Pros: An immense and emotional park
Cons: Crowds and commercialism
I'm 53 years old and finally made it to this National Historic site. I would like to return again in four years. Why four years, will be explained later.
WHAT IS GETTYSBURG?
During the time after the great Gold Rush in California that start in 1848 and continued into the 1850's the northern and southern states were at odds with each other over a few different issues. There was a lot of tension building between the two sides.
With the firing on Fort Sumter by southerners the war began. The first shots in return were ordered by then Captain Abner Doubleday. Doubleday played a role in Gettysburg too as a Major General on the first day of the battle. However, he is probably best known and credited for inventing modern day Baseball and its becoming the great American pastime.
The north and south were fighting a fairly even war of which most was fought on Southern soil. The war was going on much too long for some, especially in the north. General Robert E Lee decided to take the war to the north in hopes that victory there might end the war through victory or some kind of agreeable truce.
It happened that the northern and southern troops met face to face in a small town fifty miles north west of Baltimore. It was called Gettysburg.
The battle was three days of the most intense fighting this country has ever experienced. In those three days over 51,000 men were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. These were the bloodiest and most decisive days of the American Civil War.
As mentioned Gettysburg is about fifty miles from Baltimore. That make it a two hour ride from Washington DC. If you are in the north east the Pennsylvania Turnpike is just twenty miles or so north. Taking RT15 south through rolling hills and farmland gets you into town and to the site.
Harrisburg is about forty miles north and has the nearest airport.
Gettysburg is not all that far from Hershey Pennsylvania with its chocolate factories and amusement park. All this in turn is just an hour or so from the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Check out your maps and see if this can be added onto other Pennsylvania points of interest.
Bus tours from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York, and Pittsburgh are available too.
GETTYSBURG FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Having visited many National Parks and Historic Sites I knew the first place to get information and a feel of the area was to go to the Visitors Center. After driving through the historic and quaint town of Gettysburg I made the left turn into the parking lot. I was a bit dismayed at the site being just across the street from wax museums, tour centers, gift shops, motels, and other civil war driven businesses.
It got worse, after walking into the visitors center I felt I was more in a business center. There was one huge long counter on the right. The first fifteen feet or so was dedicated to Park Rangers and Volunteers giving information about the site, programs available and what to do. The rest of the counter, about fifty feet, was a collection of cash registers with cashiers ready to take your money. Behind me was the gift shop. Usually these places are a bit subdued with people quietly looking through books and souvenirs. This place felt like a mini Grand Central Station.
Thankfully there is or will be a happy ending to the feel I had of the place. I'll tell you about that further on.
THE PARK IS FREE, GET OUT THE CASH !!
or credit card. Yes the park is free, but there is a lot to spend on. First the free. You can get a brochure at the counter, one per family please, and go on a self guided tour. The map is a good one. It covers the 18 mile drive that will take you through all the major places of importance. The drive is taken in one direction. Some of the drive is on a one way loop. You can easily get on and back onto it at many points. Realize that over the years Gettysburg, the city, has grown and sprawled into, onto, and over much of the area of Gettysburg, the battle. We are talking about acres upon acres of property. As you drive there will be blue and white stars. These are markers keeping you on the proper roads and stopping at appropriate places.
Each stop is described in the brochure in about fifty words. It's not enough!! You must be a bit prepared to understand what you are reading about and looking at. If you have the time and interest get out a book or two on Gettysburg before your visit. I do understand most people are not THAT interested. That's why they have a fairly inexpensive tape or cd you may purchase at the visitors center. For about $10.00 to $15.00 you are getting a wealth of information. Pop it into your cars audio system and off you go.
Throughout the ride you can find restrooms that are shown on the map. You can do the ride in one trip or you can easily stop for a break at any time.
Be sure to climb to the top of some of the observation towers. These give you a better look at the land.
Also on the map are diagrams showing the placement of troops on the different days of the battle along with commentary describing strategy.
Along the wall of cash registers, I mentioned earlier, was information on bus tours leaving from just outside the north side of the visitors center. It cost 21.00 for a two hour tour. Children are less. Sorry I don't remember the price. There are also, over 64 year old, senior discounts. I took the tour. I was alone being in the area on a business trip.
We boarded the bus. The temperature was about 85 degrees outside. About the same inside but also stuffy. It never did get comfortable. The bus is also available for a three hour tour that covers more ground not just more time. It was pretty much filled up. An official narrator came on board. From what I understand they are somehow approver by the National Parks Service. Anyways, this guy knew his stuff. He was able to bring the area alive with history. We followed the same route of the auto tour but stopped in some of the same and some different spots.
We came off the bus just three times. I would have liked to walk around a bit more on my own. I did at a later time. That experience has its own review.
Just a note. This bus did not take any restroom stops so be sure to make a "pit stop" before boarding. The rest rooms are right where you board.
The bus tour was informative, but I like freedom. The other point is if you have a large family the price adds up VERY QUICKLY. I do have one more option for you if you are willing to spend a bit more money, yet save on the cost of the bus tour times four or five.
At the visitors center are more of these Official tour guides. For about forty dollars one of these people will take you on the tour. You ride in your own car with the guide. The more people the higher the fee. I believe it's sixty dollars for 6-9 people. You definitely can save dollars this way. You also get a bit more personal tour and it can be custom made to your preferences. You can make rest room stops too!
HORSEBACK RIDING TOUR
When touring I noticed people on horseback walking the grounds. A guide was taking them around. The next morning I passed a sign National Stables or the like. I believe it's privately run but it looked like a great way to survey the area.
I didn't see many bikers but I would guess this could be one of the best ways of being immersed in the battlefield. You are on some public roads but none seemed too dangerous. Most is on one way park roads.
There are many tour places along the roads. You will see them. They have packages that will take you on guided tours of the park and also add in a few other places for a price. They can add the Wax Museum, Hall of Presidents and First Ladies, Soldiers National Museum, Jennie Wade House and other places.
While in the visitors center you can pay three dollars adult two dollars child for an overall look at the battle lines with recorded commentary telling about this same strategy. This is on a 25'x25' 3D map on the floor. Seats are on four sides above going up about eight or nine rows. I would guess the room holds about five hundred people. The higher the better to get a good look! Through the use of lights you are shown troop movement. This is one of the ways to get interested in the strategy of the generals these three days. This is about a half an hour long. I wasn't thrilled with it. It seemed more like a 50's theme way to get a few extra dollars. Some people loved it as way to understand the placement of troops. I found another option they had to further enhance the experience, this was by going to the Cyclorama Exhibit Center. More about that in a moment.
EXPLORE THE MUSEUM
While inside the visitors center visit the museum. This is all free. On display are all kinds of civil war pieces. Guns, rifles and cannon are there. Furniture of the time. Uniforms worn by soldiers and officers are seen. There is quite a bit there. This building is air conditioned so on a particularly hot day you can use it to cool down. They have a good cold water fountain downstairs near the rest rooms.
THE GIFT SHOP
In the gift shop are many books on the Civil War. Many other items are available. I always pick up an embroidered parch of every park I visit. I have quite a collection from nearly fory years of visiting these places.
GET YOUR PASSPORT CANCELED
At then register counter of the gift shop are the rubber cancellation stamps to be used in your National Parks Passport. Every park sell these books. They look like a passport and every time you go to a different National Park, Historic site, Monument or Recreation area you can have it ink stamped and canceled. For more information about this wonderful way of collecting parks see my link at the end of this review.
About one hundred yards or so from the visitors center is a big round building that is in the shape of a cupcake. Ha, you can see where my mind is.
Back in the late 1800's a way of bringing history to people was through Cycloramas. These were oil paintings on huge canvas set in a circle in which you, the viewer, are inside of. For a fee of three dollars adult, two dollars for kids, you can see one of the just ten or so left in the world. There are just two in the states.
After walking up a long ramp that circles and enters area of the show you stand up along the railing facing the outside walls. A show is given through narration and lights that illuminate particular parts of the painting pertinent to the narrative. Also heard are the yelling of orders, screams of men, blasts of cannon, and the sounds of dying horses. These are effectively done with a great sound system.
The 26'high and 356' around painting is quite dramatic. I enjoyed this. Though it is dark and noisy I believe the story and the depicted scenes are ok for most children. Some young ones, maybe not. You know your kids, you decide.
A FREE FILM
Also in this building is a short film, about twenty minutes long, talking about the generals, soldiers, and strategies of the three days. It is another way of learning a bit more about these things. The sound was terrible low. This is shown on the half hour and is free.
Also housed in this building are viewing areas. Considered one of the most important points to see from here is the High Water Mark. This is the point where 12,000 southern troops under the direction of General Lee tried to break through the Union lines of 7,000 troops who were dug in on higher ground. They were repulsed by a barrage of cannon and re-enforced federal troops. This is where and when Lee and the Southern army started their retreat. This was July Fourth. I find that interesting that that date marked the start of the end of the war where the south was looking for its independence. In this case a united north and south have continued on to make this great nation that declared its independence July Fourth 1776.
There is a path from the air conditioned Cyclorama Center that is marked High Water Mark Trail. Take this short walk and get a bit more of the history out in front of you.
GETTYSBURG NATIONAL CEMETERY
Back just across the road from the Visitors center is the Gettysburg National Cemetery. This is a must stop. I thought it more meaningful after learning more about the battle and the men involved though the tours and other educational tools at the park. It starts with the Lincoln Speech Memorial. I thought this interesting. I never knew that the speech was honored in such a way. You know the beginning of it. "Four Score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal........"
It is this speech that changed the battle field from one of death and carnage to one of great hope in that the sacrifice of the dead raises the spirit of the living.
Continuing on this half hour or so walk is one that gave me more of a realization of what our nation and its peoples went through during this time. This is a walk of quiet whispering and great respect. Try to do it early in the day or in the late evening hours when things are quieter and the sun is not as hot. The long shadows also help in making more dramatic photos.
There is a supplement map of the National Cemetery Walking Tour available in the visitors center. It gives information of what you are seeing in a very clear and concise manor.
GETTYSBURG THE TOWN
Driving through Gettysburg to get to the park was slow yet enjoyable. Rt30, that goes through town, is a main truckers, and traffic route. It can and does get backed up.
The road with brick sidewalks and American flag lined streets brings you into the middle of Americana, Lincoln Square. It is around the traffic circle that all roads lead to. There were tulips just breaking the ground. This is a well kept and inviting area.
PLACES TO EAT
There are plenty of places to eat in town. I enjoyed the Pub, that's the name of it, right on the square. Good beer and good food! There are plenty of family restaurants in town and on the roads leading in. Choices of many American ,Italian and Chinese foods are within a block of the square.
Every fast food and family restaurants are there. I saw Hardee's, Wendy's, Mc Donald's, KFC, Burger King, Subways, Friendly's, Hoss's, Ruby Tuesday, Perkins, Arby's and a host of non chain eateries.
For finer dining I did walk into the Gettysburg Hotel right on Lincoln Square. Their small, perhaps fifteen table, dining room had a very romantic feel to it. I like Prime Rib so I checked out the price $21.00, you take it from there.
PLACES TO STAY
The Gettysburg hotel, run by Best Western really had a great look to it. It is a landmark hotel established in 1797. Most of it has been rebuilt and annexed to other buildings. It's a GREAT location on the Square and looks well maintained, and clean.
If you are into shopping this is the place to go from. All along the streets are book shops, antique shops, jewelry stores, ice cream shops, and the like.
I stayed at a Hampton Inn just five minutes out of town. See my review if you are interested. Just like the food places you will find just about every motel chain rooms in and around town. Here's a partial list Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn, Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Country Inn, Travel Lodge, Best Western, Days Inn and Quality Inn. The last two I remember being right next to or just across from the park if location interest you.
I did pass many places. There was a KOA, Beckly's Campground, Granite Hill Campground, and a particularly interesting place called Artillery Ridge Camping Resort. That one was just minutes from the park. In fact it's probably what was part of the original battlefield. While driving I didn't note how close or far the others were, call and ask.
It seemed to me that the Park Service made as much of the Buildings and grounds Handicapped Accessible. Ramps, stair lifts, and special restrooms were all around.
I didn't tell you not to try and read the words on every monument in the park. There are over 1,300 of them on the grounds. If you do search them all out you had better make reservations at a motel for a week or so.
I noted earlier that I would like to come back another time. At one point, actually when I was about to leave, I mentioned my feelings about the commercial look of the visiting center. The gentleman smiled and said come on back in four years. It seems that some major changes will be happening. The Visitors Center and Cyclorama will be torn down and rebuilt in a different part of the park, away from the road. It will also have changes in how it is designed in reference to the look, the feel, and traffic flow. Ha, not all those cash register either.
Where these buildings now stand are an important part of the battlefield. After the buildings are razed this area will be brought back to its natural state. Perhaps this will also bring more peace to the souls in the nearby cemetery. I know I am very happy to hear of these changes.
EISENHOWER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Another place of great interest to some, it was to me, was the Eisenhower National Historic Site. For a fee of $7.00, paid in the business center, sorry, Visitors Center, you get to take a tour of The Eisenhower Farm. It's just a six minute ride to it. You stay as long as you like till 5:00pm closing. His home, barn, and grounds are all open for inspection. You are given information for self guided tours. There is a short film of his life in the book store and exhibit center. You can also get your National Passport canceled here too.
Eisenhower was very proud of the farm and used it to entertain many world dignitaries of the time. It was also his "White House" where he did work and do presidential business while recovering from a heart attack.
Gettysburg is one of the top historic sites to see in the US. If you are able take at least two days. The first doing the visitors center and a few of the other buildings topped off with a bus tour. The next day with fresh knowledge learned get up at day break and make your way to Little Round Top and just sit there and think of what this world may have been like if the battles and war went differently. Continue doing a self guided tour. It's the best way to visit after you have touched the other bases of the site.
I would like to close with the last few words of Lincoln's Gettysburg address.
"--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Visit Gettysburg - our children, and our children's children, need to know of these words and deeds.
Gettysburg National Military Park is listed in the book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die It's good reading and dreaming.
Other reviews by popsrocks
Gettysburg Electric Map
Hampton Inn, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Gettysburg National Military Park
Pennsylvania Dutch Country
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania
Passport to your National Parks, A way to collect parks
Some History about our National Park System and things to know