast and a fully-stocked convenience store on site.
For the parents, a coffee shop and wine store has daily wine tastings on the campground. Anytime you want to go back into town, the NPS bus stop at the Visitors’ Center is a 10 minute walk away.
Getting back: The only real challenge to visiting Harpers Ferry without a car is taking the Amtrak train back to DC. The train is supposed to stop in Harper’s Ferry 7 days per week at 10:55am, stopping next at Rockville at 11:40am and Union Station at 12:40pm. But it’s always late—2 hours late on my first trip and 4 hours late on my second.
The Amtrak trip to Harpers Ferry is generally on time, because the Capitol Limited route is beginning its Union Station to Chicago journey. Coming back to DC, though, it can have been delayed by Norfolk Southern (between Chicago and Pittsburgh) or CSX (between Pittsburgh and Washington). Fortunately, Amtrak has a great mobile site and iPhone app which provide real-time status updates so you can enjoy downtown while waiting for the train.
If you’re returning on a weekday and are willing to leave early, MARC is also an option. Trains leave at 5:51am and 6:56am.
Know any other car-free family trip destinations? Mention them in the comments.
Correction: The original version of this article spelled the name of the town incorrectly as “Harper’s Ferry” in some places. The correct name has no apostrophe.
Update: The article mentions the lack of breakfast options downtown. The owner of the Town’s Inn contacted us with the good news that a shuttered downtown restaurant, the Town’s Pub and Eatery, has reopened with service from breakfast through dinner. I haven’t tried it, but initial online reviews are positive.