The Roarbots’ series of NPS Adventures takes a big-picture view of one location within the National Park Service and highlights some of the best activities that site has to offer. This is usually done through a kid-friendly lens and almost always includes activities and suggestions we can recommend from personal experience. And pictures. There are lots and lots of pictures. Glad to have you aboard!
Welcome to Valley Forge National Historical Park!
- Valley Forge National Historical Park
- Location: Pennsylvania
- Established: 1976
- Admission: free
- Social Sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
Valley Forge is one of those places that’s cemented in American history and in the vocabulary of anyone who went to school in the United States and learned about the American Revolution. The events that occurred here during the winter of 1777-1778 are almost synonymous with the founding of our country and of George Washington’s time as general.
The winter encampment at Valley Forge was the single deadliest event of the war for the fledgling American army. Nearly 2,000 soldiers died of disease (and cold and starvation. That’s more casualties than were suffered at any of the battles fought during the war.
Today, Valley Forge National Historical Park may not be home to a “battlefield” in the traditional sense of the word, but the effects of war were most definitely felt by Washington and his troops. The events that unfolded here are critical to understanding how the United States came to be and why George Washington became something of a legend during his own lifetime.
This is a place that every citizen – especially children – should visit. It’s part of who we are. The stories that the fields, structures, and monuments tell are integrally tied with the history of the United States.
(Click on all pictures to embiggen.)
Start at the visitor’s center, which has a good walk-through exhibit to orient yourself to the history of the war and the park around you. The film, though informative, is in dire need of an update, so you could probably skip it and not miss too much. Also, it should be noted that the film is in a separate building that doesn’t have the best A/C (i.e., I don’t think it has any), so keep that in mind on hot days.
A marked driving tour is the easiest way to see the park. From the visitor’s center, a mostly one-way road loops through the park, hitting all of the major sites (with parking lots available at many). The tour is self-guided, which means you can take as long or as little as you like. Once away from the visitor’s center, there are four stops with restrooms.
Highlights along the Encampment Tour include stops 2 (Muhlenberg Brigade), 3 (National Memorial Arch), 5 (Washington’s Headquarters), and 9 (Washington Memorial Chapel).
There are plenty of monuments, redoubts, and rolling fields along the way, so we definitely recommend taking your time. Allot at least 2 hours to make the circuit – longer if you want to explore and see everything.
To enhance your drive, you may want to consider taking advantage of the park’s cell phone tour. Call 484-396-1018 wherever you see a sign, and learn a bit more about whatever you’re looking at. Take a listen below to hear the cell phone tour stop for Washington’s Headquarters.
Depending on the day you visit, you might be lucky enough to see some of Washington’s troops in character and giving demonstrations. We happened to visit on Memorial Day weekend, so more were out than usual. Check the park’s calendar for scheduled musket and artillery demonstrations. And watch below for a musket firing demonstration and what happens when a musket misfires.
Stop #5 on the Encampment Tour is Washington’s Headquarters. Inside the old train station is an exhibit about the headquarters and Washington’s leadership in general. The stone house that is standing at this spot is the original building that served as residence and office for Washington and his immediate staff. The wooden hand rail that goes up the stairs to the third floor is also original, so it’s not only an awesome piece of history but also quite a thrill to touch the same hand rail that George Washington held as he went up to his bedroom.
Surrounding the house is an old ironworks, several wooden huts (which housed the equivalent of Washington’s Secret Service), and a statue of the big man himself.
Valley Forge is home to two Once Upon a Nation storytelling benches, which are run by the Historic Philadelphia organization. More than a dozen benches are scattered around Philadelphia, but two locations (at the visitor’s center and the train station near Washington’s Headquarters) also engage kids with history at Valley Forge. Kids (of all ages) are welcome to sit on the benches and listen to compelling stories about real history about spies, secrets, and a war against itchy mites.
More than 26 miles of trails criss cross the park. The primary trail – the paved Joseph Plumb Martin Trail – more or less follows the path of the driving tour. If you have more time to spend in the park, you can walk or ride a bicycle along the trail (bikes are available for rent in the visitor’s center parking lot). Obviously, allot several hours for this excursion. Check here for other trails worth exploring.
The Valley Forge website, surprisingly, has no information about its Junior Ranger program. But rest assured there is one. The 16-page activity booklet is available in the visitor’s center and includes 12 different activities. Kids 4-7 years old should complete three, kids 8-11 should do four, and kids 12+ need to complete five or more activities. Several of the activities are enhanced by doing them while out and about in the park, so I recommend grabbing the booklet, working on it during the driving tour, and then bringing it back at the visitor’s center at the end of the Encampment Tour to be sworn in.