Gettysburg National Military Park: How to Visit With Kids
As a little boy visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time, I didn't need to know that this piece of Pennsylvania farmland was the site of the turning point of the Civil War, or how many people had died here over the course of three days in July 1863. On that first trip, historical facts and statistics were trumped by the words "Devil's Den." My father's gentle description of the firefight that had occurred amid the towering gray boulders there, where Union and Confederate soldiers had once crouched for cover, was enough to inspire a blend of fear, awe, and respect that I associate with the place to this day. As an adult, I've caught myself saying, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in Gettysburg."
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is located just north of the Mason-Dixon line about an hour and 20 minute's drive from Baltimore and two hours and 20 minutes from Philadelphia. Here, in early July, 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his rebel Army of Northern Virginia across the Pennsylvania border in an attempt to seize Washington, D.C., and force a Union surrender. What happened here, with American fighting American, often hand-to-hand, changed the course of U.S. history, with Lee's army eventually forced to retreat. Each summer, as the battle anniversary nears, the museum, the cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, and the winding trails of national parkland play host to armies of tourists and history buffs. And, yes, for better or for worse, children will be cajoled, bribed, or dragged into the action. But Gettysburg ain't Disney. How you introduce kids to a place like this can mean the difference between igniting a spark of historical curiosity and sending them screaming for the snack bar. Here, some expert advice on showing your little ones how to tread lightly on hallowed ground.
PLAN YOUR VISIT IN ADVANCE
I spoke with Barbara J. Sanders, education specialist at Gettysburg National Military Park, for her suggestions about the best way to introduce children to this historical site and the troubling chapter in American history that it represents. Sanders suggests visiting the park's website (nps.gov/gett) as well as the website of the park's partners, the Gettysburg Foundation. "By planning the trip together and allowing each member of the family to select an activity of interest, everyone will become involved and excited about their upcoming visit," Sanders suggests. She also recommends reading some age-appropriate books about the battle of Gettysburg, or about the Civil War, together prior to the visit. At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw & Heard of the Battle is an autobiographical account of the battle written by a woman who witnessed it as a young girl—appropriate for grades four and up. Jimmy at Gettysburg is the true story of Jimmy Bighams, who also experienced the battle first-hand as a boy—suitable for grades three and up. For parents who could use a little grounding in Civil War history, Ken Burns's documentary film The Civil War remains the gold standard for its clarity, elegance, and emotional wallop. For a deeper dive, Shelby Foote's trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, reads like great fiction. The park's website also features a robust "For Teachers" section intended to help with planning class trips but easily adapted by parents who are wondering where to start, what elements to teach their children, and what they might want to leave out.
ARE YOUR KIDS READY FOR GETTYSBURG?
"There's something at Gettysburg for all ages," Sanders insists. She points out that even very young kids often shout "Abraham Lincoln!" when they see the president's statue in front of the park's visitors center, and even if that's their only touchstone here, they can see the spot at the Soldiers' National Cemetery where he delivered his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, and even stand in his footsteps at the train station where he arrived in town. Of course, for elementary and middle school kids, there are themes presented at Gettysburg that will require either preparation or explanation. A film, dramatic 360-degree painting, and museum all help to put the conflict, the issue of slavery, and the sheer loss of life that occurred here in their historical context. The National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation offer a variety of children's education programs in summer that allow young visitors to learn as much—or as little—as they feel is right for them. "The focus of the trip should be to connect to the place and the people, and ignite a spark of interest in the minds of the kids," says Sanders.
For a summertime visit to a place as big as Gettysburg (a typical auto tour covers 24 miles), a friendly guide and some kid-friendly activities may be as essential as sunscreen, insect repellent, and water. Sanders recommends that you consider booking a personalized tour of Gettysburg. You can book a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance, or take your chances with a first-come-first-served sign-up each morning at 8 a.m. The guide can accompany you in your car on a two-hour battlefield tour—it's essentially like having a teacher along for the ride to lead you to the most important sites and answer your family's questions. Gettysburg also offers free summer ranger field programs—sign up first thing at the visitors center information desk as space is limited, and pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets.
A GETTYSBURG ITINERARY
The most common approach to Gettysburg National Military Park is to start at the visitors center and museum, then embark on the 24-mile self-guided auto tour (an annotated map shows you the route and points out the major battle sites along the way). While the museum is a must-see with an extensive collection and interactive education stations, and visitors should try to plant their feet on key spots around the park, such as the site of Pickett's Charge (the doomed Confederate attack that turned the tide of the three-day battle), there are other, better ways for kids to really experience Gettysburg. "My recommendation is for families to find a specific person, or a specific regiment that they are interested in learning more about," says Sanders. As many families have experienced when visiting a museum dedicated to, for instance, immigration, or tolerance, or slavery, sometimes tracking the progress of just one person through a difficult chapter of history is far more rewarding than trying to understand the bigger picture, especially for grade-school children.
"For example, if a family is coming from Alabama, they could research the 15th Alabama Infantry and follow their path from July 2, 1863 as they launch repeated attacks on the end of the Union line, occupied by the 20th Maine Infantry," Sanders suggests. "Or if a family is interested more in the farmers and civilians, they could learn about the John Slyder family, and then visit their farm at the base of Big Round Top, or Abram Bryan, a free black farmer whose house and barn was located near the very center of the Union line on July 3." Got a dog? Tell your kids the story of Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, and a visit her monument near Oak Ridge.
LET YOUR KIDS TAKE THE LEAD
Give the little ones the elbow room to experience the place on their own terms—as Sanders suggests, and as my own parents did for me all those years ago. You may not entirely understand why your child is, say, fascinated by a particular field, or artifact, but be assured that they are processing this complex chapter in our history the very best they can. A visit to Gettysburg is not a time for lectures. Whether they come home with a solid sense of history's sweep or just the indelible memory of one soldier's few days on this rolling farmland, you'll have ignited a spark.
HOW TO GET THERE
Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum and Visitor Center entrance at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Penn., visit nps.gov/gett.
Want to Visit Every National Park? Mikah Meyer Actually Did It
After three years on the road, a Nebraska man has achieved his dream of visiting all 419 national parks in the U.S. in one trip. Now working as a public speaker, Mikah Meyer (33) has just returned from traveling more than 75,000 miles in a cargo van, which contained a bed and a solar-powered fridge. He was inspired by losing his 58-year-old Lutheran pastor father to cancer when he was 19. “I learned a hard lesson at a young age that we really won’t have all the time we think to pursue our life goals,” he tells Budget Travel's parent company, Lonely Planet. “My dad was a big fan of road trips, so I did my first independent road trip just a few days after his funeral.” National Parks: The Story of a Nation Mikah documented his trip on Instagram, and images and videos show him camping, snorkeling, hiking and posing with landmarks and monuments. National parks are special because they tell the story of a nation, he says, and they are available to everyone. In the age of the smartphone, he loved being able to witness their incredible beauty and majesty in person. “There’s just something special about being awed in a way that no digital medium can capture,” he says. Close Encounters With Wildlife Of all the parks he visited, Mikah was most enchanted by Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado. Geese hold symbolic significance in Lutheranism, and while he was there, he had what he describes as It was one of the most “magical and mystical experiences” of his journey, when he met a goose he christened George. “It didn’t hurt that during a four-day, three-night rafting trip down the Green River that travels through the park, I was followed by a wild Canadian goose the whole time,” he says. “This park is special as there are recreational activities like hiking and rafting, incredible vistas along with up-close nature viewing, and it’s full of history due to all the dinosaur bones discovered there.” An Inspirational Solo Odyssey Mikah says that traveling alone can be fun because it gives us opportunities to meet new people and expand our human circle. But traveling alone when you’re trying to set a world record and having to spend most of your free time in libraries on your computer doing logistics, blogging and fundraising is not the same. “Even though I was going to some of the most beautiful places in America, I wished I had someone to share them with,” he says. “Three years is a long time to not get to have a regular beer with a friend, or see family members during normal holiday visits.” The highlight for him was that he actually successfully completed such a behemoth of a road trip. It also taught him the beauty of having a wonderful place to come home to, of seeing family and friends regularly, and being able to be part of a local community. As a gay man, he also loves the idea of being an inspiration to others. “When I started planning this project, I searched for openly gay outdoorsy role models and didn’t find anyone I could look up to,” he says. “Knowing that this journey has provided that for other people has been one of my proudest moments. And accomplishing a feat that no person has ever done before makes me proud to show that not only can gay people be ordinary, but we can also be extraordinary.” “For a kid from Nebraska who thought I might never make it out of my home state, it’s an incredible feeling to know I’ve now seen every corner of the US, and all 419 of our National Park Service sites.” You can check out Mikah’s Instagram page here and his website here.
When it comes to America’s national parks, we wear our heart on our sleeve: For natural beauty, wildlife appreciation, and value, there may be no better vacation choice than, say, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the dozens of other national parks that stretch from the Caribbean to the South Pacific and from Maine to Alaska. But there’s something else we wear, not just on our sleeve: Climate-appropriate clothing, which usually means layering and sun-protection. The right apparel is just one of the must-packs for a safe and comfortable visit to a wild and sometimes unpredictable environment. As the summer travel season approaches, we want to share the number-one NPS safety tip all travelers must know, plus 10 essentials to pack to ensure health, safety, comfort, and fun. 1. Follow Park Rules & Ranger Instructions This should go without saying, but the number-one item to pack for a successful national park visit is your common sense. When you visit a national park, it’s vital that you follow all posted rules and directions, and follow any verbal instructions given by park rangers. Often, the rules boil down to staying on the park paths and keeping a safe distance from all wildlife. No problem, right? But, unfortunately, each year park visitors are injured or killed because they wander where they don’t belong or get too close to wild animals. 2. Prepare to Navigate Pack a paper map and compass in addition to your GPS device—not coincidentally, some of the most beautiful places in America are far from Wi-Fi hubs. Review driving and hiking directions in advance, from the comfort of a Wi-Fi-enabled hotel room or rental property, and be prepared to navigate the old-fashioned way when you hit the trails. 3. Protect Yourself From the Sun The sun’s heat and damaging UV rays pose both short- and long-term risks. UV-protective sunglasses, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-protective shirts and pants will keep you cool and energized on your day hikes, and protect your skin from premature aging and skin cancer. 4. Insulate Even in summer, some national parks become chilly in the evenings and sometimes dangerously cold at elevation. Insulate yourself by packing a jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell, and thermal underwear. 5. Get Illuminated Packing a flashlight, lantern, and headlamp may feel like a throwback, but illumination that doesn’t require an electrical outlet can come in handy for campers, cabin renters, cavern explorers, and just about everybody else from time to time. 6. Bring a First-Aid Kit Sure, you are trying to limit what you have to stuff into your car’s hatch or your checked bag. But a small first-aid kit that can supply antibiotic and bandages while you’re out hiking, padding, or engaging in other summer activities can help keep cuts and scratches from turning into a much bigger deal. 7. Be Ready to Build a Fire This tip applies mostly to campers and those who plan on exploring park backcountry, where waterproof matches, a lighter, and kindling can help with cooking and, in a pinch, staying warm. (If you pack matches and lighters, keep them locked away where kids can't get to them.) 8. Bring a Repair Kit Duct tape, knife, screwdriver, scissors. No, you’re not preparing to appear in an episode of MacGyver. But outdoor activities from camping to kayaking to hiking can sometimes require last-minute repairs to equipment, and most travelers just don’t think of packing these handy tools. 9. Pack Nutritious Snacks The NPS suggests having at least one day’s food on hand in the event of an unforeseen change of plans, which can happen in the blink of an eye thanks to changing weather, wildfires, and flooding. Packing nonperishable foods can be easiest, but do strive for high fiber carbs such as woven wheat crackers, lean proteins such as jerky or cheese sticks, and easy healthy snacks such as trail mix, nuts, and granola bars. 10. Stay Hydrated Water can sometimes seem like an afterthought to travelers who are lucky enough to take access to abundant drinking water for granted at home. But staying hydrated in the wild requires some planning and is crucial to health and safety. In the hot summer sun, you should sip water regularly, not waiting until you feel thirsty. Park rangers suggest a gallon of water per person per day. That’s a lot of water. Campers and backcountry hikers will do well to pack water-treatment supplies and to research nearby bodies of water. (Never drink untreated water in a national park—as clean as the water looks and feels, it may carry bird-borne microbes that can upset your digestive system.) 11. Carry Your Own Emergency Shelter This may not be necessary if you’re planning to hit the park highlights via car or park shuttle, but those going farther afield should carry portable shelter such as a tent, space blanket, tarp, or bivy in the event that they get stuck out in the great outdoors longer than they expected.
Travel News: Outdoorsy Launches Guides for National Park Week
In anticipation of 2019’s National Park Week, launching April 20 with entrance fees waived nationwide, RV rental site Outdoorsy (outdoorsy.com) has introduced digital guides to more than 40 national parks and a thousand state parks across the country. For Park Week inspiration and beyond, here’s where to look for an offbeat experience. The State of Outdoor Affairs National parks might claim most of the attention, but state parks deserve more than a passing mention. And Outdoorsy provides attention a'plenty. From the dramatically named—and deservedly so, given its blazing red-sandstone formations—Valley of Fire just north of Las Vegas to the idyllic waterfalls, caves, and lush plant life in New York’s Watkins Glen to the free-roaming bison of Custer, South Dakota, America’s often-smaller state parks highlight the diversity of our country’s landscape, not to mention its flora and fauna. National Treasures While the big guns like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon will always hold a special place in our hearts, we have plenty of love for the National Park Service’s lesser-known gems as well. In addition to protecting unique areas from human encroachment, the system’s 400-plus sites include historic landmarks and places of cultural significance—think: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace and the library of Frederick Douglass, Native American effigy mounds in Iowa and ancient Pueblo architecture in New Mexico, the birthplace of jazz in New Orleans and nearly 500 miles of planned roadway stretching between the Great Smokies and Shenandoah National Park. Outdoorsy’s picks for under-the-radar destinations include North Cascades and its 300-plus glaciers in Washington State, whale-watching and wolf-spotting in Alaska’s Katmai, and the islands, coral reefs, and marine life of the Dry Tortugas in Florida.
We have plenty of love for the National Park System’s heavy hitters, but with 418 sites spanning more than 84 million acres across the country and its territories, there are a ton of lesser-known gems just begging to be explored. Here are 10 extraordinary protected lands that deserve a place on your bucket list. 1. Chaco Culture National Historical Park: New Mexico (Golasza/Dreamstime) From the mid-800s until the mid-1200s, the Chaco Canyon’s high-desert environs was a social and economic hub for the ancestral Pueblo culture that called it home. Chacoan architecture was particularly impressive, featuring huge, multi-floor, multi-room dwellings called great houses, built over the course of decades and incorporating canny design elements in the process. More than 3,000 of the massive stone structures have been preserved, and most of the cultural landmarks are open for self-guided exploration year-round. Take in the five major sites along the 9-mile Canyon Loop Drive, sign up for a ranger-led tour of the great houses, or hike the backcountry trails for ancient petroglyphs and stunning vistas. For a special treat, visit at night, when the Milky Way puts on an unbeatable show. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, Chaco’s Night Sky program roster includes weekend lectures and telescope viewings at the observatory. Stargazers, mark your calendars: Biannual star parties are usually held in May and October, and an astronomy festival happens each September.7-day pass, $25 per car; nps.gov/chcu. 2. Glen Echo Park: Maryland With a children’s discovery museum, a dance hall, and a fully functional carousel dating to 1921, it’s safe to say Glen Echo Park, located about eight miles from Washington, D.C., is not your average federally protected land. Originally established in 1891 as a Chautauqua, a non-denominational Christian summer camp–like phenomenon, it became a proper Coney Island-style amusement park in 1911. During the next three decades, Echo Park added bumper cars, a pool with a capacity of 3,000 swimmers, the Spanish Ballroom, which hosted pop stars like Bill Haley and His Comets, and more. It closed in 1968, the National Park Service took over in 1971, and the historic district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Today, Glen Echo counts half a million annual guests for classes and performances, though few of its original attractions remain: Its entrance is still visible, but the pool itself is in ruins; the bumper-car pavilion remains intact, albeit without its steel floor; the carousel, fully restored, operates from May through September, and the ballroom can be rented out for special events. Pack a picnic lunch, go a few rounds on the carousel, and bask in the nostalgia.Park entry, free; carousel rides, $1.25; nps.gov/glec. 3. Effigy Mounds National Monument: Iowa Throughout the Upper Mississippi River Valley, in parts of what’s now Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, Native American earthen mounds of varying shapes and sizes dating to pre-Columbian times proliferate. You’ll find 206 of them in northeastern Iowa, from linear ceremonial mounds to more animal-shaped effigy mounds than anywhere else in the world. Just don’t expect to leave with a full understanding of these ancient structures: Archeologists speculate that they could be territorial markings, while tribal descendants say they’re sacred sites. Stop at the visitor’s center for a map of the park’s 31 bird and bear shapes, then wander its 14 miles of trails, including short accessible stretches and steeper hikes, to see how many you can spot.Free; nps.gov/efmo. 4. Manhattan Project National Historical Park: New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee The world’s first atomic weapons were developed through a top-secret government project involving hundreds of thousands of scientists, mathematicians, and members of the military, spread across three massive sites: uranium-enrichment and plutonium plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; nuclear reactors and chemical separation plants in Hanford, Washington; and the remote complex at Los Alamos, in northern New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer notoriously led the team that designed and built the bombs. All three sites are open to visitors, though some areas of each remain under the Department of Energy’s purview and may not be accessible to the public. Still, there’s plenty to see: Walk through historic downtown Los Alamos on a self-guided tour, sign up for a free guided tour of the B Reactor in Hanford, or, for a small fee, book a bus tour through the Oak Ridge site with the Department of Energy.Park entry, free; nps.gov/mapr. 5. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park: Louisiana (Wangkun Jia/Dreamstime) From L.A. to New York, America boasts a dizzying array of jazz venues, but where better to get a feel for the form than the place it was born? At the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the city’s National Historic Park, near-daily concerts range from solo acts to traditional quartets to a band made up of park rangers and civilians alike. There are also ranger-led demonstrations and lectures on the history of jazz that often have a live-music component as well. But there’s more to the park than these performances. Drop in for a free yoga class and practice your downward dog as a park ranger provides the improvisational-piano soundtrack, take a self-guided audio tour of 11 historically significant sites around the city, or visit the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University to watch hundreds of oral histories from local musicians.For a schedule of park events, including concerts, talks, and ranger-led demonstrations, visit nps.gov/jazz. 6. Wind Cave National Park: South Dakota In the Black Hills of South Dakota, below a square acre of prairie and pine forest, there’s an extremely complex cave—one of the oldest and longest in the world. Wind Cave is so spacious it has its own internal air-pressure system, taking its name from the gusts emanating from its natural entrance: The Lakota referred to the cave as the “hole that breathes cool air,” and the brothers credited with its discovery in the 1880s were drawn to it by the sound of the wind across its mouth. Subterranean expeditions during the next 130-plus years revealed a staggering geological display, from cave formations like the commonly seen popcorn and frostwork to the much rarer boxwork—and there’s more of that here than in any other caves in the world combined. It’s free to explore the 33,851 acres of parkland above ground, but you’ll need to sign up for a guided tour to see the cave itself. Options range from easy (the Garden of Eden tour, which enters and exits via elevator) to extremely strenuous (the Wild Cave tour, which comes with a warning that crawling is involved). Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis; they go quickly during the peak summer season, and reservations are only available for specialty tours, so visit early to avoid a wait. Cave tours from $10 for adults, $5 for seniors and kids ages 6-16, and free for kids 5 and under; nps.gov/wica. 7. Manzanar National Historic Site: California (James Mattil/Dreamstime) Eastern California’s Owens Valley has seen its share of tragedy. In the early 1860s, 1,000 members of Paiute tribal groups were forcibly removed by the military after miners and homesteaders arrived on the scene. And almost 80 years later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up 120,000 West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry—including natural-born citizens—and herded them into internment camps for the duration of the war. Manzanar was one of 10 relocation centers built in seven states, and it’s said to be the best preserved of the bunch. A National Historic Site established in part “to serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties,” it offers visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the 11,070 Japanese Americans interned here from September 1942 until November 1945. The grounds feature exhibits, reconstructed barracks, and excavated gardens, ponds, and building foundations, which you can explore on foot or via a 3.2-mile self-guided drive.Free; nps.gov/manz. 8. Saguaro National Park: Arizona (Irina Kozhemyakina/Dreamstime) Flanking Tucson to the east and west, the two districts of Saguaro National Park are best known for their namesake plant: The saguaro is the largest cactus in the country, and it's been heavily protected here since 1933, when Herbert Hoover designated the area a national monument. Congress bumped it up to national-park status in 1994, and it’s been welcoming the cactus-curious ever since. There are more than 25 types of succulents on display, but the giant tree-sized saguaro is the star. Native to the Sonoran desert, it's an anchor for the area's diverse southwestern ecosystem, providing nesting space for birds and serving as food for bats, mammals, and reptiles too. Both park branches combined have more than 165 miles of hiking trails, from accessible walks to seriously strenuous treks; there’s also backcountry camping, cactus gardens in each district, and a petroglyph site boasting more than 200 of the prehistoric rock carvings. Visit from late April to early June to see the saguaro in bloom, and be sure to stay in the park to catch a sunset—between the vibrant sky and the stark desert landscape, it’s a spectacular show. 1-day pass, $20 per car; nps.gov/sagu. 9. Blue Ridge Parkway: North Carolina and Virginia Running 469 miles through the Appalachian countryside, the Blue Ridge Parkway links Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The outcome of a Depression-era public works project that began in 1933, it’s the longest American road conceived as a single stretch. As a "museum of the managed American countryside," the meandering road juxtaposes mountain-top views with lush stretches of forests and streams, passing by rustic log cabins and millionaires’ vacation homes. Construction took decades—the majority wasn’t completed until 1966, and the last 7.7 miles finally opened in 1987. By design, it’s the ideal setting for a leisurely road trip: Speed limits top out at 45 miles per hour, and the route combines stunning natural beauty (alongside opportunities for hiking, kayaking, biking, and more) with history (a center devoted to the region’s traditional old-time music, a working early-1900s mill, a textile magnate’s grand estate) and whimsy (Dinosaur Land!). Check for road closures before you go, and bon voyage.Free; nps.gov/blri. 10. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve: Colorado Colorado is home to the tallest dunes on the continent, and people have been answering their siren song since nomadic Stone Age hunters and gatherers first made their way into the San Luis Valley 11,000 years ago. Modern Native American tribes like the Ute and the Navajo, Spanish and American explorers, Gold Rush hopefuls, homesteaders, and Buffalo soldiers followed in succession, before fears of destruction via mining and industry prompted President Hoover to declare it a national monument in 1932. In 2004, it was expanded into a national park and preserve, and the diverse activities on offer today are a big draw. There are two accessible areas at the edge of the dunes, and the visitors’ center has two sand wheelchairs available to loan. Most of the park and preserve is open for exploration on horseback, and you can sign up for a guided ride or bring your own animals. Rent sandsleds or sandboards from an area outfitter and take to the dunes or hit the road for a fat-bike ride; other options include, but are not limited to, swimming, fishing, hunting (in season), and four-wheel driving. Regardless of how you spend your day, stargazing is a required nighttime activity.7-day pass, $25 per car; nps.gov/grsa.