Traveler's Checklist: Gettysburg National Military Park

The Cyclorama painting program is a highlight attraction of the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park. NPS photo.

The Civil War yielded more than 2,000 sites of battles and skirmishes in three geographic regions, but none is better known than Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During July 1-3, 1863, Gettysburg was the site of the Civil War’s biggest and bloodiest battle. When the smoke cleared, about 51,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured and General Robert E. Lee’s second and last invasion of the North had been repulsed. The Battle of Gettysburg was the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, and today the nearly 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park is the crown jewel of American battlefield parks.

The four year-long (2011-2015) 150th anniversary commemoration of the Civil War adds further interest to what has always been a very special place. More than one million people from all over America and the world will visit Gettysburg National Military Park in 2011. If you plan to be among them, the information that follows should prove helpful.

Before You Go

If you will be visiting the park during the prime season (March through October), and especially if you will be tightly scheduled, be aware that the most popular activities are ticketed or fee-paid attractions and services that may be fully booked much of the time. Walk-up tickets for the Cyclorama, Film and Museum Experience program at the park's Museum and Visitor Center are sold at the ticket counter in the large museum lobby. However, you can purchase timed tickets online at Ticket Prices & Packages or by calling 877-874-2478.

Use the same contact information to make reservations for Licensed Battlefield Guide tours, which should be made at least 72 hours in advance to insure timely arrangements. Note that Ticket Prices & Packages offers a "Value Ticket" that combines a Licensed Battlefield Guide bus tour with the Cyclorama, Film and Museum Experience.

Visiting the Park

** Begin your visit with a stop at the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center at 1195 Baltimore Pike. Completed in 2008 at a cost of more than $100 million, and operated by the Gettysburg Foundation, the 22,000 square-foot Museum & Visitor Center has film theaters, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, and 12 museum galleries.

** You'll watch the film A New Birth of Freedom and then view the Gettysburg Cyclorama in a specially designed hall. During March through November, the film and Cyclorama painting program runs every 15 minutes. The History Channel-sponsored film, which bears a title inspired by Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, is a first-rate production. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, and featuring the voices of Sam Waterston and Marcia Gay Harden, it sets the Battle of Gettysburg into the larger context of American history and the four year-long Civil War that cost 620,000 lives, left the South's economy (and much of its landscape) in ruins, ended slavery, and changed America forever. The Gettysburg Cyclorama painting, which was recently restored at a cost of more than $11 million, depicts “Pickett’s Charge” (Longstreet's Assault), the furious climax of the Gettysburg Battle, on a 360-degree oil-on-canvas painting that is 42 feet high and 377 feet long. It's the largest painting in America.

** Don't be in a big hurry in the museum galleries, which offer interactive programs, multi-media presentations, films, and exhibits featuring relics from one of America's biggest and best collections of Civil War artifacts and memorabilia. Allow at least three hours for the galleries if you can. Like a gourmet meal, this is an experience to be savored.

** Reserve some time to browse in the Gettysburg Museum Bookstore, which is operated by park partner Event Network, Inc. In addition to self-guided audio CD tours the bookstore stocks loads of books, DVDs, postcards, and other items related to the Civil War in general and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular. Civil War buffs and souvenir hounds give it high marks.

** Grab a bite at the Refreshment Saloon. Modeled after the refreshment saloons that served Civil War soldiers, this interesting eatery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the peak season (off-season hours vary). If you don't want "Tastes of the Period" food like chili, stew, or chicken pot pie, you can choose modern fare like burgers, wraps, and pizza. The snickerdoodle cookies are a dessert favorite.

** Carefully consider your battlefield tour options and make the choice that is right for you. If you choose the self-guided option, you can make use of the park's free auto tour maps (17 stops) or self-guided audio CD tours (sold in the bookstore at the Museum & Visitor Center). These allow you to set your own pace for driving the park roads and stopping to peruse, ponder, and photograph some of the 1,328 monuments, memorials, and markers placed at strategic points and hotspots like Culp's Hill, McPherson's Ridge, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, Devil's Den, and of course, the "High Water Mark" on Cemetery Ridge. Repeat visitors and Civil War buffs will notice that the park's vista clearing project has restored much of the battlefield landscape to its 1863 appearance.

Since the battlefield is large and complex (see the park map), parts of the 26-mile park road network are commonly congested, parking may be problematic, and major battlefield sites tend to be crowded, first-time visitors are well-advised to take one of the guided tours. There's nothing quite like a rigorously trained Licensed Battlefield Guide to make the whole thing comprehensible. Many people opt for the park's Licensed Battlefield Guide bus tour ($33), and several Gettysburg area businesses also offer commercial bus tours with Licensed Battlefield Guides. If you prefer the more personal touch or have special interests, you can opt to hire a Licensed Battlefield Guide to drive your car and take you and your fellow passengers on a personal tour of the battlefield. Motorcycle, bicycle, horseback, and Segway tours can also be arranged. Remember that it may be difficult to arrange for Licensed Battlefield Guides on a timely basis if requests are made less than 72 hours in advance.

** Visit the Soldiers National Cemetery (Gettysburg National Cemetery), which is located on Cemetery Hill not far from the center of the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge. A walking tour of this hallowed ground affords the opportunity to visit the site of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the Soldier's National Monument, and the final resting place of more than 3,300 Union soldiers.

** Take advantage of the park's free Ranger-guided programs, which are offered from mid-June through mid-August. Subjects range from battle history to Civil War medical practices, and fall into six broad categories: The Battle of Gettysburg (perfect for first-time visitors), "Key Moments" Programs (linking key moments of the battle to the exhibits in the museum gallery of the Museum and Visitor Center), The Aftermath of Gettysburg, The Civil War Experience (beyond the battlefield of Gettysburg), and Programs for Young Visitors, and Battle of Gettysburg Anniversary Programs (see below).These ranger programs may include battlefield hikes, living history presentations, visits to the Soldiers' National Cemetery, and other special activities. The ranger programs schedule is available on the park's website, at the park information desks, and in the summer edition of the park newspaper, the Gettysburg Quarterly.

** The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is July 1-3, 2013, but special programs and events are being scheduled at Gettysburg National Military Park throughout the four year-long Civil War 150th anniversary commemoration. These offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for Gettysburg visitors. See Battle of Gettysburg Anniversary Battlewalk Programs, 2011 for detailed information about this year's July 1-3 battle anniversary programs, and visit the park's exclusive Gettysburg Civil War 150 website for additional information about these and other Civil War anniversary-related events. The park's [url=http://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/events.htm ]Schedule of Events page]/url] also has scheduling information for anniversary-related events and programs.

** Take a hike. If you have the time and the inclination, the best way to experience the battlefield is to walk on it. Visitors can choose from among several different major trails and a variety of minor ones. The High Water Mark Trail extends for a mile through regimental monuments, an artillery battery position, the defensive lines where Union troops repulsed Pickett’s charge, and General Meade’s headquarters. The mile-long Big Round Top Loop Trail begins near the south boundary of the park and meanders through a hardwood forest where stone breastworks can be seen. The Billy Yank Trail (9 miles) and the Johnny Reb Trail (3.5 miles) are longer hikes comprising part of the Boy Scouts of America Heritage Trails Program.

** You can bring your bike if you like, and horses too. Bicycle riding is welcome on park roads, provided that riders stay on paved surfaces. There are designated trails for horseback riding throughout the park. Although the park doesn't offer horseback rides, horse rentals are available from a commercial establishment on Taneytown Road near the battlefield. Trailer parking is available at McMillan Woods Youth Campground on West Confederate Avenue. There is also a designated section of the campground parking area for vehicles and trailers.

** Explore the Lincoln legacy in downtown Gettysburg, perhaps by taking the "Mr. Lincoln's Trail" tour or one of the other Guided Historic Walking Tours. Key sites include the Historic Gettysburg Railroad Station (where Lincoln arrived in town), the National Park Service-administered David Wills House (where Lincoln stayed and prepared the final version of his Gettysburg Address), and the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church (where Lincoln attended a political rally).

** Consider visiting the nearby Eisenhower National Historic Site. The Superintendent of Gettysburg NMP is responsible for administering the site, which preserves and interprets the 690-acre retirement home of President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife Mamie. Due to critical space limitations in the Eisenhower home and inadequate onsite parking, visits to the Eisenhower NHS are conducted by reservation only and transport is via shuttle bus from the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center. Tickets may be purchased on a first come, first served basis for the next available tour.

Comments

I've just returned from a 5 day visit to Gettysburg. Both this year and last I took full advantage of the ranger-led walks and highly recommend them. Keep in mind when planning a visit that not all walks are offered daily. For those who desire a whirlwind tour and only have one full day, it is possible to take in the Day1, Day 2, and Day 3 walks in that order to get a chronological overview and review of the battle. For repeat visitors don't hesitate to include a hike done on previous visits. Each ranger has his/her own perspective and emphasis on the battle so it won't be repetitious. For a fuller understanding I would also suggest reading about the battle before your visit so you are at least familiar with the places and people who played critical roles that you will hear about from guides and rangers.

Licensed Battlefield Guides are available on a walk-up basis every day, but you need to get them early, as they are usually sold out by mid-day. If you get there right when the Visitor Center opens, there will usually be a dozen or so guides waiting to do walk-up tours. Also, if you do a battlefield tour early, you will miss the heat, and can enjoy the hot part of the day in the air-conditioned visitor center. The price for a licensed guide is per vehicle, nor per individual, which makes it a good value for families or small groups. For up to six people, the cost is $55. The price of two bus tickets is more than the cost to rent a guide who will take you in your car.

Gettysburg military park is one of the places i want to visit when i go to the US