3 Rousing Road Trips for History Buffs

For a taste of our nation’s rich past, visit the hallowed ground of Civil War battlefields, follow an old Southern travel and trade route, and explore the region where miners struck the mother lode.

Cannon at 'The Angle', the site of Picket's Charge. Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

by NEA Member Benefits


Civil War Pivotal Moments

Highway 15, Manassas, Virginia, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

It would take months to see all of the Civil War’s important sites. But, in as little as a long weekend and in less than 150 miles on and around Highway 15, you can take a pleasant drive to historic towns and grassy fields, lined with stone walls and strewn with cannons. There, you can experience where the war began, the site of its bloodiest day and the battleground where President Lincoln gave his memorable Gettysburg Address.

Road Trips for History Buffs - Gettysburg

Take the walking tour designed by the Manassas Museum to learn about life in this railroad-junction town when the first soldiers arrived by train. Then see the site of the war’s first battle at Manassas National Battlefield Park. Detour to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, site of the abolitionist John Brown’s raid, for scenic Potomac River and hillside hikes as well as quaint cafes serving Virginia ham sandwiches and other local specialties.

To the north, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, take the audio driving tour of Antietam National Battlefield, where the fighting on Sept. 17, 1862, alone left thousands of soldiers dead, wounded or missing. In Frederick, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine provides a sobering look at conditions and medical innovations of the day.

Once in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, you can take your pick of more than a dozen museums devoted to life and events around the Civil War, including must-see Gettysburg National Military Park, for battlefield tours and a stop at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where Lincoln stood to deliver his famous 1863 speech.

Don’t miss: Gettysburg’s Jennie Wade House Museum, a preserved brick home in the “no man’s land” of the war zone, tells the story of 20-year-old Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed in the 3-day battle, who was struck by a stray bullet while baking bread for Union soldiers.

The National Park Service offers a host of Civil War teacher resources, and the nonprofit Civil War Trust has free battle app visitor guides.

Natchez Trace Parkway

Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee

You could call the 444-mile Natchez Trace the original American road trip: Centuries ago, it was a game track used first by Native Americans, then by explorers, traders and settlers. Today, you can still find remnants of the well-worn path, such as Sunken Trace (milepost 41.5), where the trail invites you to walk the same path as Meriwether Lewis, President Andrew Jackson and thousands of others.

For a taste of the old travel days, stop in at Mississippi’s Mount Locust Inn and Plantation (milepost 15.5), an 18th-century stopover a day’s walk from Natchez, or at the French Camp Historic Village (milepost 181), where in the fall you might catch a glimpse of locals boiling sorghum molasses. See Native American burial mounds, and imagine their bustling communities some 2,000 years ago, at Bynum Mounds and Village (milepost 232) and Pharr Mounds (milepost 287).

Road Trips for History Buffs - Natchez Trace Parkway

For more modern sites and culture, stop off in cities and towns along the way, such as these three in Mississippi: In Jackson (approximately milepost 100), look for plaques celebrating the rise of Mississippi blues music, or visit the Mississippi Crafts Center in Ridgeland, where you may see local artists in action potting or weaving. Tupelo (approximately milepost 260) celebrates its most famous son with the Elvis Presley Birthplace museum, in the unassuming two-room house where the rock ’n’ roller was born.
And just about every stop along the Natchez Trace has a country restaurant serving up biscuits, barbecue and other Southern home cooking, from Natchez’s Carriage House to Nashville’s Loveless Cafe.

Don’t miss: Tennessee’s Meriwether Lewis Site (milepost 386) chronicles the explorer’s life as well as his untimely death during a trip along the Natchez Trace.

The National Park Service breaks up the Natchez Trace Parkway into four handy sections for visitors and offers free curriculum materials for teachers.

California Gold Rush Country

Old Sacramento and Highway 49, Coloma to Jamestown

Road Trips for History Buffs - California Gold Rush Experience

Begin with a stroll down the wooden sidewalks and cobbled streets of Old Sacramento, where the Sacramento History Museum explains how gold fever drew more than 300,000 frenzied prospectors to this region in just six years and led to the rise of towns and bustling cities practically overnight. You’ll see the results come to life along this 126-mile route.

Take U.S. 50 east to Coloma and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where miner James Marshall’s shiny find started the craze in 1848. There, you’ll join Highway 49 and begin rolling through the scenic Sierra foothills.

Fuel up on healthy car snacks at Placerville’s Apple Hill, where farms and orchards offer up fall’s harvest and fresh-pressed cider. Or, for grown-up fun, follow the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail, northeast of Plymouth, to sip bold reds such as zinfandels. In Sutter Creek, you’ll see turn-of-the-century miner supplies at Monteverde General Store Museum.

Detour to the town of Murphys to sample from its two-dozen wine-tasting rooms, and dine at your choice of restaurants with fresh, seasonal California cuisine. To learn how all that gold ore was hauled, visit Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, where you also can try your hand at panning for real gold with local outfitters.

Don’t miss: Just north of Sonora, Columbia State Historic Park is a “living” gold-rush town, with stagecoach rides, a working blacksmith shop and townspeople bustling on Main Street in period dress.

The Gold Country Visitors Association has vacation planning information, and California State Parks offers gold-rush lesson plans for teachers. 

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