Blue mountains float against a meadow sea, a split-rail fence marking the rolling hills. Hard to imagine that this peaceful site along the southern Pennsylvania border once witnessed the deadliest battle fought on American soil. But with Gettysburg’s grand collection of museums, monuments, and memorials, visitors easily come to understand the big history surrounding this small town. While the famous battle lasted three days, tourists could spend a week taking in all this destination offers (though you can see plenty in a weekend). So whether you’re looking for a full course on the Civil War story or seeking a summary of this chapter in our country’s history, point your camper towards the Keystone State (gain easy access to Gettysburg from interstates 81 and 83) for a fascinating trip into the past.
Before entering the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park, get some background knowledge at The Gettysburg History Center, where a nifty light and sound show narrates the epic 1893 battle. A scale diorama of the landscape also helps illustrate the full picture of this moment in the war. (For more 3D displays, also make your way to the Lincoln Train Museum and the Soldiers National Museum.)
It’s best to budget a full day to tour the battlefield park, which encompasses McPherson Ridge, Little Round Top, a Civil War house, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and more. Begin at the Museum and Visitor Center, where you can pick up a self-guided auto tour or purchase an audio tour to narrate your journey through the sites. For an up-close adventure, visitors can join a ranger-led walking tour or tackle the 40 miles of battlefield road by bike.
Each July brings the Annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactments, complete with live mortar fire demonstrations; an expansive living history village with family-friendly activities; and period costumes, shopping, and food. (With a quick calculation, you’ll realize that park is gearing up for its 150th anniversary celebration in 2013, which promises to be a grand commemoration, so plan accordingly.)
Continue your journey back in time in downtown Gettysburg, where you’ll discover two unique sites along Baltimore Street. Costumed docents at the Shriver House Museum guide patrons through one family’s experiences during the 1893 battle, with artifacts like live bullet cartridges and medical supplies to enhance their account. At the preserved Jennie Wade House and Museum, home to the battle’s one citizen casualty, authentic furnishings give visitors a look into city life during the war.
Not all of Gettysburg’s history is rooted in the Civil War, however. At the Eisenhower National Historic Site adjacent to the battlefield, take a self-guided tour of the 34th President’s house and farm, including the putting green, rose gardens, and skeet range. You can also screen a short video about Eisenhower’s life or a 30-minute program titled “Ike and the Men of D-Day.” And for a curious take on living history, stop into the Hall of Presidents and First Ladies, where a distinctive wax statue collection tells the tales of our country’s government leaders.
With so much to do, plan to stay in the area for at least two nights. Artillery Ridge offers drive-thru camping sites adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park, along with a pool, paddleboats, and other recreational opportunities hookups, as well as full amenities. Round Top Campground and Gettysburg Battlefield Resort are also located at the southern end of the park. To stay nearer town, check into Drummer Boy Camping Resort (to the east on Hanover Rd.) or Gettysburg Campground (to the west on Fairfield Rd.)
If you prefer a more rustic setting, hit the roads outside Gettysburg. In about 30 minutes, you can reach York County’s Codorus State Park to the east or the mountainous Caledonia State Park to the west. Each offers plenty of sites and will immerse you in the lush landscapes for which the region is known.
EAT & DRINK
For casual and quick eats, stop into one of the town’s best diners (I recommend Ernie’s, Lincoln Diner, and The Avenue). For a taste of history, try the Victorian tavern at the historic Farnsworth House Inn or the candlelit colonial Dobbin House restaurant.
Gettysburg also sits directly below the Pennsylvania “Fruit Belt,” which is ripe with orchards and vineyards. Travel Route 30 west to find the seasonal Historic Round Barn and Farm Market, which sells a variety of apples, peaches, and nectarines, along with other gifts and goodies, inside a 1914 Shaker barrel barn.
Nearby, Adams County Winery produces award-winning vintages in the South Mountains. Here you can take in apple, peach, and pear orchards; walk through the vineyards and winery tucked inside a 19th-century Pennsylvania bank barn; and enjoy free samples. Just up the road at the Hauser Estate Winery, sit back and sip inside the glass-enclosed tasting room that overlooks orchards, forests, and farmland.
On your way out of town, consider cruising east into Lancaster County to explore Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Learn about the Amish way of life, make way for horse-drawn carriages, and shop for handmade quilts and wares.
If you prefer a faster pace and the conditions are cool, try Liberty Mountain Resort in Carroll Valley for powdery snow skiing, boarding, and tubing.
And for a larger picture of Civil War history, point your RV north to Harrisburg and visit the National Civil War Museum, which studies the events and emotions surrounding the battles of Bull Run, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Antietam, and Gettysburg.
Picture credits: The picture of the Monument at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park is from the Gettysburg National Military Park. It is in the public domain. The picture of the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitors Center and Museum is from the National Scenic Byways Program website. It is by Bill Dowling and courtesy of Gettysburg National Military Park. It is in the public domain.