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Frugal Fun: Hiking Civil War Trails

April 16th, 2014 at 11:33 am

I have to count myself lucky living in Virginia. This state is ground zero for the Civil War. That has made it super easy for me to find lots of places to get hiking exercise, enjoy nature and learn history all at the same time. Going to those places gets me out of the house. But doing civil war hiking "right" is a travel project I have to plan for. Here is what I do.

Each month (between April and November) I pick out a Civil War battlefield to explore. It could be a National Park like Antietam, a Virginia State Park like Staunton River, a county-level park like Cold Harbor, or even a privately preserved battlefield like First Day Chancellorsville. Once I have targeted a site, I pick out a motel for the one-to-two night trip. And then I get down to some serious research because I want to go prepared to really understand the ground I will be hiking.

First stop on the internet is the website for the park I will be going to. Second stop is the Civil War Trust website. Between those 2 websites and the links I will find on them, I will end up with a very respectable list of articles about the battle and -- most importantly -- battle maps and hiking trail guides. I will preview all this material a day or two before my trip, planning out which of the battlefield trails to do and in what order. And I will be set to go.

Upon arriving at the battlefield, my first stop will be the visitor center (or kiosk) if there is one. Often, a short film on the battle will be showing at set intervals. Or a narrated dynamic 3-dimensional battlefield map presentation will effectively show how the opposing forces moved and how the battle developed. And almost always there is a booklet to buy giving an in-depth account of the battle. It all contributes to the pre-hike mental immersion in the battle that I make part of my overall experience.

The rest of my first day at the battlefield I will spend getting a "preview" of the battle by driving around the site and walking some of the shorter trails. Then it is onward to the motel, where I will spend the evening undergoing that in-depth immersion by drilling into and crossreferencing all the battlefield maps and background information I have gathered together.

Doing that total immersion gets me psyched up for the next day's heavy duty hiking*. And gives me the knowledge I need to identify and prioritize which trails to be sure to do (because very often there are just too many more miles of trails than I have stamina to hike them).

The second (and sometimes the third) day of my Civil War excursion will be full-on hiking*. Clipboarded trail guide and battle map in hand, binocular and camera pouches on my belt, I will cover as many trails as I can. Trails where I walk the same ground that an advancing unit covered as it approached the enemy entrenchments. Trails that take me to key positions or high-ground vantage points from where I can visualize the ebb and flow of the conflict as the day of battle wore on. And there are always trail markers at significant spots, adding explanation and color to my first-hand re-experiencing of an armed engagement 150 years or so in the past.

It is all great fun to me. The hiking is good exercise. It is almost always over hills and through woods that put me in touch with nature. And it takes the history reading I have done about the battle and makes it vividly real and a lot more understandable.

And, of course, it is also frugal as all get out. With both national and state lifetime park passes, I pay no entrance fees. With the right combination of motel and bring-along supplies, my full travel cost for a 2-day, one-night outing is less than $100 (and maybe $160 total if I am doing an extra night). Loads of fun for little money. What else could I ask for?

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*My Love Affair With Hiking:
http://retired-to-win.savingadvice.com/2013/12/23/my-love-af...

10 Responses to “Frugal Fun: Hiking Civil War Trails”

  1. creditcardfree Says:

    Virginia is beautiful. I've been there once when my husband was at Ft Lee. He has seen done some staff rides to visit some of the history of the area. Enjoy!!

  2. Mooshocker Says:

    Having spent four years stationed in the Pentagon, I had the great honor of visiting some of these hallowed grounds. Thanks for bringing a memorable smile to my face and from one civil war buff to another, might I suggest the book None Died In Vain by Robert Leckie. In fact, I would be more than happy to loan it to you if you would like. My email is jshoemaker71@yahoo.com. Feel free to drop me your address and I'll get it out to you asap. Jamie

  3. CB in the City Says:

    You are going about it the right way to do your research first. I visited the battlefield at Yorktown but got nothing out of it because I didn't know what to look for! It just looked like grass to me.

  4. Petunia 100 Says:

    How fun! I have visited Virginia just once, but remember seeing the outlines of trenches dug into the ground, and a cannonball still imbedded in an old church wall. I just love that sort of thing. Smile

  5. snafu Says:

    I've had two opportunities to tour/hike/ immerse in research civil war sites and look at the crosses that identify where individual soldiers died. I'd made it a point to watch the Ken Burn's Civil War series to try to understand the 'why's'. It was 238 years ago and I still don't understand why men send their sons to die. Spent a couple of months in southern states, no such 'celebration.'

    Different backgrounds, history, experiences and values...I found it so horrifying that all these young men died. It was all too real. I've walked the killing fields in Cambodia and had the same feeling about how pointless Pol Pot's killings were. Working in Vietnam I'd wondered again and again why the soldiers came from far away to kill these gentle people. There are still fields laced with bombs blowing limbs off farmers and their small children in VN and Cambodia.

  6. Retired To Win Says:

    creditcardfree Says:

    "Virginia is beautiful. I've been there once when my husband was at Ft Lee. He has even done some staff rides to visit some of the history of the area. Enjoy!! "


    Thanks. I DO. Smile

  7. Retired To Win Says:

    Mooshocker Says:

    "... might I suggest the book None Died In Vain by Robert Leckie. In fact, I would be more than happy to loan it to you if you would like. My email is jshoemaker71@yahoo.com. Feel free to drop me your address and I'll get it out to you asap. Jamie "


    Thanks, Jamie. I will. Smile

  8. Retired To Win Says:

    CB in the City Says:

    "You are going about it the right way to do your research first. I visited the battlefield at Yorktown but got nothing out of it because I didn't know what to look for! It just looked like grass to me."


    That is what happened to me the first time I visited Gettysburg. Lots of monuments, but no connection. When I did go prepared... HOLY COW!

  9. Retired To Win Says:

    Petunia 100 Says:

    "How fun! I have visited Virginia just once, but remember seeing the outlines of trenches dug into the ground, and a cannonball still imbedded in an old church wall. I just love that sort of thing."


    I guess you know I do too! Big Grin

  10. Retired To Win Says:

    snafu Says:

    "...It was 238 years ago and I still don't understand why men send their sons to die... Different backgrounds, history, experiences and values...."


    Snafu, the Pol Pot horror and Vietnam were a completely different thing from the Civil War. Then, men were not sending their sons to die; fathers and sons alike were going forth willingly to fight for what they believed in -- and what they believed in, to both sides, was real enough and important enough to risk dying for. NOT the same thing at all. No, no. Frown

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