Valley Forge National Historical Park
Of all the day trips our family has taken in recent years, this trip stands out as one of our favorites. It was one of those days when time seems to stand still, and the whole day seemed like a day dream. We came home with that relaxed, just-did-yoga kind of feeling instead of a weary, overstimulated amusement park kind of feeling. The children initially complained a little about leaving their friends for a day, but once we arrived, they were instantly energized and eager to explore. It certainly helped that the day was beautiful, late in October, mild and sunny. In fact, I recommend you wait for a fair-weather day to take this trip, otherwise it will be hard to take advantage of its many assets.
The site of the famous winter encampment of the Continental Army in 1777-1778, the grounds have been set aside by the Federal government in 1976 to preserve this special place in our nation’s history. Although during the actual occupation the land was ravaged and laid bare, it has been allowed to revert to woodlands and grassy meadows, providing a beautiful oasis to nearby Philadelphia and the Schuylkill River. Besides the emphasis on history, it has become a hotspot for exercisers of all sorts, with a nicely paved 5 mile trail (Joseph Plumb Martin trail) winding through the park. Additionally there is a total of 26 miles of hiking trails located within the perimeter of the park. We saw loads of people hiking, running, bicycling, and horseback riding. My son and I already made plans to come back sometime with our bikes.
You will want to make sure you begin your visit to Valley Forge with a stop at the visitor center. Here you can obtain all the details about the park, times of tours and activities, and an introduction to the history behind Valley Forge. A small, yet thorough museum is located in the building, along with a refreshment area with limited seating (we ate our packed lunch here), a gift shop, and of course restrooms. Climbing the steps will lead you to the rear exit and right to the theater where you can watch a short informational video. The door to the theater is also the meeting spot to take a ranger-led quarter mile walk (only available in-season mid March to end of October). We started our visit with this tour and my two older children enjoyed learning about George Washington and the dilemmas he faced when deciding to bring his troops to this piece of ground (my two youngest played in the rocks and kept themselves happy). Our ranger was very knowledgeable and animated, using the participants to help her role play the material. The tour ended at the Muhlenberg Brigade Huts which is a series of reconstructed crude log cabins which gives the visitor a picture of what life in the encampment looked like. Seasonally, history comes to life here with rangers dressed as Continental soldiers willing to explain their everyday life during the encampment. You may even see how a musket was fired!
Afterwards we were free to explore the rest of the park at our leisure. We took a self-guided driving tour on the “Encampment Tour” which is a 10 mile loop on roads with up to 9 stops. A 90-minute guided trolley tour is also available seasonally, but there is a charge for this. An audio tour and cell phone tour are other options. First we stopped at the National Memorial Arch, the iconic large stone structure that sits on a vista giving panoramic views of the grounds. All of us had a sense of awe at the beauty of this spot, and I felt we could have been happy just sitting there for a long while. The fall foliage really added to the feeling. Even Lilah enjoyed skipping around picking up leaves, and no one wanted to leave when it was time. Next we stopped at Washington’s Headquarters and the Valley Forge Train Station. Another gorgeous and historic setting, we even had a train go by right as we approached the station, much to the delight of my children. The train station was active as a passenger line at one time, but now serves as a museum. An original colonial home next door was George Washington’s temporal living and working space, which has been carefully restored. After touring the home, we moved on to our last stop which was the Washington Memorial Chapel and National Patriots Bell Tower Carillion. This magnificent Episcopal church was constructed in the early twentieth century as a special monument to the patriots, particularly George Washington, that served our country during the encampment at Valley Forge. The church is open for touring, but also continues as an active congregation with weekly services. As a family that has always attended church in modern facilities, we enjoyed a peek inside a neo-Gothic styled sacred place, complete with organ music playing. There is also a café and gift shop behind the church building.
Given more time, we could have stopped at several more points of interest including Varnum’s Quarters, other memorials, and the Artillery Park. Valley Forge contained a little bit of everything I love…nature, exercise trails, historical homes, churches, and national interest, and the best part about it is that other than our gas money, it didn’t cost a dime to visit! Our family will definitely be back again…maybe the spring beauty next time…
Hours: 7AM-Sunset every day, Visitor’s Center is generally 9AM-5PM every day. Check website for special tour and program hours. Seasonal programs finished in October and will resume mid-March.
Admission: FREE (yay for National Parks!) Fee for trolley tours: $17.50/adult, $9.00/children 11 and under
Valley Forge National Historical Park
1400 North Outer Line Drive
King of Prussia, PA 19406