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Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

Overview

You may not recall the 1876 battle at the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana, but most Americans (even children) recognize its label “Custer’s Last Stand.”  For such a relatively minor skirmish in the bloody 1800s, it has an outsized legend that only grows with time.  At this site more than 140 years ago, a large portion of the 7th U.S. Cavalry met their demise for tactical reasons still debated to this day.  The blame is generally placed upon Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer who was believed to be jockeying for a presidential nomination in the 1876 election.  Today this National Park Service (NPS) site is located on the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana, just off Interstate 90.

Highlights

Museum, Custer National Cemetery, driving tour, Last Stand Hill, Indian Memorial

Must-Do Activity

On June 25, 1876, with only 600 soldiers, Custer attempted to defeat a temporary village composed of multiple tribes numbering over 7,000 individuals.  Never before had so large an American Indian encampment been collected anywhere on the Great Plains.  Renowned war chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Two Moons, and many others have their words memorialized at the Indian Memorial, not built at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument until 1997 near the mass grave on Last Stand Hill.  Be sure to come in late June for the opportunity to witness a historical reenactment of the famous battle, which is held on the Crow Indian Reservation adjacent to the 765-acre National Monument.

Best Trail

None

Instagram-worthy Photo

The Battle of the Little Bighorn Reenactment is a two-hour, fully narrated presentation explaining the significance of the Battle of the Greasy Grass (as the American Indians call it).  The site of the reenactment is a ford where Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s battalion came closest to the encampment where 1,800 warriors of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe Nations were gathered to protect their families.  American Indian riders go bareback, leaping on and off their ponies with ease, while saddled 7th U.S. Cavalry re-enactors splash through the fast-flowing Little Bighorn River astride powerful horses.

Peak Season

Summer (the best time of year to visit is around the June 25 anniversary when a reenactment of the battle is held)

Hours

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

Fees

$25 per vehicle or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is a small, private campground at the exit from Interstate 90, but the nearest NPS campground is 40 miles away at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

Related Sites

Washita Battlefield National Historic Site (Oklahoma)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Devils Tower National Monument (Wyoming)

Explore More – When was Custer National Cemetery originally established and when did it become part of a National Monument?

Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Overview

While there was some limited European settlement on the west coast prior to her journey, the popularization of the Oregon Trail for families can be traced to publication of the letters of Narcissa Whitman after her journey in 1836.  While in the Black Hills she wrote, “It is astonishing how well we get along with our wagons where there are no roads.  I think I may say it is easier traveling here than on any turnpike in the States.”  Narcissa came with her doctor husband and other Protestants to establish missions among the American Indians.  The Whitmans did much to open the west to emigrant families and you can visit their graves at this 138-acre National Park Service (NPS) site in Walla Walla, Washington.

Highlights

Museum, film, millpond, Whitman Memorial, Oregon National Historic Trail

Must-Do Activity

The Whitmans set up near Waiilatpu, which translates to “place of the people of the rye grass.”  The main Oregon Trail would eventually detour south of their mission, but the couple would still care for stragglers, even adopting 10 children.  Following a devastating 1847 measles epidemic they and eleven others were killed by grieving Cayuse families who blamed the doctor for poisoning them.  News of the November 29 attack and subsequent retaliations spurred Congress to create the Oregon Territory within the year. 

Best Trail

A self-guided interpretive trail leads up to an overlook of Waiilatpu from atop the Whitman Memorial hill.  The trail passes a restored millpond and the Great Grave where 13 victims were buried in 1847, including Narcissa Whitman and her husband.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A portion of the Oregon Trail passed through Waiilatpu until rerouted south after 1844.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is not an NPS campground, but private campgrounds are located in Walla Walla, Washington.

Related Sites

Fort Vancouver National Historic Site (Washington)

Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (Washington)

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (Oregon-Washington)

Explore More – In addition to those killed in the attack at Whitman Mission on November 29, 1847, how many others were held hostage for a month until their ransom was paid?

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

Overview

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is composed of two separate sites located 14 miles apart in Johnson City and Stonewall, Texas.  Museums here highlight the significant legislation that passed during his presidency from 1963-1969, including the pivotal Civil Rights Act, and, for nature lovers, the Wilderness Act.  Additions to the National Park Service (NPS) system during his presidency were extensive, including five sites in his home state of Texas (see Related Sites below).

Highlights

Johnson Settlement, films, Texas White House, Johnson Family Cemetery

Must-Do Activity

The 36th President of the United States is typically referred to as LBJ.  Birders know an “LBJ” as an acronym for those hard to identify “little brown jobs” that flit away before you can focus them in your binoculars.  Fittingly, President LBJ’s wife was named Lady Bird, and together they did much to preserve our public lands for native plants and animals.  Around the boyhood home where LBJ grew up in Johnson City, there are plenty of birds to watch, as well as longhorn cattle.  A driving tour through the Stonewall property (14 miles west) requires a permit from the LBJ State Park and Historic Site.  Once you get that, tickets for a guided tour of the Texas White House are available at the NPS visitor center located inside the Airplane Hangar.

Best Trail

A walking tour through Johnson City includes stops at Withers and Spauldings General Store, LBJ’s boyhood home, and barns and cabins that date back to the 1800s within the Johnson Settlement.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Longhorn cattle can be seen at the Johnson Settlement in Johnson City, Texas.  Hereford cattle are still raised at the working ranch in Stonewall.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

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

Fees

None except for the Texas White House tour ($3 per person or free with the America the Beautiful pass)

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

East of Johnson City, Pedernales Falls State Park has a campground, as does Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Related Sites

Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas)

Padre Island National Seashore (Texas)

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (Texas)

Explore More – Which resort in Florida (later owned by a future U.S. President) was designated a National Historic Site under the Johnson administration (then eventually sold and disbanded)?

Martin Van Buren National Historic Site

Overview

Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States and the first to be born after it became a country in 1776.  The “little magician” started as a tavern-keeper’s son in Kinderhook, New York, then worked his way up to state senator, state attorney general, U.S. senator, governor, secretary of state, vice president, and president from 1837 to 1841.  During his presidency, he purchased the estate of “Lindenwald” (named for its linden or basswood trees) in his hometown and ran his unsuccessful presidential campaigns of 1844 and 1848 from there. 

Highlights

Lindenwald mansion, film, Kinderhook Dutch Reformed Cemetery

Must-Do Activity

National Park Service (NPS) rangers provide free guided tours inside the 36-room Gothic Revival mansion where Martin Van Buren lived from 1841 until his death in 1862.  One highlight is the elaborate French wallpaper in the dining room depicting a hunting scene.  We were assured by our tour guide that it is an apocryphal story that the saying “O.K.” came from Van Buren’s nickname “Old Kinderhook.”  We are still not convinced.

Best Trail

A 0.75-mile interpretive trail winds through some of the park’s 300 acres.  You can also visit Martin Van Buren’s grave by driving to Kinderhook Dutch Reformed Cemetery.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The lighting can be difficult for photography inside the mansion, but be sure to snap a picture of the many levels of stairs inside.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

Lake Taghkanic State Park offers a campground 15 miles southeast of Kinderhook, New York.

Related Sites

Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site (New York)

Fort Stanwix National Monument (New York)

Saratoga National Historical Park (New York)

Explore More – Martin Van Buren helped establish the Democratic party, but he ran for president in 1848 as the nominee for what other political party?

Fort Donelson National Battlefield

Overview

Fort Donelson National Battlefield commemorates the first major Union victory of the Civil War.  It quickly followed the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River (which is now flooded by Kentucky Lake).  The battle earned Union General U.S. Grant fame for his reply to Confederate General Simon Buckner: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.”  This led to the joke that his initials stood for “Unconditional Surrender.”  After more than 12,000 Confederate troops were taken prisoner on February 16, 1862, the Union army soon took Nashville, Tennessee.

Highlights

Dover Hotel, Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, cannons

Must-Do Activity

Visitors today can take a six-mile driving tour to see the rifle pits, lower river battery, and earthworks along the Cumberland River, in addition to an exhibit on the first floor of the Dover Hotel (where terms of surrender were signed).  This hilly riverside park is also a nice place to exercise and watch for bald eagles and other wildlife. Fort Donelson National Cemetery is located nearby.

Best Trail

Fort Donelson National Battlefield is neighbors with Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.  Tucked between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, this area was claimed through eminent domain by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) when dams were built.  Outdoor recreation is now the focus with reservoirs, trails, bison and elk herds, a living history museum, and a planetarium.  Also, there are more than 200 cemeteries in this 170,000-acre area.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Giant cannons are mounted in the lower river battery along the Cumberland River.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

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

Fees

None for the National Battlefield, but there are entry fees for portions of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There are numerous campgrounds in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, as well as at Paris Landing State Park.

Related Sites

Shiloh National Military Park (Tennessee)

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (Tennessee)

Mammoth Cave National Park (Kentucky)

Explore More – Fort Donelson and which other nearby fort were havens for escaped slaves later in the Civil War?