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Trip Report Mini-Trip Report: Hiking Old Rag-Charlottesville-Lexington-New River Rafting-Harpers Ferry-Antietam

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We’ve just completed a whirlwind four day father-son excursion in the Virginia / West Virginia / Maryland area. This was a business trip that I expanded into an impromptu celebration with my son following his high school graduation last week. I posted earlier that he had particular interests in the outdoors and history: www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=1&tid=35133362
Many thanks to Bill44, cheapbutnice2, Birdie, Momof3boys, KensingtonGirl, and beanweb24 for their suggestions. After considering their recommendations, we expanded the our itinerary to four days as follows:

Wed. June 4th

Evening: Fly into BWI
Overnight: Best Western - Culpeper, Virginia

Thurs. June 5th

Morning: Hike Old Rag – Shenandoah National Park
Lunch: Dining Room - Skyland, Shenandoah N.P.
Afternoon: Skyline Drive south to Rockfish Gap
Dinner: Bizou – Charlottesville, VA
Evening: University of Virginia Campus
Overnight: Omni Charlottesville

Fri. June 6th

Morning: Business
Lunch: Himalaya Fusion – Charlottesville
Afternoon: Monticello / then drive to Lexington, Virginia and on to Beckley, West Virginia
Dinner: Pasquale Mira – Beckley, WV
Overnight: Fairfield Inn – Beckley, WV

Sat. June 7th

Morning / Afternoon: Whitewater Rafting on the Lower New River – Fayetteville, WV
Dinner: Bistro on Main – Lexington, Virginia
Overnight: Jameson Inn – Harrisonburg, WV

Sun. June 8th

Morning: Harpers Ferry, WV
Afternoon: Civil War artillery demonstration – Fox Gap, Maryland, and then Antietam National Battlefield
Evening: Fly out of BWI

I’ll follow this post with additional details of this hectic but fantastic quick road trip as time permits.

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    I'm looking forward to hearing more, especially about hiking Old Rag. My 17-year-old son would like to do that and I thought we might all go this fall when it gets cooler. Any advice for a couple who have done a fair bit of hiking, but still have 50+ old knees!

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    I'd really like to hear more too!

    We're heading down to that part of the country end of this month, staying at the Skyland Lodge, so would love to hear your thoughts, we're then heading to WV from there, Blackwater Falls, then Shephardstown, then making our way back to NY through PA.

    thanks

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    Wed. June 4th

    Our evening flight into BWI was delayed 40 minutes when we had to circumnavigate huge thunderstorms that were pounding the Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Baltimore/D.C. area. Within 15 minutes of getting our rent car, we were getting rocked, too, by blinding rain and high winds on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Our destination was Culpeper, Virginia, one of the closest towns with hotel rooms to Old Rag Mountain, a Blue Ridge peak in Shenandoah National Park. I have this forum to thank for our decision to hike Old Rag; several Fodorites put it on their list of “Best Day Hikes in the U.S.” that I’ve compiled here: www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=1&tid=35132986

    The drive around the beltway into Northern Virginia was the most exhausting kind — in a downpour heavy traffic probably moving too fast for the conditions. As we headed south through the Virginia countryside on U.S. 29, we saw occasional downed signs. As we approached Culpeper, the utter blackness indicated all power in the area was out. On arrival at the Best Western on the southern side of Culpeper, we checked in under the glow of kerosene lamps Using the faint light of our cell phones (should’ve packed that small flashlight I always forget to bring), we made our way to our room and to bed, since there was nothing else to do without power. We were increasingly concerned that tomorrow’s early hike on Old Rag would be washed out, since it requires a fair amount of scrambling over rocks that would be difficult to negotiate if wet. But we’d traveled this far so we were going to give it a try anyway.

    Thurs. June 5th

    Morning: Hike Old Rag – Shenandoah National Park

    The lights in the room awakened me when they came on suddenly at 1 a.m. when power was restored. Fortunately, I was able to get back to sleep quickly since our plan was to rise early to make the small parking lot (~12 cars) at the Old Rag trail head before it filled up. I’d read that Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in the Eastern U.S. so if you can’t park there, your only option is larger parking lot a mile and a half away on farmland that is leased by the National Park Service. We checked out of the Best Western (an above average one) and drove through Culpeper. The town looked interesting enough for some exploration, but unfortunately our schedule did not permit it.

    In contrast to the night before, this morning the sky was blue and cloudless. The drive to Old Rag from Culpeper through picturesque, rolling Virginia countryside took about 30 minutes. The trail head is off of Fort Valley Road, a few miles up a country lane numbered 600. At the lower, larger parking lot, we paid the $16 entrance fee by placing a $20 bill (we had no change) in a self-service envelope and lock box provided by the National Park Service. We arrived at the trail head parking lot at 7:15 a.m., at least 45 minutes later than I had planned, but fortunately we were only the third car there.

    My son and I, carrying two quarts of water apiece and some energy snacks, headed up the well marked forest trail that was still dripping wet from the storms the night before. Fifteen minutes into the hike, we were already ringing wet from the humidity, but there was no other human beings anywhere in sight. Two-thirds of the hike is on broad switchbacks upward through lush forest, while the upper 1/3 of the trail emerges from the trees and requires scrambling up, over, and between large boulders of the “Old Rag” granite that gives the mountain its name.

    We like our hikes to have “payoffs” such as waterfalls, mountain peaks, and incredible views, and Old Rag certainly delivered. Once the scrambling began, we had sweeping views miles into eastern Virginia as well as north and south along the Blue Ridge. The rocks were plenty dry in spite of the storm the night before, which may have kept others away — during the entire morning hike and climb up we didn’t see any other people. By 11:00 a.m. we’d made it to the top, and had the magnificent vistas all to ourselves until two other hikers arrived at the summit at 11:45. You can descend either by scrambling and hiking back down the way you came, or continuing in a loop along the Ridge Trail and then down into the forest where that trail meets up with the Weakley Hollows Fire Road. We chose the latter, easier route, and surprisingly, there was no scrambling down on this route. After an enjoyable detour wading in a cold mountain stream that parallels the fire road, we were back to the trail head and our car a little after 1 p.m.

    Longhorn55 – Old Rag is a fairly strenuous hike that can be done by anyone in reasonably good shape. We moved at a comfortable pace, took several longer breaks, and still finished in a little over 5 hours. These 50+ year old surgically repaired knees handled it just fine. We would strongly recommend starting it early in the morning, bringing plenty of water, and doing it on a weekday if at all possible.

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    Rather than continuing on the flatlands some 45 miles to Charlottesville, we elected to drive north to Sperryville, then up the east slope of the Blue Ridge to the Thornton Gap Entrance Station to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Sperryville, a small village where a Civil War cavalry fight occurred, also looked interesting, but we wanted to make Charlottesville by 6:30 to meet friends there for dinner so we pressed on. The entrance fee stub we obtained at the Old Rag Mountain self-service station verified we’d already paid the park entrance fee, and we headed south along the drive to view the lower 2/3 of the park. We quickly realized we could roll down the windows of the car and not get too wind blown since the speed limit along the drive is max 35 mph. The mountain air was fully 20 degrees cooler than the sweltering temperatures we’d left behind. There are apparently over 80 stone-walled overlooks that the Civilian Conservation Corps built in the 1930s along Skyline Drive that provide expansive views to both the east and the west along the Blue Ridge’s spine. We diverted to most these along our way. Several provided dramatically different views of Old Rag Mountain that we’d just stood on top of a few hours before.

    Lunch: Dining Room - Skyland, Shenandoah N.P.

    By 2:30, we remembered we’d had only a few snacks all day, so we stopped at the Dining Room at the park’s rustic Skyland resort for a quick lunch. Skyland was converted from a mining community to a resort in the early 20th century when the mine played out. It commands a great position on the western side of the mountain, but the lodge seemed surprisingly quiet when we arrived. It was well past the main lunch hour, and I assume most of the guests there were out driving or hiking the park. We were given a table with picture window views of the next ridge a few miles to the west — Massanutten Mountain — that Stonewall Jackson had used so effectively in the Civil War in 1862 to screen his Confederate army from pursuing Union troops. I enjoyed a good Virginia pork barbecue sandwich and chips and my son played it safe, ordering a bacon cheeseburger and fries that he devoured.

    The rest of the afternoon, we cruised southward on Skyline Drive with the windows down on our rent car. The curves in the drive were mesmerizing and my son soon fell into a long nap while I enjoyed the spectacular scenery. An hour or so later, we began to see lots of wildlife, including turkey, a snake, and finally even a black bear that my son spotted in the wood above us ! (Frankly, I didn't realize they still had any in the East.) That merited a U-turn, and we were able to catch a picture of it as it crossed the road and loped downhill. We waited to see if it was accompanied by others, but apparently it was a loner.

    Soon we wound down the last mountain to Rockfish Gap, where we emerged from the park and headed to Charlottesville.

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    Thurs. June 5th (cont’d)

    Dinner: Bizou – Charlottesville, VA

    We checked in to our hotel — the Omni Charlottesville — and met friends on the adjacent downtown pedestrian mall in Charlottesville for dinner at Bizou. Bizou was very enjoyable, combining the informality of a college-town diner with an upscale Continental/Southern menu.

    Evening: University of Virginia Campus

    After dinner, our friends, one of whom is on the faculty at the University of Virginia, took us on a walking tour of the heart of the original campus that Jefferson designed. The famed Rotunda was lit brightly for some event. We walked The Lawn and viewed a number of the pavilions on either side, including the room where Edgar Alan Poe lived as a young student at the university. It was a warm night, and a jazz band was playing at the southern end of the green for an alumni function, but the campus seemed largely deserted between terms.

    Overnight: Omni Charlottesville

    The Omni Charlottesville was a way above average Omni (in my experience). The beds were comfortable, the hotel was nicely furnished and well-maintained. It must be one of the nicest hotels in Charlottesville and I highly recommend it. Its location next to the downtown pedestrian mall is also an advantage; however, it is a long walk to the UVA campus, especially on a hot day.

    Fri. June 6th

    Morning: Business

    Lunch: Himalaya Fusion – Charlottesville

    We returned to the downtown pedestrian mall for lunch at the recommended Himalya Fusion that allegedly offers a combination of Tibetan/Nepalese cuisine. The day was very hot, and so we were disappointed when we realized their lunch offering was a hot buffet. Nevertheless, we were hungry so we stayed. The food was good, but did not seem unusual; just familiar Indian dishes such as lentil soup and tandoori chicken.

    Afternoon: Monticello

    After lunch, we drove to the southeastern outskirts of Charlottesville and up the hill past the historic Michie Tavern to the Monticello visitor center for our pre-reserved 2:00 p.m. tour. I had first visited Monticello in the fall perhaps twelve or fifteen years ago. On that quiet cool day, the leaves were changing and fog blanketed the valley below. I seem to recall driving right up to the front gates of the estate. There were perhaps twenty visitors then, reinforcing the feeling that I almost had the grand place all to myself.

    The contrast could not have been greater on this visit. The visitor center is some distance from Monticello itself, requiring a short but sweltering ride in a stuffy shuttle bus. The visitor center parking lot was overrun with cars and tour buses when we arrived at 1:45 p.m. I should have taken seriously their warning to show up 30 minutes before the appointed tour time, because we barely made the last bus for our 2 p.m. tour, and the tours for the rest of the afternoon were booked solid.

    Although my visit to Monticello this time did not compare favorably with my previous one, my son enjoyed it immensely. He likes history and architecture, and he had studied Monticello in the excellent art history class he had just completed at his school. Visitors are not free to roam inside the great house, and guided tours of only the downstairs rooms are offered every thirty minutes. Our group consisted of about fifteen adults and our guide was well informed, even conceding on this occasion (in contrast to my previous visit) that the historical evidence suggests that Jefferson may have fathered children with the young slave girl Sally Hemmings.

    After viewing the interior, we spent another 30 or 45 minutes walking the fascinating grounds of Monticello. Yet the crowds and the heat were a strong incentive not to linger, so we headed back to our car and hit I-64 headed to West Virginia in the late afternoon.

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    Fri. June 6th (cont’d)

    We drove on I-64 back over Rockfish Gap into the southern Shenandoah Valley. The high hills and mountains were deep green, turning blue green as the sun dropped lower in the sky. We stopped for a break in Lexington, since neither my son nor I had ever seen Virginia Military Institute, where Stonewall Jackson taught before the Civil War, and Washington & Lee University, to which obert E. Lee retired after the war. Lexington is a beautiful small town, its orange-brown brick buildings seem largely untouched from the early 1800s. VMI’s yellow buildings are austere in contrast to immediately adjacent Washington & Lee, situated on the crest of a wooded hill. We arrived 15 minutes too late to go into the Lee Chapel on the campus, where Lee is interred, but still strolled the grounds and bought my youngest son a W&L t-shirt at the university book store. Washington & Lee wasn’t on my radar when I was looking at colleges many years ago. If I had seen it back then, it may well have been high on the list. I have a friend who’s always raved about his undergraduate experience there. Others have said it is one of the most beautiful college campuses in the country. After our brief visit, my son and I agreed.

    We resumed our drive into West Virginia in the twilight. We continued to be amazed at the very green-ness of the mountains, especially in the White Sulphur Springs area. Then we began the long, steep descent on I-64 into the New River Gorge. The runaway truck turnouts are evidence of comments I’ve read in this forum that some truckers rate this stretch of highway as one of the least pleasant they drive in the U.S., due to the unremitting grade.

    Dinner: Pasquale Mira – Beckley, WV

    We arrived in Beckley at sunset, and checked in to the pleasant Fairfield Inn there ($65 on Priceline). The sky was still light and we were hungry, yet we wanted to avoid the numerous chain restaurants in the area. Our first choice was Tamarack, a state government sponsored center for local crafts and foods ( www.tamarackwv.com/food_services/default.aspx ), a short drive from our hotel. The comments on TripAdvisor suggest Tamarack has the healthiest and most interesting cuisine in the area, but alas it has already closed when we arrive.

    Our second choice was Pasquale Mira, an Italian restaurant owned by a local family. The décor is pleasant, and we are pleased to find that it has an outside deck for dining in the cool evening air. The mosquitos are slightly annoying, but the Southern Italian dishes are surprisingly tasty. We order a small pizza to split as an appetizer, which turns out to be a mistake as it is a huge small pizza. Nevertheless, we are undeterred and devour it — and the pasta entrees that follow — with ease. We returned to the Fairfield, psyched for whitewater rafting on the Lower New River the next morning.

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    Hello! This sounds like a trip I want to do this summer. We will have Sun, Mon, Tues, and Wed, with a flight out of Dulles at 4:00 p.m. Your story left off with the rafting...how was the drive and time for the reamining days? See below. Do you remember about how long of a drive it was from one destination to the next? Is it doable if we at Dulles airport?

    Morning / Afternoon: Whitewater Rafting on the Lower New River – Fayetteville, WV
    Dinner: Bistro on Main – Lexington, Virginia
    Overnight: Jameson Inn – Harrisonburg, WV

    Sun. June 8th

    Morning: Harpers Ferry, WV
    Afternoon: Civil War artillery demonstration – Fox Gap, Maryland, and then Antietam National Battlefield
    Evening: Fly out of BWI

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    Sounds like a great trip. Did you hike in the Harper's Ferry area? I'm not sure if it is still open. but several years ago we stayed at the Piper Farm on Antietam Battlefield, it was a B+B at the time and it was a hoot to sleep in the room that Longstreet slept in (reportedly) and look over the battlefield. Also if you do a lot of visits to the sites that are run by the park service or blm, pick up a pass at the first one you get to. I think it is $80.00 and lets you into all national parks, monuments, forrests, blm areas etc. for free for a year. When you get to be a geezer (62) it is $10.00 for a lifetime pass.

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    EEEk, where is the rest of the report? You have me mesmerized and I am anxious to hear more about the WV part of your trip (esp since I live in WV).

    As to the bears - we still have lots of them in WV. Couple weeks ago one was near downtown Charleston WV. It swam across the river (good size river too) before they got it and "lead" it into a wooded area. (They are no longer allowed to tranquilize them - surprised by that.) We see them often when in Canaan Valley, WV, especially during June.

    Yes, Greenbrier County (White Sulphur Springs area) is beautiful. Sandstone Mt. is the part of I-64 where you talked about the truck ramps. It is quite a grade - would NOT tackle it in a snowstorm even in a car.

    Thanks for a great trip report. Can't wait to hear the rest.

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    Thanks LvSun, Birdie, and emalloy; I don’t normally abandon trip reports midstream, but I got busy last summer and forgot to get back to this one. You’ve inspired me to try to finish it off now since there seems to have been some interest in the rest of our trip.

    CheNop – the trip is definitely doable from Washington Dulles airport – that’s probably the best large airport to fly into for this trip.
    Sat. June 7th

    Morning / Afternoon: Whitewater Rafting on the Lower New River – Fayetteville, WV

    We were up early and headed out of Beckley on I-77 and then on U.S. 19 for the 30 minute drive to Fayetteville on the (Lower) New River. We selected Rivermen for our day trip down the river gorge: ( www.rivermen.com/site/trips/new-river-lower-summer ), and had made our reservations only the day before. I don’t recall now exactly why we chose this company over others in the area (maybe because the company has one of the more informative web sites), but we were very satisfied. We arrived at the Riverman facility early for our 9:00 a.m. trip. (I think they’ve recently moved to another site.) At the facility, we joined up with about 25 or 30 others who had signed up for our trip (spread out over four or five rafts), were outfitted with life jackets and paddles, instructed on basic whitewater safety and paddling techniques, then took an old school bus on a 45 minute ride down winding West Virginia country roads to our embarkation point on the river at Sewell. Some hungover Ohioans on a bachelor party regaled us with their off-key singing during the bus ride.

    Each raft had its own guide, of course, and my son and I, fortunately, were grouped with several quiet couples from the D.C. area on a raft with our guide Doug, who haled from Iowa. Doug was a taciturn but very competent guide who, when asked, had encyclopedic knowledge of the river and the region. Although the river had been lower for a few weeks, the water felt great and the occasional rapids were exciting but not frigid or fear-inducing like the rapids in the Grand Canyon that my daughter and I had experienced a few years earlier ( www.fodors.com/community/united-states/trip-report-rafting-the-coloradohiking-out-of-the-grand-canyon.cfm ) The Lower New River Gorge is stunning in a much different way than the Grand Canyon. In contrast to the canyon’s stark desert beauty, the Gorge is deep (really deep) and narrow, its steep winding sides covered with verdant forests.

    We beached for a brief lunch of sandwiches or wraps made with cold cuts, then continued through the most exciting rapids until we came into view of the spectacular New River Gorge Bridge, the highest vehicular bridge in the United States (and the highest such bridge in the world until the Millau Viaduct was built five years ago in France). After crossing under the bridge, our rafts pulled over so those of us who wanted could leap off a giant rock into the refreshing green water below. I’ve got to say that jumping of diving off rocks like this – or swinging off a rope -- into cool water has to be one of life’s better experiences. A short time later, we pulled our rafts out of the river at Fayette Station for the 45 minute bus ride back to the Rivermen center. We arrived there about 4 p.m. in time to drive back to the Bridge to take a closer look at it from above.

    We drove across the bridge on U.S. 19, then immediately pulled into the National Park Service Visitor Center on its eastern side ( www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/nrgbridge.htm ). The Center has fascinating displays regarding the construction of the Bridge, which is truly an engineering marvel. We then walked down a wooden stairway on the eastern rim of the Gorge for a fabulous view of the bridge as it dramatically arched the river valley. Tired but invigorated, we took a leisurely drive through the high West Virginia hills back to I-64 for our return to Virginia and the Shennadoah Valley.

    Dinner: Bistro on Main – Lexington, Virginia

    We drove through the spectacular Appalachian countryside in the evening twilight back into Virginia. Intrigued with Lexington by our brief stop there the day before, we visited it again, walking Main Street and having a great dinner at Bistro on Main ( www.bistro-lexington.com ) before resuming our trip into the Shennadoah Valley. We hadn’t made any hotel reservations, but drove as far as Harrisonburg, where we checked in to the nice but somewhat sterile Jameson Inn.

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    Overnight: Jameson Inn – Harrisonburg, WV

    CheNop inquired about driving times. Our drive from Beckley, West Virginia to Lexington, Virginia was about 120 miles (a leisurely 2 and ½ hours), and Harrisonburg is another 60 miles northeast of Lexington – all interstate – so the driving was easy. Harper’s Ferry is another 100 miles northeast of Harrisonburg, so the Jameson Inn in Harrisonburg was a good midway point for the drive the next morming up the Shenandoah Valley to Harper’s Ferry.


    Sun. June 8th

    Morning: Harpers Ferry, WV

    We had a good breakfast at the Jameson Inn, and hit the road again early for our long final day. Since my son was starting his freshman year in the fall, he was interested in seeing other colleges so we took a brief drive through James Madison University’s campus on the outskirts of Harrisonburg, then headed northeast on Interstate 81 to the vicinity of Winchester. There we took a brief short cut over to U.S. 340 for the rest of the drive to Harper’s Ferry. There are a number of Civil War sites we wanted to see in the Valley, especially New Market battlefield where cadets from the Virginia Military Institute fought Union troops in a desperate battle in 1864. Yet with Harper’s Ferry on our itinerary for the morning, Antietam for the afternoon, and an evening flight out of BWI, our plate was full so we didn’t stop.

    On the way to Harper’s Ferry, my son Googled the Antietam National Battlefield web site www.nps.gov/anti to get directions from Harper’s Ferry to the battlefield. He noticed on the web site an announcement that there was going to be a live demonstration of Civil War artillery at 1:00 p.m. that afternoon at Fox’s Gap on South Mountain, a few miles east of Antietam. That sounded too interesting to pass up, so even though we had gotten an early start, we decided to shorten our visit to Harper’s Ferry and try to find the demonstration in time to see it.

    We drove down into the “Lower Town” in Harper’s Ferry and got one of the last parking spaces in the small parking lot at the train station. The old lower town, consisting of a large number of 19th Century homes and buildings built on the side of a hill, is very well preserved. The town appears to be filled with interesting museums, restaurants, and inns in the period structures, but we didn’t have time to sample any of them. Instead, we settled for an hour walk through Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park: www.nps.gov/hafe

    Harper’s Ferry is actually in West Virginia near the junction of the borders of that state, Maryland, and Virginia. The National Historical Park stretches into all three states there. The town occupies a dramatic point surrounded by high hills where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. Thomas Jefferson visited the site in 1783, just after the end of the Revolutionary War, and described it best: “The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain a hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass off to the sea.”

    In addition to the spectacular scenery, Harper’s Ferry is full of Civil War history. The building of most historical interest to us was “John Brown’s Fort” at the site of the U.S. Arsenal, where John Brown and his followers attempted to incite a revolt against slavery by taking over the arsenal in 1860. Ironically, Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart, who then were U.S. Army officers but soon to become Confederate military commanders, led federal troops to Harper’s Ferry to force the surrender of Brown’s band. Two years later, on the eve of the battle of Antietam, Stonewall Jackson ringed his troops on the heights above the town, surrounding and forcing the surrender of 15,000 Union troops and untold arms and ammunition after a 3 day siege.

    Frankly, we didn’t come close to giving Harper’s Ferry the time it deserved, but our brief visit only whetted our appetite to return. Our immediate goal was to find the Civil War artillery demonstration on South Mountain, which ended up being more of a chore than we realized.

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    I did not even realize the report was from last year.
    Thank you for finishing it.
    Great report. informative & interesting.

    You rafted on the New River? It is a gentler river than the Gauley River. (Both in same area of WV).

    Plus, most waters were low in WV last year.
    Quite a difference this year - we are having all kinds of storms & rains.

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    Sun. June 8th (cont'd)

    Afternoon: Civil War artillery demonstration – Fox's Gap, Maryland, and then Antietam National Battlefield

    In September 1862, when Robert E. Lee decided for the first time to invade the Northern states with his Confederate Army, he crossed the Potomac River into Maryland east of the long, high ridge known as South Mountain that runs north-south about 40 or 50 miles through Maryland and on into Pennsylvania. Lee then led his army west through three gaps in the mountain – Crampton’s Gap, Fox’s Gap, and Turner’s Gap. When the usually slow-moving Union general George McClellan fortuitously discovered Lee’s plan in the wrapping of cigars that a Confederate courier had carelessly lost, he began to pursue Lee furiously. Lee had portions of his army try to delay McClellan at each of the three gaps. The artillery re-enactment we wanted to see was in a remote field near the high point at Fox’s Gap. It took us three calls to the helpful National Park Service personnel at Antietam for directions to the right place, and we just a few minutes before the demonstration started.

    A battery of four period cannon surrounded by fully costumed re-enacters was in the field facing east. About 400 yards away across a small valley, two cannon faced back at us. The re-enacters seemed like real “Confederate in the Attic” types, more or less indifferent to us and the rest of the crowd that was slowly gathering. They were there to fire the guns; to heck with the gawkers. A spokesman for the group asked us to step behind a rope that marked off a safe distance from the cannon, and gave a brief but interesting presentation on Civil War artillery and the Battle of Fox’s Gap that had occurred at this site in 1862. He said this was the first time cannon would be fired at the site in 146 years, and they would be filled with half-charges of gunpowder for safety. He then announced they were ready to fire. My son and I smirked a little—these guys seemed so serious and, after all, how loud could a couple of Civil War era guns with half-charges be?

    When the guns fired, the concussion was stunning, actually reverberating through our bones and organs. The booms rolled across the small valley, echoing for seconds like thunder. The smoke produced by these field pieces created a fog on the field. The opposite two cannon then “returned fire.” This amazing demonstration continued back on forth for 20 minutes. Sometimes they fired individually, at other times in pairs or as a whole battery. We were duly impressed. The thought of men charging directly at such artillery during a battle was unfathomable.

    We then headed to Antietam National Battlefield itself—-the site of the greatest single day loss of life in combat in American history. The day was blisteringly hot and it must have driven most prospective visitors away. My son and I felt like we almost had the entire place to ourselves. My son bought an informative CD that provided an excellent self-guided tour of the park. Antietam, like Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, is well-preserved. Unlike the forested battlefields of Virginia, the topographies of both of these battlefields provide sweeping views of how each battle developed.

    With McClellan hot on his heels and part of his army still at Harper’s Ferry, Lee decided to make a stand here along Antietam Creek. McClellan had Lee seriously outnumbered and Lee was in the precarious position of having the Potomac River just a few miles behind his army that could prevent any wholesale escape if things went badly. Instead of throwing his entire army at Lee at once, however, McClellan launched piecemeal attacks throughout the day from north to south at the North Woods, the Cornfield, Dunker Church, the East Woods, sunken Bloody Lane, and near the end of the day, he broke through over a stone bridge across Antietam Creek. Only the late arrival of the remainder of Lee’s men from Harper’s Ferry saved the day for the Confederates. These landmarks are all plainly visible today, although the peaceful rolling countryside belies the unimaginable loss of life that occurred on that horrific day. As at Gettysburg, the technology of war was beginning to outpace the tactics, resulting in mass slaughter. After the battle, Lee retreated to Virginia and a few months later Lincoln felt like the battle provided enough political momentum that he announced the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate states. Now, in addition to preserving the Union, the war had become a fight to the death over slavery.

    Drained, we headed east in our rental car for our evening flight out of BWI airport. We hoped that the small number of visitors to this moving place was only a reflection of the day’s severe heat. Antietam is well worth a day or even just an afternoon visit for anyone with even a passing interest in American history. The Old Rag hike and the rafting on the New River, interspersed with our visits to Charlottesville, Lexington, Harper’s Ferry, and Antietam, provided my son and me with a nice mixture of cerebral and physical activities – always a must in my book when traveling with teenagers. Highly recommended.

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    You've done two great back to back trips with your son these past two years, mrand. I wish we could permanently tag your reports "civil war" for all those questions about civil war battlefields. Your reports are a great resource for anyone visiting these sites.

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    Thanks LvSun and Birdie. Your idea about being able to tag trip reports by theme, such as "Civil War" or "family trips" or "trips with teenagers" (which I've suggested before) in addition to geographic area is a great one. What's the best way to urge Fodor's to do this?

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