Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Overview

Robert Harper started ferrying folks across the Potomac River at this site in 1747.  It had a strategic location at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers where the point of what is now the state of West Virginia meets the border of Maryland and Virginia.  Harpers Ferry is most famous for the 1859 raid led by abolitionist John Brown of Kansas in attempt to seize the federal armory to incite a slave rebellion.  His trial and execution for treason helped foment the Civil War, during which conflict the town changed hands between the two sides an astounding eight times!

Highlights

Historic buildings, museums, Jefferson Rock, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

A portion of the town today is run as a series of museums by the National Park Service (NPS), though other parts remain open for business as restaurants, shops, and inns.  Parking is limited in town, so the NPS runs a shuttle (free with parking fee) two miles from their visitor center.

Best Trail

You can hike into town on the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail that cuts right through the buildings and over the footbridge across the Potomac River.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Jefferson Rock is located just up the hill from town, named for Thomas Jefferson who visited in 1783.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/hafe/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$20 to park at NPS visitor center or free with America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

There is limited parking in town so it is easier to take a shuttle from the NPS visitor center.

Camping

There are multiple private campgrounds in the area, as well as Maryland’s Gambrill State Park.

Related Sites

Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)

Fort Scott National Historic Site (Kansas)

New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)

Explore More – Which famous member of the Corps of Discovery visited the national armory in Harpers Ferry in 1803 before heading to the Pacific Ocean?

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Top 10 National Parks for Social Distancing

With international travel limited in 2020, many Americans are looking to vacation this summer in the country’s amazing National Parks.  The best-known parks often concentrate people at a single attraction with crowded overlooks, so we chose 10 less busy National Parks where it is easy practice social distancing and explore at your own pace, but are also not too hot in the summer (sorry, Death Valley).  For ideas of how to avoid large groups even at the busiest parks, check out our travel guidebook to all 62 National Parks (available on Amazon).

Next week we will choose our Top 10 sites for social distancing from the other 357 National Park Service units (click here to see all our Top 10 lists).

10. White Sands National Park (New Mexico)

Bring your snow sleds and find a dune to play on at America’s newest National Park

9. Great Basin National Park (Nevada)

Cave tours may not be an option, but there are many trails in this seldom-visited mountain range

8. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

You do not even need a trail to explore Conata Basin and other portions of this park filled with wildlife

7. Sequoia National Park (California)

Avoid the crowds at the General Sherman tree and instead wander trails through the Giant Forest

6. Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

You will need a boat to explore these beautiful lakes on the Canadian border

5. Congaree National Park (South Carolina)

This park has 20 miles of forested trails and a creek for canoeing (but prepare for bugs)

4. Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

You may see more bison than people on two scenic drives and several long trails

3. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Colorado)

There are no official trails up this sand mountain (plus, pick up a free permit to camp on the dunes)

2. Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

Skip the trail to the peak and instead hike Dog Canyon and the Permian Reef Geology Trail

…and finally our #1 National Park for social distancing:

1. Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

The numerous trails and canyons have encouraged us to return often to this isolated park

Honorable Mentions

Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)

Other than on the ferry or floatplane flight, there is plenty of room to explore this island

Everglades National Park (Florida)

Avoid the few trails and get into your canoe to experience the park (but prepare for bugs)

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Alaska)

It should be easy to find space in this rarely visited park where the sun never sets in summer

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Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Overview

In a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri is the antebellum plantation (White Haven) of Ulysses S. Grant.  Following his graduation from West Point in 1843, Lieutenant Grant was stationed at nearby Jefferson Barracks.  It was while visiting his former roommate at White Haven that he met Fred Dent’s sister, Julia.  Grant would eventually marry her and together they raised their children here from 1854-59, following his resignation from the U.S. Army.  The family intended to return to the plantation following the Civil War, but Grant’s two terms as President did not allow that to happen.

Highlights

Museum, film, historic house, cannons

Must-Do Activity

A thorough museum housed in the former horse stables provides days’ worth of reading on this controversial General and President.  Opposing arguments are posted around the stables allowing visitors to answer tough questions like, Was Grant a butcher? and Was Grant a corrupt politician?  Access inside the house requires a free guided tour given regularly throughout the day by National Park Service (NPS) rangers.

Best Trail

There is a short walking tour on the ten-acre NPS property.  The neighboring wildlife park named Grant’s Farm (admission fee) contains a log cabin built by Grant in 1855.

Instagram-worthy Photo

During our visit in early April, the redbud trees were in bloom.  Plus, there are cannons to pose with.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm

Fees

None, but a free guided tour (tickets required) is the only way to enter the main house

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

None at the site, but several private campgrounds nearby.

Related Sites

General Grant National Memorial (New York)

Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Missouri)

Gateway Arch National Park (Missouri)

Explore More – Did the family have slaves at White Haven?

Fort Scott National Historic Site

Overview

Near the border of Kansas and Missouri sits Fort Scott, which like Fort Smith (to the south) was an important frontier military post during the Mexican-American War and skirmishes with Plains Indians.  Several buildings were sold off in 1853, two becoming hotels that catered to pro-slavery and anti-slavery clients when this region was dubbed “Bleeding Kansas.”  During the Civil War, the town became a strategic location utilized to quell uprisings and maintain supply lines.  Abandoned by the military after the war, soldiers returned when settlers opposed railroad construction in the 1870s.  This 17-acre historic site was authorized in 1965 but not established as a part of the National Park Service (NPS) system until 1979.

Highlights

Museum, film, Officers’ Quarters, restored tallgrass prairie

Must-Do Activity

The NPS visitor center is located in the old hospital at Fort Scott National Historic Site.  There are 11 original structures here and you can walk through the well-maintained Officers’ Quarters, bake house, and carriage house.  Posted here 1842-1853 were flamboyantly-uniformed dragoons, who were elite fighters on foot or horseback.  Dragoons knew they were only as effective as their horses, so they took good care of them.  In fact, the horse stables remain the largest building at Fort Scott on the edge of the beautifully-landscaped parade ground.

Best Trail

The site may be small and surrounded by roads and development, but it does maintain five acres of restored tallgrass prairie (utilizing controlled burning) with a short nature trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The site is especially pretty in November, when the maple leaves turn red and orange in sharp contrast to the white buildings.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/fosc/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is a city-operated campground about two miles from the fort, as well as several state parks in the region.

Related Sites

Fort Smith National Historic Site (Arkansas-Oklahoma)

Fort Larned National Historic Site (Kansas)

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (Kansas)

Explore More – What are the three architectural styles reflected in the buildings are Fort Scott?

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park

Overview

The first battle of the Mexican-American War took place on May 9, 1846 north of the Rio Grande near present-day Brownsville, Texas.  General Zachary Taylor and a young Ulysses S. Grant (both future presidents) led U.S. troops during this engagement.  Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park was established in 1991 across 3,400 acres, and in 2011 an additional 38 acres were added in the heart of Brownsville to commemorate the Resaca de la Palma Battlefield.  Plus, a few earthen mounds remain of Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown) near a golf course on the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Highlights

Museum, film, cannons, interpretive trail

Must-Do Activity

The 1846 battle was primarily an artillery conflict, so there are many cannons at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park today showing how close the battle lines were.  This skirmish and a subsequent fight at Resaca de la Palma pushed Mexican troops back across the Rio Grande for the remainder of the two-year long war.  History buffs will also be interested in the Civil War history of this region, including the final battle of the war fought May 12-13, 1865 at Palmito Ranch.  Information about all of these sites can be found at the small yet nice visitor center that opened here in 2003. 

Best Trail

A half-mile paved interpretive trail leads through the battlefield from the visitor center.  While here you can also learn about Harris’s hawks, horned lizards, javelinas, and other remarkable species that live in the area and the surrounding Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Instagram-worthy Photo

If you make it to this remote southern corner of the United States, make it a point to take a guided tram tour through Resaca de la Palma State Park.  The park is a great place to see bird species found nowhere else in the country, like the great kiskadee (pictured) and rose-throated becard.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/paal/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for the NPS site, but there is an admission fee at Resaca de la Palma State Park.

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There are several private campgrounds around Brownsville, Texas.

Related Sites

Chamizal National Memorial (Texas)

Big Bend National Park (Texas)

Amistad National Recreation Area (Texas)

Explore More – Who was the president that campaigned on the platform of extending the U.S. border to the Pacific Ocean and subsequently annexed Texas in 1845 (fomenting the Mexican-American War)?