Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Cradle Of Independence - My Family Travels

Discover patriot history in the Valley Forge area, not far from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and you'll be delighted to see how history comes to life for all ages.

When I told a friend from college that I was visiting Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, she scrunched her nose and commented, "Oh – that's just a bunch of fields." This minimally encouraging response, combined with memory lapse of high school history, made the prospect of my visit bleak. 

Little did I know, however, how much I would learn during my weekend at Valley Forge, thanks to the richness of historical sites, fascinating because they date back to the formation of the United States of America. Sure, there are a bunch of fields around Valley Forge, but it's incredible to think that these gentle hills scattered with wildflowers once held massive encampments of revolutionary patriots.

The area's central attraction is Valley Forge National Historical Park. Fast forward from 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia to the winter of 1777-1778 and visit Washington’s encampment during the Revolutionary War. With 3,600 acres of rolling land, this expansive area offers various tours of the soldier’s quarters, Artillery Park and Washington’s home and headquarters, presenting the difficulties of that hard winter when some 2,500 soldiers perished due to starvation, disease and exposure. This was the site of an extensive training program that created a cohesive fighting army which proceeded to win the American Revolution. 

This encampment was more of a family affair than one might expect. If you run into reenactors during your time at the park, you may meet children playing and women sewing in traditional dress as soldiers drill in the fields (check the website's calendar for events, notable is the December 19 march-in of the Continental Army). Costumed re-enactors are happy to answer your questions. Expect also to observe large groups of deer, especially around dusk. These abundant deer are accustomed to human traffic and graze close to the road, so a deer-counting contest might entertain your family! 

Beyond the Battlefields

Though your family won't be able to spend the night like the patriots, you could end up spending a full day. The park abounds with fun daytime activities like hiking (on eight miles of trails), biking, and fishing. The Visitor Center (open daily 9am-5pm) is a great place to start, with an impressive artifact collection that includes General Washington's tent. This collection displays pieces of an ordinary soldier's life from shoes to amputation knifes. The Visitor Center also shows a movie depicting the tiresomeness of the encampment's daily routine. Scattered around the park are interesting landmarks like Washington's headquarters, recreated soldiers' huts, statues of famous generals and a memorial to African-American patriots. Grandparents or anyone with disabilities have universal access to the Visitor Center, Washington's Headquarters, and the paved Multi-Use Trail. Stop by the Washington Memorial Chapel to crane your neck at stained glass windows depicting events from Washington's life. 

Though the Continental Army camped relatively peacefully in Valley Forge, conflict had occurred the previous September of 1777 at nearby Brandywine Battlefield. Here, the patriots suffered a defeat to the British loyalists, yet from then on became known for their bravery. The battle produced new patriot heroes, including the Marquis de LaFayette, a 19-year-old French volunteer, who soon became a favorite of General Washington. Today, Brandywine Battlefield State Park (610/459-3342) provides an informative Visitor Center and daily tours of the Benjamin Ring House, Washington's headquarters during the battle, and the Gilpin House, which accommodated LaFayette. Tours include an overview of colonial domestic life. A natural highlight of Brandywine is a gigantic, 300-year-old sycamore tree that witnessed the battle so long ago. 

Historic Homes & Festivals

If you have an extra afternoon or third day, colonial households strike your fancy, and your kids can keep curious hands under control (most rooms have strict "don't touch" rules for insurance and preservation purposes), many historic homes in the Valley Forge area are open to visitors. Waynesborough (610/647-1779) was home to Major General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who fought at the Battle of Brandywine. The Peter Wentz Farmstead (610/584-5104) has an unusual polka-dot paint scheme and a fascinating outdoor archeological dig. Pottsgrove Manor (610/326-4014) features a special treat for children – a hands-on, "can touch" room where they may handle colonial toys and other interesting objects. An exhibit explaining the Pottsgrove restoration process exposes the hard work involved in opening a colonial house to the public. 

During my time at Pottsgrove, I experienced an exciting Colonial Mayfair complete with period music, toy demonstrations, pottery sculpting, thread weaving, kids' games, and even a dance around the May Pole. These multi-generational activities, presented by costumed volunteers, made the sounds, colors and textures of colonial life come alive. Such a special event or festival could be a highlight of your trip, as it was for mine. I'll remember that day longer than I ever remembered U.S. history class! 

Details, Details

It is important to note that there may be significant driving distances between points of interest in the Valley Forge area. Though colonial travelers were accustomed to the days it took to travel the area on foot or horseback, it's best for your family to rent or bring a car, along with tapes and books to keep children entertained. Though suburban sprawl from neighboring Philadelphia (a 30-minute drive) infiltrates the area, there is still much beautiful scenery to view out the backseat window. The Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau (610/834-1550) will send a free vacation guide upon request, and self-guided driving and bike tours are available on their web site. 

Accommodations are abundant in the Valley Forge area, with hotels popping up left and right. I enjoyed the Radisson Valley Forge Hotel in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania (610/337-2000). This comfortable, kid-friendly property has seven on-site dining venues from casual to fancy. There is information about many more hotels, motels, B&Bs, inns, and campgrounds available through the Valley Forge CVB, also a great umbrella resource for weekend trip planning information.  

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