Holiday Planning & History Lessons – Washington DC To Gettysburg, PA
When I last left you we had just finished up our Shenandoah Valley trip and were heading into Memorial Day which meant finding somewhere to settle down and ride out the holiday week-end. Of course, being the seasoned fulltimers we are we’d already booked this particular stop over 4 months ago. Planning ahead for the “big holidays” is just one of the many things you gotta live with when you travel on the road. And these days it seems to be more important than ever.
More RV’s And Less Parks, Or So It Seems…
It might be my imagination, but over the past 8 years it feels like more folks have discovered the RV lifestyle. There’s been a crazy boom in RV sales, and RV parks (both private and public) have just not been able to expand in capacity to keep up.
This means the *best* spots are booking further and further out which means folks like us need to plan further and further out too. So although we would much prefer to fly free and just travel whenever and wherever the mood takes us we find it’s tough to do, especially since we’re “beast-size” and often want to visit areas at the best weather (= most popular) times of the year. Plus we’re super picky about our spots (we like green, spacious parks), we prefer to move slow and stay longer in each spot (saves our sanity) and we don’t like to chase last-minute cancellations, so we’ve got to be even more pro-active to secure our sites.
The fact that we’re spending Summer in the NE doesn’t help either.
There’s WAY more flexibility out West (where you can boondock) and in the shoulder seasons (Spring, Fall), but out East during Summer & Winter you’re far more limited. Higher population densities and more limited public spots (especially for our size) means less of the kind of places we really like to stay. We reserved our entire Summer (from Memorial Day through end Aug) back in Jan, and even by then many of the places we wanted to stay had already booked out. It just is what it is…
Memorial Day Was Key For Us This Year
This year booking well ahead for Memorial Day was even more critical for us as we had two important appointments that required us to be close to a major airport. Paul was flying home to see his mom in Miami, and I had my Citizenship interview in South Dakota (something that’s been in the works for over 8 months). So we needed a solid place to stay where we could both fly out with minimal hassle.
Back in Jan we’d found what we thought was a decent-looking public park just 11 miles from Dulles Airport near Washington DC. Being close to the Capital it was expensive (that’s kinda expected), but it looked nice and green on paper, it was in the perfect location for our flights, aaaaand we’d be close to Washington DC which I’d never seen. It’d be perfect right??
Even “Old-Timers” Like Us Make Mistakes
My first sign that Lake Fairfax Park* might not have been the best spot to stay was the fist-size cockroach crawling along the window ledge inside our RV. OK, that might not have been my FIRST sign, and I might be exaggerating just a TAD about the size, but it was certainly the most jarring.
You see I’ve had a completely unrealistic reaction to cockroaches ever since they used to fly into my hair in Asia as a kid. I go literally batsh*t CRAZY when I see one (think 5-year old child-crazy after seeing Nightmare on Elm Street), and even though Paul and I have known each other for over 20 years, it still kinda shocks him when I let out blood-curdling screams inside the RV. On top of that our site was terribly unlevel (it took ALL our 5 packs of our Lynx leveling blocks to get close), it was unkempt & muddy with rain, and the park just had a really weird “vibe”.
How could we have gotten it so wrong?
Well, it turns out even “old-timers” like us can make mistakes!
We’re pretty darn good at planning and are usually meticulous about reading reviews and choosing just the right site (we look at campsite specific photos when we can find them, and use Google Earth to check out the satellite view, trees & orientation), but in this case things just didn’t work out.
The online reviews were decent and none of the pictures showed just how unlevel most of this campground really was (apart from a small number of sites near the top, they were truly awful!). Plus in the wooded section where we were camped (site #45) there seemed to be cockroaches everywhere (I counted 12 while we were there…aaaaargh!). For $20/night we might have overlooked such minor inconveniences, but at $45/night ($50/night on week-ends) for electric-only it was just too much.
*NOTE/ Because we weren’t crazy about this campground I’m not going to slog through the 2-3 days of work it typically takes me to write-up a full campground review. Suffice to say that if you decide to stay here, the ONLY sites I would recommend are the more open, larger, flatter, top-level sites (specifically odd-numbered sites #1-23, plus #24). The rest were simply not to my liking. The campground does have some nice hiking trails and you’re close to both Dulles Airport & downtown Washington DC.
Moochdocking To The Rescue (Again)
Thankfully we had an out! I’ve stayed in touch with Nici, my best friend from College ever since we both left the UK (all those many, many years ago), and coming to see her and spend time with her family was another of our big reasons for visiting Washington DC. She’s been living here for many years and she’d extended an open invitation to moochdock on her driveway over the big holiday.
Now not everyone realizes how BIG a 40-foot RV “beast” really is, so just to be sure we could fit we scouted out the road & entrance to her house the first day we got to the area. We decided we could *just* make it, so as soon as my trip to SD was done I moved out of cockroach-camp and into Nici-paradise. Paul was in Miami at the time which meant I drove “the beast” solo, but I made it without incident** and once we were settled in it became one of the most relaxing and enjoyable Holiday Weekends we’ve ever experienced!
From a practical stand point all our “beastly” moochdocking systems worked perfectly. On sunny days our 1500W of solar panels rocked and we got close to 100A generation! If I’d been motivated enough to get up on the roof and clean our filthy panels we would likely even have beat that. On cloudy/rainy days we were able to run everything in the RV quite happily off a regular AC extension cord thanks to the combo of our fabulous lithium batteries and snazzy MSH3012 hybrid inverter. We used a rather long extension cord (25 ft), so I simply set our inverter to max 10A draw and let the batteries handle the rest of our needs (A/C, dehumidifier, microwave, you-name-it) through load support. I LOVE our systems!
Plus it was just BLISS to hang at my best friends place and catch up. There’s a certain comfort that comes from spending time with someone you’ve known for over 25 years. It’s just such a special and relaxing experience. Plus her parents were in town, so we got to catch up with them too which was a real treat. GREAT company, wonderful food, good times. Oh, but no pictures (I had such a good time I simply forgot).
**Gals, if you haven’t learned how to drive/move/dump your RV, definitely do so! Over the past 8 years there’s several times I’ve needed to handle everything on the RV either because Paul got called home for an emergency or got injured. If you need inspiration check out this great post written by our friends the Snowmads: “Queen Of the Road: RV Ladies Share Their Best Driving Tips”
A Morning Walk In Washington DC
Although we spent most of our time with my friend, we did get to explore Washington DC for a few hours one morning right after Paul came back from Miami.
Now I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the Capital, but I’ve never seen it in person and I have to admit it’s even more impressive than I imagined. There are literally hundreds of Memorials, Statues, Monuments & Historic Landmarks in the Capital, dedicated to everything that has shaped the history and fabric of this county. And perhaps what surprised me most is it’s all surrounded by so much GREEN. Enormous parks, all bike-friendly (there are bike trails everywhere), all dog-friendly with miles of exploration for just about any preference. Not only that but since we were in town for Memorial Day, there were several events happening to honor the many sacrifices that have been made by veterans. It was an incredibly moving and humbling time to be there.
Knowing that traffic might be bad we went super early in the morning (8AM) and were lucky enough to snag a parking spot right on the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park (by The National Mall). Polly came with us, so we targeted a ~5-mile hike around the major monuments, stopping to observe some of the Memorial Day tributes. Weather was grey & dull (so pics weren’t great) and we didn’t manage to visit any of the many outstanding museums (no dogs allowed), but the walk gave us a wonderful overview of the area and the chance to see many of the iconic monuments (e.g. Lincoln Memorial) that have been on my bucket list for years. Plus the war memorials were incredible and so much more deeply moving that I’d imagined.
We didn’t get much time in the area before the crowds became overwhelming so sadly we missed many spots (I didn’t even see the White House!), but the small taste we had definitely left us wanting to return for a more thorough exploration. Plus I’d LOVE to come during the Spring Blossom Festival (it must be spectacular). Next time!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ There are metered (and a few free) parking areas around The National Mall, but they fill up FAST so it’s advisable to get in early to avoid crowds. If you come in by public transport and don’t feel like walking, rental bikes are everywhere (Capital Bikeshare) and the biking trails look like an AWESOME way to explore the area! Dogs are welcome at all the parks and around all the monuments, just not inside museums.
We Immerse Ourselves In Civil War History At Gettysburg, PA
I’ll be the very first to admit that I’m not much of a Civil War buff. There are niches of history that I’m quite passionate about (= lighthouses!), but other than the required curriculum in school, I’ve never really spent much time digging into Military History. For whatever reason it’s never really gripped me, and since I’ve got zero memory for dates (dyslexia really does a number on date memory), my brain tends to go to mush when too many battle dates are loped together.
So when we first looked at our 2017 travel map and noticed Gettysburg on our route north we weren’t really sure we were going to stop. I mean we knew it was one of the most important battles of the Civil War, and we felt like we should stop, but would we really enjoy it?
In the end we decided we’d stop for 2 days, and to make the most of our time we decided to spring the extra $$$ for a private park (Gettysburg Campground -> full review coming) just 3 miles from downtown.
I AM SO GLAD WE DID!!!!!
Not only was our location perfect, but Gettysburg was so very much more than I ever expected. Yes, it’s the site of one of the the most important (and bloodiest) battles of the Civil War, fought over 3 gripping days in the beginning of July 1863, but it is also so much more. From the National Military Park to the historic re-enactments to the many other events that are offered, this town is not just a battle-stop, but a living, interactive historical museum of which I’ve never quite seen the equal.
You start your visit at the Visitors Center and Civil War Museum. The 22,000 sq ft museum, 20-min film & Cyclorama are all amazing and provide a very complete & engaging history not just of Gettysburg, but the entire Civil War including the events leading up to and extending after the War. Seriously, even if you’re not really interested in Military History the information is just SO well presented that you can’t help but be engaged.
Once you’ve completed the museum & film, you can tour the 25 miles of battlefield either by car, bus or with a guide. It’s wonderfully presented with monuments at each stop, plenty of historical detail and even volunteers at some of the stops to answer your questions. You finish the tour at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where the incredible human cost of the battle (51,000 casualties) is laid out in the graves around you, and the historical significance of Lincolns famous Gettysburg Address leaves a very deep impression.
I have to admit that the town blew me away. Not only did I find the history truly fascinating (a testament to how very well it’s presented), but the town was incredibly charming with beautiful nature, lots of downtown eateries and even a growing craft scene (I highly recommend a stop at Mason Dixon Distillery). Our 2-day stop was really too short and we honestly wish we’d stayed a week. Put this place on your bucket lists, folks!
VISIT & PAW NOTES/ Start at the Visitor Center and see the museum, film & cyclorama ($15/person, free for active military), then tour the battlefield either by car (self-guided, free), on a bus ($35) or with a hired private guide ($75). Dogs are welcome everywhere on the battlefield grounds, but are not permitted inside the museum or in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. See more HERE and HERE.
We Finish Our PA Adventures in A Wonderful COE Park
We finished our historic tour of PA with a COE park (Ives Run -> full review coming) that we discovered thanks to our friends The Nealys On Wheels. And this time the site was right! It’s a beautiful, green, veg-out kinda park at the very North-Center of the state that’s the perfect spot to just relax for a few days. Plus it puts us right across the border for the next leg of our travels -> 2 glorious months in the new-to-us-state of New York. June has started, our summer travels are officially in full swing and there’s many exciting adventures ahead. I’m looking forward to it!
Useful External Links:
- Washington DC National Mall -> Official NPS visitor website HERE and maps HERE
- Washington DC Monuments -> Good link HERE
- Visit Gettysburg -> Great websites HERE and HERE
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