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NPCA Expert Travel Insights

An Insider's Guide to Gettysburg & Beyond

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NPCA Expert Travel Insights: An Insider's Guide to Gettysburg & Beyond

Whether you’re interested in the Civil War or just looking for a scenic drive through vibrant downtowns and bucolic countryside, Gettysburg and its surroundings will immerse you in American history.

Nearly a million visitors a year come to Gettysburg National Military Park, where battlefields and memorials cover some 6,000 acres of rolling land just five miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. The site of one of the most consequential battles and most influential speeches in American history, Gettysburg shaped the country as we see it today.

Gettysburg National Military Park was established in 1895 to commemorate an 1863 battle that turned the tides of the Civil War. Situated in rural southern Pennsylvania, this landscape was once a hub for settlers, travelers and traders before bearing witness to the war’s deadliest clash. Today, the park all but surrounds the town of Gettysburg and features 1,300 monuments, 400 cannons and nearly 150 historic buildings. The park also provides diverse habitats that support a range of plants and animals, including the highest density of red-headed woodpeckers of any monitored site in Pennsylvania.

The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to maintain the landscapes as they were more than 150 years ago, giving visitors a true sense of the land, community life during the war, and the impact the surge of Confederate and Union forces had on these now-storied places. This history has long been told through the lens of white generals and soldiers, but the park and its environs also highlight the important role that both free and enslaved Africans and African Americans played in and outside of the war. NPCA has actively sought to help the park retain its historic character by fighting incompatible development, such as proposals for a nearby casino, and supporting the Park Service in its efforts to maintain a landscape true to its wartime appearance.

Where to Begin

For millions of residents of the Mid-Atlantic region, Gettysburg is a relatively short drive away — 75 minutes from Baltimore, 90 minutes from Washington, and 150 minutes from Philadelphia. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital city, is just a 45-minute drive from the park. Most visitors opt to drive to Gettysburg, but the park is also accessible via public transportation by taking Amtrak to Harrisburg and hopping on the commuters’ Rabbit Transit.

Gettysburg National Military Park has no entrance fee. Visitors are welcome to tour the grounds and the Gettysburg National Cemetery, though hours of operation vary minimally from season to season. Find more details on the Park Service Website. To make the most of your visit, the Park Service suggests you start with a tour of the museum and visitor center off Baltimore Pike (admission fees for exhibits apply).

Highlights

It is estimated that the Battle of Gettysburg saw more than 51,000 casualties — nearly a third of all forces engaged — and many of the park’s highlights are dedicated to memorializing their sacrifice. Other notable features include both historic structures and contemporary facilities that help modern-day visitors understand the rich history of Gettysburg’s hallowed ground.

NPCA AT WORK: GETTYSBURG

NPCA has been a leader in numerous successful campaigns to protect and enhance Gettysburg, including: preventing a casino from being developed; taking down an observation tower that loomed high over the middle of the battlefield and was neither historically accurate nor consistent with the park’s historic character and meaning; and advocating for the Park Service to manage the park to retain its 1863 appearance.

  • Cyclorama Painting of the Battle of Gettysburg: A National Historic Object, this is one of the few remaining examples of leading-edge 19th-century communications technology: a 360-degree painting depicting Pickett’s Charge, the climactic Confederate attack on Union forces on July 3, 1863.
  • State of Pennsylvania Monument: Commemorating the more than 34,500 Pennsylvanians who fought here, this is the largest state monument on the battlefield. Walk up the stairs for a spectacular view of the battlefield and cemetery.
  • Battlefield Towers: Three tree-top-height towers, which provide a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield, are artifacts from the U.S. Army’s management of Gettysburg.
  • Dobbin House: This Underground Railroad site (now a tavern) on Steinwehr Avenue is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • David Wills House: The National Park Service owns this historic home (now a museum) in downtown Gettysburg where Lincoln spent the night before delivering the Gettysburg Address.
  • Gettysburg Train Station: Also known as the Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station, this building served as a field hospital following the battle of Gettysburg and is the train station where crowds gathered to welcome President Lincoln’s arrival in November 1863. NPCA successfully advocated to add this site to the national park in 2014.
  • Gettysburg College: Now home to the Civil War Institute, the college served as a hospital during and after the battle.
  • Lincoln Cemetery: This lesser-known cemetery was a burial place for African Americans during the era of segregation. It is the resting place for around 30 African American troops who fought and died during or after the war but were not allowed in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
  • Evergreen Cemetery: This burial ground was established during segregated times for white residents in Gettysburg and features the only female statue on the battlefield: that of Elizabeth Thorn, the wife of the cemetery’s caretaker.
  • Gettysburg National Cemetery: Dedicated by President Lincoln in November 1863, this is the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s also the site of Lincoln’s 271-word Gettysburg Address, which succinctly reframed the war’s purpose and meaning.
  • Abraham Brian House: Standing on Cemetery Ridge, this small farmhouse was owned and occupied by a free Black man, his wife and their five children. One of the relatively few African Americans in Adams County at the time, Brian was a successful farmer and business owner whose property became part of Pickett’s Charge.
  • Eternal Light Peace Memorial: Located on Oak Hill, this memorial features an eternal flame, dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938. President Kennedy visited the site during the battle’s centennial, and it was an inspiration for the Eternal Flame at President Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Plan Ahead

If you’re a history buff and want an in-depth understanding of the battle, reserve a licensed battlefield guide. Typical tours last 2 hours and can be done by car, motor coach or bike. Visit the Gettysburg Foundation’s website for more details. Alternatively, go it alone with a self-guided map from the information desk at the museum and visitor center.

If you plan to tour the museum and visitor center, you must leave all backpacks and similarly sized items outside or secured in your vehicle. Only bags with medical equipment, cameras or baby items are permitted.

As with any outdoor experience, pack and dress accordingly. Comfortable shoes, sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen and bug spray are recommended. Ticks can be common from late spring through fall, so consider wearing long pants and long sleeves.

The National Park Service hosts living history programs on weekends from April through October that feature Civil War reenactors and historians, from an abolitionist inviting you to sign a petition to end slavery to a musician playing taps on a battle-worn cornet.

November 19 marks the anniversary of the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg where Lincoln gave his famous address, and the site hosts numerous events in recognition of the anniversary each year.

Always dreamed of riding horseback across a battlefield? Bridle trails riddle the Gettysburg landscape. Though the park does not offer horseback rides, several private companies do. Find out more at Destination Gettysburg.

Stay Overnight

Lodging options are plentiful, with many historic inns, charming B&Bs, and local and chain hotels in the area. Larger groups have a unique opportunity: The Park Service recently renovated the Bushman House to serve as overnight accommodations. The house, which witnessed the battle of Gettysburg, can only be reserved in its entirety.

Gettysburg does not offer traditional campgrounds. However, if you’re trying to plan a trip for an organized youth group, you can reserve the nearby McMillan Woods Youth Campground from April through October. Reservations are first come, first served through Recreation.gov.

Weather

The park experiences all four seasons, and a prepared visitor can enjoy it in any month. The battle occurred July 1-3, which tends to be a hot and humid time to visit. Temperatures can easily exceed the mid-80s during the summer, with heavier-than-average crowds. In the winter, you’ll want to dress appropriately (with layers, hats, gloves and boots) and monitor the weather and road conditions before setting out.

Travel Responsibly

Pack in, pack out and follow Leave No Trace practices. Pets must be on leashes of 6 feet or less at all times and are not allowed in the National Cemetery or the Museum and Visitor Center. Pet owners should bear in mind that there is minimal shade in much of the park; leaving your dog unattended in a car is highly inadvisable.

Beyond the Boundary


  • Eisenhower National Historic Site: Located adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park, this farmhouse was the only home that President and First Lady Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower owned. It served as a weekend retreat and as a meeting place for world leaders, such as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who faced off with President Eisenhower during the Cold War.
  • Monocacy National Battlefield: The site where Union forces, outnumbered three to one by the Confederacy, lost a battle but helped buy time for additional Union support to save Washington, D.C., from being captured in 1864.
  • Catoctin Mountain Park: This Maryland park features three camps built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. One of these camps now serves as the presidential retreat Camp David, site of the 1978 Camp David Accords, although it is not open to the public.
  • Point of Rocks: Point of Rocks (POR) has been an important crossroads of travel since American Indians established routes through the region. Though quieter these days, the area was bustling with commerce between the 1830s and 1930s. During the Civil War, POR found itself in the middle of a battleground, and the village today is a staging point to explore this history.
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