When you grow up a few miles from Valley Forge National Park, you don’t tend to think of it as a place of profound historical significance. You think of it more as a recreational escape on the way to or from the King of Prussia malls — a wide, open space to take your first real bike ride, attend birthday parties, take joy rides as a teenager, and jog along one of the nicest 5-mile loop trails around. You take for granted the perfectly reconstructed log cabins and artillery cannons you happen to pass along the way.
It was only after I returned with my own kids and visited half a dozen other national parks as an adult, that I came to appreciate Valley Forge for what it really is — a monument to sacrifice and survival, the place where George Washington and the Continental Army endured a brutal winter encampment in which 2,000 men died, yet went on to win big in the Revolutionary War. Now I marvel that all of this was practically in my own backyard when I was growing up.
Here are 5 things that are essential to every visit to Valley Forge, from someone who has logged in many hours here as both a local and a tourist.
1. Exercise! Join the many local residents already in the know about the perfect five-mile trail that loops around the entire park. On nice spring evenings, it is packed with walkers and runners just clocking off work, especially between the Welcome Center and the National Memorial Arch. Weekends are busy, too, but it’s always a little quieter if you start near Washington Memorial Chapel or General Washington’s headquarters and do a counter-clockwise loop.
2. Visit in winter. It will give you an idea of the conditions Washington and his troops experienced. Unlike many national parks, Valley Forge is a beehive of activity in winter, especially this month. One of the park’s biggest events takes place on Dec. 19, the anniversary of the Contintental Army’s ‘March-In’ to settle in the sleepy village of Valley Forge. Uniformed volunteers re-create the march and lead candle-lit tours to the log huts, where living Continental encampments have been set up. (For those reluctant to brave the cold, the park offers holiday trolley tours between Dec. 26 and 30 for $16 a person.)
3. Don’t miss the used bookstore and gift shop behind Washington Memorial Chapel. Run by volunteers, the Cabin Shop is a welcoming source of souvenirs, hot chocolate, homemade breads, and casual seating. (A local newspaper voted it the best place for hot dogs around.) The bookstore (just behind the chapel) is an unexpected discovery, a slightly musty room with cinder-block shelves full of cookbooks, children’s books, travel guides, and hardcovers, most for less than $5.
4. Run down the hills. Whether you have kids or not, barreling down the gently rolling hills that are all over the park is one of the best and cheapest thrills around.
5. Visit the bell tower and carillon at Washington Memorial Chapel. These 58 bronzed bells weigh more than 26 tons combined and were completed by the Daughters of the American Revolution as a memorial to American independence in 1953. They are played by hand from a keyboard (the church actually has its own house carillonneur). Call the chapel or check here for upcoming carillon events. The tower also houses the Justice Bell, a full-size replica of the Liberty Bell that was used between 1915 to 1920 to call attention to the women’s suffrage movement. If you can’t make it to Center City to see the real one, it’s the next best thing.