Living in the DC area, we are very fortunate to be so close to many locations that tell the birth of our nation. We’ve tried to take advantage of the proximity by taking our children to DC museums and historical sites, although I admit because we are not fans of the city traffic (DC is the 6th most traffic-congested city in the country), we haven’t done a great job of it. However, there are many places outside of DC that you and your children could benefit from seeing when living or visiting this part of the country. We recently took a four-day, three-night trip to Gettysburg, which was only about an hour-and-a-half away. While there, I found five things I wish I had known beforehand.
1.The Weather Apps are Wrong
Prior to packing, I looked at several sites which forecasted the weather as being hot and sunny the first two days with rain and thunderstorms the last two days. Thus, I packed accordingly. And then I had to buy overpriced T-shirts at the Gettysburg museum! In speaking to locals, it turns out the weather forecasts are pretty much always wrong – by a lot! We saw some rain the second night and were grateful for the few clouds we saw the third day, but that was it. It was hot and humid the rest of the trip.
The solution? I have no idea! But if I were to do it again, I would pack for summer weather with one warmer outfit.
2. The Hotels Don’t Look the Same Online
While researching places to stay, we decided to go with a B&B for the experience rather than the convenience of a hotel. I told my husband to find the most haunted place ever! He did and although we certainly didn’t experience any hauntings, we lucked out in that the Dobbin House turned out to have the highest ratings and was truly a wonderful location. While children will likely want to stay where there is a pool, the B&B was well worth it. The breakfast was far better than hotel buffets and the staff was wonderful. The gift shop was more pricey (more on that later) but they had a few things I didn’t see anywhere else in town.
As we walked around Gettysburg, I noticed many of the hotels we had looked at online appeared to look nothing like they did online but the Dobbin House did. We also were lucky to have gone Labor Day weekend, which meant offseason and they took $200 off our total bill because we had initially been charged summer rates.
3. You Can Buy an Audio Tour, or Download it for Free
At the official Gettysburg park and gift shop, we learned about the audio tour. You can buy a CD and guidebook and tour the massive landmarks via car while listening to Stephen Lang (the bad guy in Avatar) tell you the history of Gettysburg in such a fascinating way, it’s almost like watching a movie.
The full tour is three hours but there are options to do shorter tours. I wanted to do the full tour and my husband wanted to do the shortened tour. We compromised by splitting it into two days so he wouldn’t get as bored trying to do three hours at once. But we discovered that you can bypass the approximately $40 we spent on the CD and download it for free via the Detour App. The App includes GPS instructions in case you get a bit confused by the driving directions from the narrator (although it isn’t that hard as long as you drive when they tell you to and stop when they tell you to).
We are now planning our next short trip based on what else the Detour App has available. One thing I caution about: once you hear the official narration, movies like Gods and Generals and Gettysburg, will slightly irritate you as you will feel like a Gettysburg expert afterward and you can see where the movies took Hollywood liberties. I still think the movies are worth watching if you want to learn as much Gettysburg history as you can while there so that is what we did after dinner via Netflix.
4. If You Want to Book Tours, Do it Early
While there, we tried to find other things to do and going on a ghost tour was not our list of things that sounded interesting. Luckily, there are several horseback options and we tried to book any of them on the days we “thought” it wasn’t going to rain. That is when we discovered how wrong the weather apps were. We were lucky enough to find one location that had openings during our stay but most were booked out at least a month.
We booked the one-hour ride through Gettysburg. You won’t hear as much Gettysburg history during the one-hour option, but I was too busy focusing on not letting my horse eat (you’re not supposed to let them) and looking at my surroundings anyway. It was really cool to ride horseback through the national park, especially since we had already completed the audio tour at this point and we now knew more about Gettysburg than most of America.
The horses also have fun and different personalities so it was relaxing and entertaining to get to know our horses. The horses are very gentle, especially if they have children on them. They do not run so this is not something you want to do if you’re looking for anything but a calm stroll through the park.
There are other tours as well with the national park rangers, our horse guide was also a park ranger, such as stops where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address. Civil War reenactments are done in July so we missed that opportunity.
5. The Gift Shops Offer Mostly the Same Things at Different Prices
As you would expect in a tourist town, there are a lot of gift stores. Most of them offer identical things but with anywhere from $1 to $4 difference. Certainly not a big enough difference for me to price shop and go back to another store. But as you would expect, they’re more expensive at the gift shop on the national park. However, the park gift shop offers things you can’t find anywhere else and so do some of the other shops so I’m glad we stopped at several.
After about six or seven, my husband had seen enough. Thankfully, he found an old collector’s shop owned by a former Marine and there he not only got to talk to a fellow jarhead, he also found unique things that were of interest to him that had nothing to do with the Civil War. And at the other gift shops, I found things for the boys and a few things to decorate my Army office with.
Overall, the experience was exactly what I needed. I wondered why my husband chose four days, which seemed a bit long to me. But it took a day-and-a-half for me to stop thinking about work anyway and let the stress of it all melt away. By the time we got home, I was in full vacation mode and we still had a few days at home before we had to go to work. I’m very much looking forward to the next trip, but this time I won’t let so much time pass before we make getting away become a priority. Staying close to home also meant a not-so-expensive mini vacation.