With a Chicagoland home base, the distance between great sites of either historical importance or impressive nature experiences can be daunting. That’s not to take away from what the midwest offers – it’s simply that the further east and west one travels, the likelihood of having your mouth drop to the ground rises exponentially.
The mid-Atlantic region is accessible by a day and a half drive and offers boundless opportunities if one is searching for nature, national history, or culture. With few exceptions, one can jump into the trip without a great deal of planning – just get in your car and go.
During this trip, we hit a number of key spots and scratched the surface of some new areas of interest – Shenandoah National Park and Harper’s Ferry National Landmark. We also chose to return to some places we have been to many times – Gettysburg and D.C.’s landmarks, sites which have retained their magic enough for us to revisit.
What is written about here is simply the tip of the iceberg; D.C. alone is worth a lengthy post.
Day 1: Drive from Chicago to Pittsburgh, PA; stay the night.
Day 2: Pittsburgh to Gettysburg, PA; explore and stay in Gettysburg
Day 3: Drive to Hershey, PA; Enjoy Hershey Park; return to Gettysburg; explore and stay
Day 4: Drive to and explore Harper’s Ferry National Landmark; Drive and stay at Harrisonburg, VA
Days 5 and 6: Explore Shenandoah National Park
Day 6: Drive to, explore, and stay in Washington D.C.
Day 7: Explore D.C.; drive to Cuyahoga National Park in OH
Day 8: Explore Cuyahoga Valley National Park; drive home
This trip took place in the summer of 2013.
Getting to Gettysburg, PA
The drive east on I-80 is flat and filled with farmland. Side excursions 20 minutes or less off of I-80 are pretty limited, and it’s about 6 hours until you are in the greater Cleveland area. Cuyahoga County offers up some worthwhile stops, but we’ve found they make for better endings than beginnings.
Since our first planned visit was Gettysburg, the greater Pittsburgh area made for a good rest point for the night; it was an easy drive from there to our primary destination on day 2, aside from some of the mountain driving in the emerald Appalachians. Depending on the route, you may find yourself twisting and turning through the mountains before eventually settling into farm country, which makes for a relaxing entrance to one of America’s hallowed grounds.
Let’s be frank – Gettysburg, whether the myths or facts, holds a cult-like grasp over many of its fervent visitors. It’s not uncommon during key anniversary years for tourists to dwarf the town’s regular population, and due to its proximity to the Beltway and other major metro areas, it is often crowded. The catch is, for anyone with even a cursory interest in American history, this is a “must-visit” area.
Gettysburg National Military Landmark and the town itself are the site of one of the largest battles of the American Civil War. They provide a grand mix of both history and nature. Small museums, historical shops, and cobblestone roads dot the town. My recent visits have been during the summer, and the closer your visit is to the anniversary of the battle (7/1-7/3,) the more likely it will dictate congestion levels, as well as your need to book a hotel room in advance.
Our preference in recent visits has been the ironic serenity of the battlefields. Dozens, if not hundreds, of monuments ring the fields where 150+ years ago were 45,000 casualties – it is impossible to imagine the devastation here if it were not for the eerily haunting essence which permeates the now peaceful fields.
We also took time to explore the cemetery where Lincoln presented the Gettysburg Address, along with a decent stroll through the town to ensure we visited the cyclorama.
A day and half would be a minimum amount of time to scratch the surface, but you could easily fill three full days exploring the city and historic sites.
In addition to Gettysburg, we did take the 1.5 hour drive to Hershey’s Chocolate World, home of the legendary chocolate maker in Hershey, PA. It was a fun, though perhaps unnecessary stop. We enjoyed hearing the history and seeing the grounds, including some gorgeous gardens. We did not go to the Hershey Park amusement park on this trip.
Into Maryland and Onward to Harper’s Ferry
Heading south from Gettysburg into Maryland provides a wealth of choices. In our most recent trip to the Mid-Atlantic, we chose to head to Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park. The roads that lead to Harper’s Ferry, at the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, provide one of the more scenic rides of the Mid-Atlantic region, complete with picturesque, rolling farmlands.
Like almost all of the U.S. National Park system, Harper’s Ferry is well worth the stop, even if only for a few hours. Different areas of the park offer up a similar vibe to Gettysburg, but, in our experience, with sparse crowds.
Upon entering the park, we hopped on the intra-park shuttle bus and visited some of the scenic historic battlefields, punctuated with canons on the surrounding hillsides. Calm and uncrowded, the atmosphere is both solemn and beautiful. Minutes to hours could be spent in the sections of the park where battles once took place.
For us, the treasure of the park was the “lower town.” The historic site of the John Brown rebellion (1859) carries an authentic, antique-like essence. Though modern sidewalks exist, there is no mistaking that this is a town from centuries past. Storefronts, resturants, museums, and some up-hill climbing make up the town center. At the base of the area is the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. An old foot-bridge invites visitors to cross back over to Maryland for a stroll into nature and an opportunity to step onto the famous Appalachian Trail.
This had been an unplanned stop, and thus we only stayed for half a day. That being said I would revisit in a heartbeat – Harper’s Ferry is nothing short of an overlooked gem, whether for the historical setting or the natural beauty.
Shenandoah National Park
Without a doubt, the intended capstone of this trip was Shenandoah National Park, and like most of the U.S. National Parks, words and pictures do little to capture it. Located between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, visitors have the privilege of accessing stunning nature and wildlife a short ride from the Beltway.
For our home base, along the center-west spine of the park, we chose the town of Harrisonburg. With the strong influence of a local college, Harrisonburg provided a chance to restock, grab some decent food, and worked as a launchpad located 40 minutes from the heart of the park.
The park itself, long rather than wide, provided multiple access points, but is built around one main thoroughfare, the Skyline View Drive, which runs southwest to northeast. Along the drive are endless stems providing a mix of forest hikes, gentle meadows, and stunning vistas of the valley below.
Par for the course, we started at the visitor center to get an idea of what hikes would be most appropriate for us. Finding a mix which led us to waterfalls, streams, and quite a few ups and downs along the ridge of the mountains, we were able to avoid the reasonable crowd sizes by taking a few of the hikes that were in the 1-2 mile range. Though it would seem impossible to say you can avoid all crowds staying on the hiking paths, once you’re a few hundred yards away from the parking lots, you can achieve reasonable peace.
One of the other treats of the park is the ability to once again to hike a sliver of the Appalachian Trail. The well-known national hike, stretching from Georgia up to Maine, is a bucket-list experience for the most avid hikers and adventurers.
We spent a solid three days at the park, and most of our hikes were in the central and southern portions. We also had the exciting experience of seeing a black bear exploring our car as we returned from our hikes. Like almost all U.S. National Parks we have visited, a return trip is on the docket for the future.
About an hour and a half southeast from our base in Harrisonburg is the home of the 3rd U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. Like Gettysburg, I had been to this landmark a number of times in the past, but given the closeness, it seemed like a side trip to take advantage of.
If you have been to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in Arlington, VA, you have a general sense of what to expect. One part museum, one part window into the daily life of a major historical figure, and one part amazing setting, Monticello is well worth the crowds and slightly out-of-the-way trip. Guided (and timed) tours pull the curtain back on one of the nation’s forefathers, warts and all. This excursion made sense in the context, and would be recommended if time is not a factor.
What is there to say about this city that a traveler does not already know? From my viewpoint, D.C. is the most intriguing U.S. city I’ve been to – at once, it has all of the touchstones of a major metropolis, plus the bonus of all of the national monuments and history. In addition, the magnetism of D.C. is the fact that it is rapidly ever-evolving. It remains one of my most frequented cities, and in each visit there has always been something new to do. At the same time, the old favorites – Ford’s Theater, the treasure trove of monuments (worth seeing during both the day and at night,) governmental buildings, and the Smithsonian Museums and Campus create one of the most walkable and engaging places one can visit.
I will always be enthralled by the enormity of options a visitor has at their fingertips. For us, the monuments always remain a highlight. The Lincoln Memorial, with its reflection pool, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, Martin Luther King Jr. Monument, F.D.R., WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War markers and monuments can easily fill a day and night, and offer up chance to learn and reflect on about the history of this great experiment – the democracy of the country.
For this trip, we limited our D.C. stay to only one and half days, but one could easily spend a week if history and culture are of interest. As with most large cities, finding reasonably priced accommodations during the summer is a challenge, but their Metro system, extending into local suburbs, provides pretty solid access to many the major landmarks.
The exit out of the D.C. area is a challenge however, with the local interstates and expressways strangled by significant traffic for much of the day. Entering and exiting the city, while well worth it, will test the patience of those traveling by car.
The Road Home – Cuyahoga National Park
Once we made our way out of the 2.5 hours of D.C. traffic, the ride through both Maryland and Pennsylvania was gorgeous farmland. It’s scenes like this that make a road trip – for all its lack of speed – well worth the time and effort. We continued to make our way to the Ohio border for what would be the last major stop of the trip, the oft-overlooked Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Located along the Cuyahoga River, in the 30 or so miles between Cleveland and Akron, this tiny yet beautiful stretch of land offers up choice – walking, hiking, bike riding, and train rides – yes train rides! It is also one of few nature based national parks in the midwest.
The main artery of the park is a 20-something mile path/ road/ river/ train track offering up lots of greenery, trees, lakes, and ponds. Fairly flat, yet providing ample leaf coverage from the heat of the summer sun, this is a perfect spot for a weekend getaway. Small towns pop up a few times along the trail, offering up breaks for food and drink without having to leave the park proper, and without simply having to deal with the typical national park concessions.
Should you choose to leave the main route through the parks, there are multiple stems leading to varied settings, most remarkably the Blue Fen Falls and Brandywine Falls.
Though Cuyahoga may lack the grandeur of national parks out west, the remarkable scenery sits on the cusp of one of the major metro areas in the midwest. While you could capture the park in a day, 2-3 days would not be out of the question. Cuyahoga is a perfect finale to a trip out east if heading back towards the center of the midwest.