Living in The First State as we do my children are growing up surrounded by physical landmarks of the American Revolution. Nothing removes time and distance more than experiencing these places firsthand, as we did on our family visit to Valley Forge National Historic Park this past spring.
We started our day at the Visitor’s Center, which I would recommend. You can pick up maps and other information about the park and ask questions of the staff. From there, a ranger-led tour will take you about a quarter of a mile up the hill to the reproductions of the huts once inhabited by the Muhlenberg Brigade. Although this tour isn’t long, we actually learned a lot about Valley Forge history including what the winter of 1777-78 was like for the troops who hunkered down there. It’s clear that the mission of the interpreters at the park (as well as all of the printed materials you’ll find there) is to change the impression that the winter at Valley Forge was harsh and that the soldiers’ morale was particularly low. In fact is that more soldiers died of disease at Valley Forge than of cold or starvation because the winter was actually mild and sanitary conditions weren’t good as a consequence. Of note also is the fact that Valley Forge is where Washington’s Army really became professionalized under the oversight of Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, a former Prussian Army officer.
The encampment was fully staffed with costumed interpreters. The boys spent a long time playing with various 18th-century toys.
I especially enjoyed watching these boys learn how to split a piece of wood. (And let’s just say it’s a good thing that no one was actually depending on them to supply kindling since it took them about 20 minutes just to break this one piece!)
We easily spent an hour watching, playing, listening, and learning from the interpreters before the boys were ready to move on. After lunch at one of the designated picnic areas around the park (where we found tables, grills, and a restroom) we spent about an hour walking a path through rolling meadows of sweet grass and wildflowers and attempting unsuccessfully to find a geocache before heading over to Washington’s Headquarters.
This used to be the main arrival point in the park, when visitors took the train to get there. The pillared station is now a small museum offering more information about Washington, Von Steuben, and other historical figures important to the stay at Valley Forge and the training of the army. It also makes a good place to cool off and rest a bit while watching some informative videos.
Next to the chapel itself sits the National Patriots Bell Tower, which houses an impressive carillon (if you’re lucky, you’ll have a chance to hear a concert). There’s lots to look at here, including the Justice Bell, a replica of the Liberty Bell, which was cast by suffragettes and carried around the country to be paraded at rallies as a symbol of the battle for women’s right to vote.
There’s a small shop behind the chapel where we fortified the boys with ice cream before exploring the rest of the grounds. The cloisters include bays for each of the 13 original colonies and a moving memorial to “the mothers of the nation”.
We ended our day with a late-afternoon drive around the remaining areas of the park we hadn’t yet seen, including the National Memorial Arch where on a warm spring evening numerous couples were having their wedding photos taken. We chose to simply look at the various statues and fortifications, but had we chosen to we could have availed ourselves of the cell phone tour.
- Skip the movie at the Visitor’s Center and take a tour, talk to interpreters, or pick up printed materials instead – your time will be better spent that way.
- During the summer, the tours and historical interpretations take place daily; in the fall and spring only on the weekends. The Things to Do page on the park website has links to lists of what’s available and when during each season.
- It’s possible to use your car to visit the major sites of the park (which is what we did) but in the summer the park runs a free hop-on/hop-off shuttle service every 20 minutes throughout the day.
- You could easily spend an entire day just hiking or biking around the park. A 6.6-mile paved path connects the main historic sites and there are other hiking trails as well, some of which allow horseback riding. You can rent bikes in the parking lot by the Visitor’s Center.
- If you’re looking for dinner after your historical outdoor adventure, you might do as we did and drive ten minutes into Paoli to TJ’s Restaurant and Drinkery, so called because of its impressive collection of on-tap beers.
Valley Forge is a national park and one of the things that makes me proud of being an American is the fact that 3500 acres in a very densely populated area of the Philadelphia suburbs has been preserved and left as open space that anyone can visit for free. Judging from the number of people we saw enjoying themselves there, this is a very well-used and well-loved reminder of our shared heritage. It’s also a great place to visit with kids.