Archive for May, 2006

Cumberland, Md. to Williamsport, Md.
Visited: June 2, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 288 of 353
NPS Website

Old Town CumberlandWHAT IS IT?
The well-restored towpath and waterway of the 19th-century C&O Canal which parallels the Potomac River for 185 miles from Georgetown, D.C. to Cumberland, Md. Given the Park’s sprawling nature, this review covers the section of the Canal that stretches from its terminus in Cumberland, Md. to the Canal’s halfway point located near Hagerstown, Md. This includes three Visitor Centers: Cumberland, Hancock and Williamsport.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Cumberland, once a thriving canal and railroad boomtown, retains both a bustling city feel and a small town artsy appeal. The Visitor Center is housed in the imposing red brick 1913 Western Railway Station. A short boardwalk leads from the VC, past a newly built Canal overlook commercial street and to the towpath’s terminus (Mile 185). The boardwalk and towpath views are forgettable. Instead walk to the charming shops and restaurants of the town’s red brick pedestrian-only Baltimore Street.

Or better yet, drive southward into the dense high country eastern woodland forest that borders the towpath until Hancock. At Mile Post 155 is the area’s top attraction, the Paw Paw Tunnel. The 3,118-foot long Paw Paw cuts through the hillside and plunges the visitor into supernatural eeriness. The increasingly narrow towpath skirts the canal’s side with uncertain footing. A foggy sheen hovers over the canal water. The lights at the end of the tunnel never appear to move.

The terrain from Hancock to Williamsport is much less dramatic. The towpath here bears resemblance to the canal section nearby Washington, D.C. The red brick Cushwa Warehouse that houses the Williamsport VC harkens back to a busier time.

The Canal was nearly obsolete before it was even completed. In fact, the C&O Canal and the famed Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (the Canal’s competition) broke initial ground on the same day in 1810. Railroads quickly developed and provided faster and easier transportation but boats still came and went on the Canal for almost 75 years.

In the 1950s, there was talk of turning the C&O Canal into a paved Parkway. A Supreme Court Justice and D.C. resident strongly disagreed. Justice William O. Douglas persuaded the editors of the Washington Post to hike the full length of the Canal with him to experience first hand the scenery they were advocating to alter. Dozens of conservationists and citizens joined Douglas for portions of the hike and the publicity it garnered generated sufficient support to save the Canal as a National Park Site, which is dedicated to the judge.

The C&O NHP is better appreciated if you think of it as a National Park or National Recreation Area. Seen in that light, its shaded towpaths and opportunities for hiking, biking and camping are more enjoyable. If you are looking for historical significance, you might want to venture further south to Antietam or down into the District of Columbia.

Trail SharerCROWDS (6/10)
There were few visitors at any of the Visitor Centers. Several parking areas for the towpath were nearly full, but our visit was not affected in any way by others enjoying the Canal.

These towns’ distances northwest of Washington, D.C. are indicated by their Canal milepost, 185 (Cumberland), 125 (Hancock) and 100 (Williamsport). Cumberland is the approximate halfway point between D.C. and Pittsburgh, Pa.

All three Visitor Centers in this section of the C&O Canal NHP are located short hops off Interstates. Three different Interstates, in fact – I-68 (Exit 43, Cumberland), I-70 (Exit 1, Hancock) and I-81 (Exit 2, Williamsport).

Once we got off the Interstates and into these quaint towns, we had problems. The signage is inadequate and confusing. One way streets and metered parking frustrated us in Cumberland, MD, we drove clear past the camouflaged VC in Hancock and, um, we actually found our way to Williamsport’s VC quite well.

We had our best experience at this Park once we got of the Interstates and traveled the narrow and winding Maryland Route 51 which parallels the Canal from Cumberland to Paw Paw. Every cross street to Route 51 seems to lead to a Canal NHP campsite or a secluded hiking trail; it felt like we were traveling in a National Park.

Choices at the C&O Canal bookstores are consistent with what one might find at any Mid Atlantic outfitter or outdoors store: lots of hiking guides, bird books, regional overviews. While practical, the selections seemed sub par for an NPS site.

Paw Paw Tunnel
COSTS (4/5)
It’s all free, we think. The Cumberland VC even has parking tokens to allay the meters’ costs.

No less than four Rangers loitered around the front desk at the Cumberland VC looking for a visitor to assist. Every VC along this portion of the Canal was fully staffed, from the quiet shed-like structure in Hancock, MD to the converted Cushwa Warehouse in Williamsport. But most of the time, we were the only visitors.

Pick up a copy of The Canaller to see what seasonal activities and special events are planned along the Canal. Most of the activities in June were geared towards folks under the age of 12. Fishing contests in stocked sections of the Canal, scavenger hunts and bug and bird walks all sounded cool until we realized we weren’t invited.

More locals than tourists take advantage of this section of the Canal, so educational opportunities are less abundant here than in the southern locks of the Canal. The Cumberland VC housed in the historic Western Maryland Railway Station provides the most in terms of exhibits and displays. Try your hand at “caulking” a canal boat or securing it with ropes or just admire the model lock or life-sized mule. When it comes down to it, there is not really much to say about the limited existence of the C&O Canal.

FUN (7/10)
The two-mile Tunnel Overlook Trail at the Paw Paw Tunnel gives a good reason to stop and stretch at mile 155. While the trail is steep, almost every step is shaded. Butterflies and frogs share the path so be careful where you step. We ended our loop by walking straight through the nearly mile-long Paw Paw Tunnel. The Ranger is not joking when he tells you to take a flashlight. Soothing at first, the cool darkness of the tunnel is a little overwhelming once you realize it is much longer than initially thought.

We were surprised at the amount of campsites located all along the Canal. If you are looking for a nice long, relatively flat through hike, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some place to pitch your tent. Try not to remember that the campgrounds in and around this part of the C&O Canal NHP provided the twitchy handy-cam setting for The Blair Witch Project.

Meandering PotomacWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
While we had a pleasant day driving along the Canal in West Virginia and Maryland, the visitor centers and Site stops in the quaint canal towns of Cumberland and Hancock were tricky to navigate and scenery grew repetitive by the end of the afternoon. The standardization and uniformity that makes for a good mode of transport doesn’t necessarily excite and amaze.

Choose the northern half of the Canal if you are looking for peaceful strolls or lunch in an old downtown; stick south of the Great Falls if you prefer a mule-pulled boat ride or stunning views to define your visit to the C&O Canal.

TOTAL 46/80

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Frederick, Md.
Visited: May 6, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 294 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Flowing MonocacyWHAT IS IT?
Site of the July 9, 1864 Civil War fight which the Park claims to be the “Battle that Saved Washington”.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The 1/2-mile loop Gambrill Mill Trail was the highlight of our visit. Variations of green shimmered in every direction. Purple wildflowers framed a rippling creek crossed by old stone bridges. Newborn Canada Geese streamlined through a murky pond eager to learn from their proud parents. We remained unclear as to this area’s historic relevance but we enjoyed this typical Eastern early springtime setting.

The remainder of the Battlefield sprawls around fields of private farmland and wooded fields. The land is bisected by both Interstate 270 and the increasingly busy Maryland Route 355 (The Georgetown Pike).

The Site repeats its stage name, the “Battle that Saved Washington”, so many times that all but the most skeptical visitors are liable to accept the Park’s claim that the fight was “one of the most important of the War” as fact.

That claim goes something like this:

1) 15,000 rabid Confederates led by the irascible Jubal Early make their way from the Shenendoahs poised to attack defenseless Washington, D.C.
2) By the grace of our founding fathers’ ghosts, Union General Lew Wallace trudges 5,800 tired troops to Frederick, Md. to intercept the irresistible Rebel force.
3) The Confederates rout the Bluecoats troops but are stalled long enough to allow Washington D.C. to reinforce its defenses
4) Early cannot attack D.C., the Union is preserved, and we all live happily ever after…until reconstruction.

We tend to get suspicious as the what if? qualifiers pile up. In Monocacy’s case, the Site accepts Early’s future victory as an incontrovertible fact. In addition, there is an underlying belief that the assumed sacking of Washington, D.C. would have mattered. At the time of the battle, the South was on their last legs. Sherman was closing in on Atlanta, Richmond had fallen and Lee’s Army had been backed into a siege in Petersburg, Va. The Rebels’ food, ammunition, land control, troop count and morale all had dwindled to alarmingly low rates.

At best, a last ditch seizing of the nearly deserted Washington D.C. would only have delayed the South’s inevitable defeat. Despite the Park’s assertion, the Battle of Monocacy ranks near the bottom in the importance scale of NPS Civil War sites.

Proud ParentsCROWDS (3/10)
The Confederate and Union forces met at this location primarily because it was a crossroads on the way to Washington D.C. 142 years has not altered the integral location. The speed and density of traffic, however, has increased considerably.

Two of the four stops on the Park’s Auto Tour are located along the Georgetown Pike. No one obeys the Pike’s 35-mph speed limit and everyone tailgates. A speeding car with an oblivious driver nearly rear-ended the proud Altima while we tried to make a difficult left-hand turn into an Auto Tour stop’s parking lot. The Pike is too crowded for an Auto Tour; we wonder how many Civil War tourists have been in accidents at Monocacy NB.

The Gambrill Mill Visitor Center is located on the Georgetown Pike about halfway between I-270 Exits 31 and 26. Frederick, Md.’s southeastern sprawl is threatening to overcome the Battlefield’s land. The Washington, D.C. Beltway is just 30 miles to the southeast via I-270; The Baltimore, Md. Beltway is 45 miles to the east via I-70.

Monocacy NB’s closeness to urban centers hinders its accessibility. The roads around the Battlefield are just too crowded, even during our midday Sunday visit. We saw the Battlefield and its monuments but never felt we could get close to them because of speeding cars, tiny parking lots, bumpy dirt/gravel roads and ambiguous trails.

The worst Civil War bookstore we have seen; and there is only two more to go!

COSTS (4/5)
Entry into Monocacy NB is unquestionably free.

The two Rangers at the Visitor Center were both isolated by two older gentlemen telling their personal World War II yarns. We had Civil War questions but the stories kept going. So we left.

On March 24, 2006, the NPS broke ground on a new Visitor Center. In the meantime, the Gambrill Mill Visitor Center has seen its share of neglect. The exhibits are outdated, there is no introductory film, a poor bookstore and no glossy explanatory Park brochure.

We left the Park confused, unsure of what we saw and doubtful of the Battle’s big picture worth. While we were there, we did not know where to go, we were frazzled by the traffic and nearly had our car totaled. A little bit of Park Service guidance would have helped.

Battle ReadyFUN (2/10)
Our only enjoyment came from our Gambrill Mill Trail stroll. We could not wait to leave.

Because Monocacy NB is close to Harrisburg, Pa. and on the road to D.C. we will probably stop back once the Visitor Center is finished. Until then, we suggest avoiding Monocacy NB like the plague found at the
Natural Bridges NM campground.

TOTAL 28/80

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Thurmont, Md.
Visited: May 6, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 293 of 353
NPS Website

We HAVE Been HereWe are a little embarrassed to admit how many times the Catoctin Mountain Park is in our rear view mirror. We drive past its entrance every time we pay a visit to friends or NPS sites in Washington, D.C., which is pretty often.

Twice we have tried to pay a proper visit to this NPS Site. The first time, the Visitor Center was getting a new floor and the only people we spoke to were construction workers. The second time we landed behind a long trail of Harley Davidson owners enjoying a sunny spring ride through the mountains. So much for a quiet drive along the Park’s loop road.

That day the Visitor Center had its new floor and a Ranger to stand on it. But frankly, her shortness with us did not inspire us to get out of the car and search for a trail which may or may not lead to a waterfall that may or may not be in the Park’s boundaries. Yeah, it was like that.

Catoctin Mountain Park is so close to our current residence that we assure you there will be a full review of it before this trip is finished.

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Washington D.C. and Maryland
Visited: May 5, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 292 of 353
NPS Website

Beautiful Autumn Day at the Gardens
A conglomeration of D.C.-area Park Sites that have little in common except their slightly proximate geography.

The NPS National Capitol Parks-East lists the following 13 major Park Sites caught in the NCP-E umbrella. National Parks Passport stamps exist at most of these Site’s Visitor Centers. You can eliminate a day’s worth of collecting by heading straight towards NCP-E Headquarters in Anacostia Park; they provide all the stamps in one easy setting.

The links will take you to our reviews:

Anacostia Park
1,200 acres of shoreline which clings both sides of the Anacostia River for nearly 11 miles.

Capitol Hill Parks
Because D.C. is not a state, every square inch of every city Park is under federal jurisdiction. If you see public space in the District, it is a National Park. We can’t visit every acre of public land in D.C. nor would we want to although we did hear about a National Geographic employee who was attempting that very bold and quixotic task. Good luck fellow completist. We understand your needs.

The long and the short is that we have walked through many parks on Capitol Hill and it would be ridiculous to write a review recounting all of their idiosyncratic sculptures remembering General such and such who fought in some triumphant war.

“Wait a sec. Aren’t those picayune descriptions the very point of your website,” you ask. Uh, let’s just move on to the next description.

Carter G. Woodson Home NHS
1915-1950 Shaw neighborhood home of Carter G. Woodson: professor, pioneering historian and founder of Black History Month.

Fort Dupont Park
The NPS counts Fort Dupont as only a part of the NCP-E and not as an official Park Site on its own accord. That’s our excuse for not visiting. We will probably find a way to see this circle of preserved Civil War earthen fortifications at some point in the future. The distant future.

Fort Washington Park and Fort Foote Park
Two long-defunct Potomac River-facing forts whose purpose was to protect Washington D.C. from waterborne invaders. Neither fort ever faced an enemy’s military attack.

Gab and FrederickFrederick Douglass NHS
Hilltop Anacostia mansion and, from 1877 to 1895, home of famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Greenbelt Park
Over 1,000 acres of pine and deciduous forests nestled in between the sprawling metropolises of Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Md.

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
The Aquatic Gardens are located within Anacostia Park’s borders. They are an interconnected 12-acre rectangular-shaped series of shallow, stagnant pools where, in the summer months, lotus flowers and tropical water-lilies blossom. The Park is also home to one of Washington, D.C.’s last remaining dense marshy swamps.

Langston Golf Course
There is no chance our USA-C2C trip will include a golf course be it public or private, historic or just built last year.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS
Stately Victorian-era home of Mary McLeod Bethune and longtime headquarters of the organization she founded, the National Council of Negro Women.

Oxon Cove Park and Oxon Hill Farm
An NPS-operated working farm replete with red barns, silos, John Deere tractors, cattle, hogs and draught horses. The farm’s most remarkable characteristic is its location, a narrow swath in-between Interstate 295 and the D.C. Beltway in an otherwise decidedly urban setting.

Piscataway ParkPiscataway Park
Six miles of prime Potomac River bordering real estate that became a National Park in 1961 in order to provide pristine, 18th-century-worthy views from George Washington’s plantation home, Mount Vernon, located directly across the water. The Park includes the privately run National Colonial Farm, a living history museum that depicts a circa 1770 middle class Virginia family’s tobacco farm.

Sewall Belmont House and Museum
The current home of the National Women’s Party and longtime home of its suffragist founder Alice Paul.

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Part of National Capital Parks – East
Visited: May 5, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 292 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Here’s Looking At YouWHAT IS IT?
An NPS-operated working farm replete with red barns, silos, John Deere tractors, cattle, hogs and draught horses. The farm’s most remarkable characteristic is its location, a narrow swath in-between Interstate 295 and the D.C. Beltway in an otherwise decidedly urban setting.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Some people find beauty in plowed fields and fenced plots filled with chickens, winding paths leading up to boxy, porched farmhouses. For someone who has never seen a farm, we admit Oxon Hill could hold a certain kind of charm. But is the idea of farmland really such a fading memory as Oxon Hill implies?

In 1891, the United States Government purchased this land as a farm for the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. It was given to the National Park Service in the 1960s and since 1967, Oxon Hill Farm has served as a functional farm, where city folk can come and experience the joys, or toils, depending on your inclination, of farm life for an afternoon. Its primary purpose today is to serve as an accessible window into a more rural way of life.

We learned nothing about St. Elizabeth’s during our visit from either Park displays or the Site materials provided. Further research taught us that the preeminent mental health reformer Dorothea Dix founded St. Elizabeth’s in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane. It was the first and only federal mental facility with a national scope.

Because of our current line of work, the history of St. Elizabeth’s is much more interesting than the farm that formerly served as “therapy” and sustenance for its patients.

CROWDS (6/10)
We arrived after the last wagon ride of the day. We were the only visitors to the Farm, although some local workers were enjoying an afternoon beer at the Site’s shady picnic area.

The Oxon Hill Farm is located alongside the Potomac, directly across the River from Alexandria, Va. via the D.C. Beltway’s (I-95, I-495) always crowded Woodrow Wilson Memorial (Draw) Bridge. To get to the farm’s parking lot, take exit 3A and bear right onto Oxon Hill Road. Keep your eyes open, you will need to make a quick right turn through orange cones into what seems like a construction zone.

There is no D.C. Metro access to the Site. The D14 Bus, which departs from the Southern Avenue Metro Station could drop you off on the Indian Head Highway; from there it would be a 1/4-mile walk to the entrance through heavy traffic, dust clouds and back-hoes. Driving is wildly preferred to the mass transit option.

The Visitor Barn and Bookshop bears a striking resemblance to Michael’s mom’s old kindergarten classroom. Learning stations, exhibits, reading and video watching areas fill the barn. The bookstore selection is definitely geared toward school groups and roaming students with pockets full of allowances. Knickknacks to remember one’s day at the farm and children’s books abound.

Follow MeCOSTS (5/5)
Park entry is free as, presumably, are the daily (1:30 p.m.) wagon rides that circle the grounds.

We luckily ran into the one Ranger on duty just as he was hopping into his pick-up truck. He unlocked the Visitor Barn for us and lingered, a little impatiently, as we took a look around. Given its claim as a working farm that represents a time “when horsepower still came from horses,” we are guessing that Rangers at Oxon Hill Farm spend more time tending to the animals than visitors.

To read the Park’s pamphlet, one gets the impression that Oxon Hill Farm is abuzz with activity from dawn to daybreak and that visitors could roll up their sleeves, jump right in and help the Rangers with their many, many farm duties. Life on the farm is hard work! That’s the message that Oxon Hill seems eager to impart.

Here’s the thing: we are having a very hard time believing that D.C. residents have never seen a farm and are completely ignorant of life beyond the Beltway. Oxon Hill positions itself as a foreign experience and this premise feels condescending.

To top it off, there was a whole lot of nothing happening during our afternoon visit. Things might be very, very different when a school group is let loose on the grounds. But on the day of our visit, construction crews on I-295 were the locus of action, not anything on the farm.

Gab is also disappointed that there is no mention of Oxon Hill Farm’s earlier existence as an adjunct part of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in any of its materials. The history of mental institutions and the progress of the treatment of mental illness are fascinating topics. Discussion of this would have added depth and a bit more significance to the Farm as a NPS site.

The founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, has her own National Park Site, why doesn’t our country’s most prominent mental health advocate and reformer, Dorothea Dix, enjoy the same remembrance?

It’s My FarmFUN (5/10)
This isn’t to say we had a bad time at the Site. We were just unclear what we were supposed to be taking away from our visit. Oxon Hill Farm provided a quiet setting for a midday walk and all the animals were out. We spent our hour at the Site courting the ducks, getting the pigs and horses to look our way for photo opps and talking with the pregnant cow who looked like she was ready to burst at any second. Poor thing! The surroundings were quaint and we appreciated the momentary respite from traffic.

Oxon Hill Farm seems ready and able to handle large amounts of middle-schoolers, the presumed audience for the exhibits inside the Visitor Barn. We are guessing that this Site is a very popular field trip destination. There are plenty of learning opportunities at the Farm, just none geared towards anyone that can get into a PG-13 movie without an adult.

TOTAL 42/80

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Part of National Capital Parks – East
Accokeek, Md.
Visited: May 5, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 291 of 353
NPS Website; Local Piscataway Park Website; National Colonial Farm Website

The Wide PotomacWHAT IS IT?
Six miles of prime Potomac River bordering real estate that became a National Park in 1961 in order to provide pristine, 18th-century-worthy views from George Washington’s plantation home, Mount Vernon, located directly across the water. The Park includes the privately run National Colonial Farm, a living history museum that depicts a circa 1770 middle class Virginia family’s tobacco farm.

BEAUTY (5/10)
At Piscataway Park, the wide Potomac’s banks stretch for miles, untamed by most industrial and residential intrusions. An L-shaped pier gingerly enters the waters providing ample fishing opportunities to patient anglers. A rogue pier stanchion hosts an osprey nest. Its resident raptor provides an exciting show, hovering, swooping and capturing an unsuspecting fish.

Stately Mount Vernon demands attention and we obliged. Our binoculars revealed hundreds of tourists meandering around its grounds. Maybe we won’t visit today after all.

The National Colonial Farm feels very museum-ish. Its buildings are beautifully preserved, its lawns are impeccably mowed and its fences are in perfect condition. Its carefully selected Heritage Breed Animals also look quite content. This Colonial Farm does not have the lived-in appearance earned by northern Virginia’s Claude Moore Colonial Farm.

While the National Park Service was thinking about a project to protect the views of Mount Vernon, the Accoceek Foundation rose to the occasion and began purchasing the land to do so. The Foundation formed for the sole purpose of preserving this stretch of the Potomac riverbank and in doing so, became one of the nation’s first land trusts.

The Accoceek Foundation’s stewardship of the National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park, including its organic gardens and heritage breed livestock contributes to the knowledge base and gene pools necessary for ecologically sound farming today. Their living history presentations portray middle-class existence before the American Revolution, the day-to-day life of a new and growing part of New World society.

The Colonial FarmCROWDS (7/10)
Clusters of school children were being shepherded through the National Colonial Farm by able volunteers. The groups were scattered sufficiently so we could eavesdrop when the conversations sounded interesting but our progress through the farm was never impeded by them. Plus, the presence of buses full of kids guaranteed that the seasonal gift store (and home of NPS passport stamps) would eventually be open.

The Piscataway Park and National Colonial Farm are located approximately 15 miles from the D.C. Beltway (I-495, 95). From either Exit 2A or 3A take the Indian Head Highway (Maryland Route 210) south for about ten miles.

The ultra specific Accokeek Foundation directions read as follows: “After you pass Farmington Road, you will take a right at the next stop light onto Livingston Road (look for B&J Carryout). Drive one block and turn right on Biddle Road. At the stop sign, turn left on Bryan Point Road and follow 3.5 miles to the end. Make a right into the visitors parking lot.” We would be hard pressed to get more specific.

We would have been pretty disappointed if the door had remained locked and our only view of the Museum Gift Shop was through a thick window. Even from that vantage, the goods looked inviting. Once the store opened, Gab predictably made a beeline for the Sale table but was sidetracked by the numerous displays and items celebrating the “item of the month” which happened to be natural herbs.

Tea sets, pottery, and all sorts of things about organic gardening fill the tables and shelves. Teas, candles, soaps and of course, herbs scent the air. Although there are children’s books and items here, the Shop slants towards the mature customer. Not a lot of field-trip friendly doodads and trinkets here, so not a lot of pint-sized visitors. Probably a good move since the teacup display looked pretty precariously placed.

Here’s Looking At YouCOSTS (3/5)
Admission into Piscataway Park is free. If you want to enter the National Colonial Farm, it is $2 per person.

We didn’t encounter our first NPS Ranger until we knocked on his Office door. Interpretive duties at the National Colonial Farm are left in the hands of its founders, the Accoceek Foundation.

The walk from the Park Office back through the Colonial Farm exposed more familiar brown shirts, even more costumed interpreters from the Foundation, and ended at the wonderful and now-staffed museum shop.

The best thing about the National Colonial Farm is its contrast to its wealthy neighbors at Mount Vernon and its poorer peers at Claude Moore National Historic Site. National Colonial Farm paints a vivid picture of what a middle class; somewhat upwardly mobile plantation farm would have looked like over 230 years ago. We drew on our previous day’s experience at Claude Moore to talk about the various social classes and conditions with an interpreter we met as we were leaving the Farm.

Unlike our hosts at Claude Moore, this interpreter felt free to shift in and out of character, which we truly appreciated. We had spent the morning marveling at the sprawl that was Winthrop and we wanted a local’s (modern) point of view. She also clarified some of our questions from Claude Moore’s which came across as anachronistic when we asked our resolute farmers.

FUN (8/10)
Baby lambs! We saw two baby lambs. As in, just been born baby lambs! A volunteer was explaining to a group of wide-eyed kids, us included, one of the lamb’s present predicament. The little guy had managed to get himself on the side of the fence opposite his mom, who was already taking a stronger liking to his sibling. If he couldn’t find his way back to his mom and back in her good graces, he could starve before the week was through. Come on baby lamb! You can do it!

Newborn LambThe drama, the suspense! You know it had to be good to keep a dozen 4th graders rapt in silent attention. When we weren’t gawking at sheep or chatting away with living history presenters about the population and landscape of northern Virginia – both 18th and 21st century – we hung out with a disinterested burro and some exotic turkeys.

Piscataway Park and National Colonial Farm would be a fine compliment to any visit to Mount Vernon. The Site allows its visitors to take a break from the crowds and enjoy different perspectives, scenic and social, of Mr. Washington’s estate and the 18th-century Maryland/northern Virginia countryside. Its affordable admission ensures that you can extend your excursion without overextending your vacation budget.

TOTAL 52/80

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Part of National Capital Parks – East
Visited: May 5, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 290 of 353
NPS Fort Washington Website; NPS Fort Foote Website; Local Fort Washington Website

Guarding the PotomacWHAT IS IT?
Two long-defunct Potomac River-facing forts whose purpose was to protect Washington D.C. from waterborne invaders. Neither fort ever faced an enemy’s military attack.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Fort Washington offers stunning views of the wide Potomac River from its hilltop sentry. It is too bad the Fort itself is such a deteriorating mess. Fort Washington’s red brick interior is currently undergoing an intensive facelift; the resulting situation is a loud, fenced-off, permanent construction zone. There are few places to go and even fewer things to see.

Fort Foote, well, we drove there and parked. From the parking lot, there was an indeterminately lengthy walk to the Fort. We skipped the hike and left. Documentation states that Fort Foote is the best-preserved Civil War fort in the area but NPS’ Fort Foote website has no pictures and an Internet search yields only one shot of a 15-inch Rodman gun. We do not think we missed much because there is no Fort Foote Visitor Center and no Rangers on staff.

What if they built a fort and no battles came? That is not such a bad thing, we guess, but it happened at both of these Sites. Fort Washington’s unfortunate history, however, is far more interesting.

The US began construction on Fort Washington in 1809 in order to protect Washington, D.C. from Potomac-River bound invaders. In 1814, during the War of 1812, the British eluded the Fort’s guns by sailing up the Patuxent River on their way to sacking and burning our nation’s Capitol. During the British retreat down the Potomac, Fort Washington was destroyed; not by the British but from its own soldiers’ misfired explosives.

The Fort was quickly rebuilt and remained an active base for over 120 years until its closure shortly after World War II, but never again faced attack (enemy or otherwise).

CROWDS (5/10)
Lots of people but no actual other tourists viewing Fort Washington. A busload of schoolchildren spent our entire stay (one hour) in the parking lot picnicking and playing football on the asphalt. Had they ever entered the Fort? Who knows?

Both forts are located along the eastern shore of the Potomac River just south of Washington, D.C. and sit a short jaunt westward from Maryland Route 210 (the Indian Head Highway). To get onto Route 210, take the D.C. Beltway (I-495, 95) Exit 2 and go south. Both forts are less than 10 miles away.

Hard at WorkNeither the George Washington Parkway NPS brochure nor the National Capital Parks-East NPS packet show any roads linking Route 210 to either Fort. An absence of roads raised a few flags in the Altima, but we pressed on. Well-placed brown NPS signs pointed us off Route 210 and to the Fort Washington VC parking lot. If you are traveling on 210 from the south: take Old Fort Road; from the north: take Fort Washington Road.

The walk from the lot to the VC and adjacent fort was longer and steeper than expected. You have been warned. The route to Fort Foote was trickier, as it weaves through residential neighborhoods. Luckily, there are helpful driving instructions on hand at the Fort Washington VC. As mentioned, the Fort Foote parking lot is not adjacent to the Fort itself; you have to walk through the woods to get there. How long? We don’t know; we didn’t leave the car. The walk could be 100 yards; it could be one mile.

There were a few sparsely shelved racks at the Fort Washington VC that scratched the surface of defense fort and assorted local history.

COSTS (2/5)
A $5 per car fee is posted both online and at Fort Washington’s front gate. We saw no Rangers collecting fees. The $5 cost may be suspended during construction; how can you charge when there is nothing to do? Had there been a Fee Station, our National Parks Pass would presumably have covered it.

When we first arrived at Fort Washington, there was a sign on the Visitor Center reading: CLOSED. “How could this be?” we thought while we decided to walk into the Fort. Gab simmered while adding, “If we drove all this way and don’t get any stamps I’m going to be angry.” “Going to be, as in the future?” Michael asked.

Luckily, for all involved, the Ranger staffing the Fort was just out on lunch break. She returned, let us in on the bounty of stamps and answered a few questions.

The charming yellow Fort Washington VC includes three full rooms of new-ish exhibits. Admittedly, we were less than vigilant in our learning duties. Our quick perusal revealed that much of their info was similar to stuff we learned at other American Coastal Defense System forts; we have been to dozens. Fort Washington would make for a nice initial lesson in multi-generational military history but you must go elsewhere to see a fort that saw fighting.

Fort Washington Visitor CenterFUN (4/10)
Could we have spent a more worthwhile two hours of our lives? Sure, but the Fort Washington VC has four different National Parks Passport stamps AND a snazzy lighthouse stamp. Multiple stamp sites always make us happy. A five-stamp site makes us ecstatic. The Fort and its history, however, were nothing special.

We have documented our love of forts countless times, or in approximately 40 Site Reviews. But even we cannot recommend a trip down to Fort Washington or Fort Foote. Regardless of how much they spruce the place up, there is still nothing to see.

If its eastern shore Potomac River views you want, go down the road to Piscataway Park where the walk to the water is considerably shorter and there is no charge. Fort Washington’s most appealing draw may be its summer-long, once a month, first week of Sunday Artillery Demonstrations. They promise to be more successful than the misfiring cannons of 1814.

TOTAL 33/80

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