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Northern Virginia: History’s lessons, nature’s delights

Manassas National Battlefield Park

When presented in ways they appreciate, the lessons of history can have a powerful impact on the minds of young people.

Historical stories, dramatically told, abound in Northern Virginia. Located just south of Washington and the Potomac River, the region is in one of the most history-focused areas of the country and has a heritage rich in patriotism. Visiting youth groups can learn about Civil War battles that raged in the area, for example, or they can visit the national museum dedicated to the bravery of the U.S. Marines.

But history is only one component of a visit to Northern Virginia. The region’s cities and towns are surrounded by miles of parks and forests that offer plenty of outdoor recreation options. And the proximity to the nation’s capital and other large metro areas gives planners access to plenty of exciting attractions and activities.

Manassas National Battlefield Park
In 1861, the Battle of Manassas (also called the First Battle of Bull Run) was the first major clash of the Civil War; another battle took place on the same spot in 1862. Today, the Manassas National Battlefield Park preserves the sites of these battles with a number of moving monuments and exhibits.

Groups begin at the visitors center, where a 45-minute introductory film details the country’s “loss of innocence” at Manassas and tells the dramatic stories of several locals affected by the fighting. Interactive exhibits give an up-close look at some of the weapons used during the Civil War.

From there, groups can leave on a 12-mile driving tour through the 5,000-acre site or take a walking tour guided by a park ranger. Along the way, they’ll see cannons used in the fighting, several buildings that stood during the war and a variety of monuments, including the iconic statue of Stonewall Jackson.

National Museum of the Marine Corps
The spirit of “Semper Fidelis” permeates the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, which commemorates the bravery of some of our country’s most elite warriors. Opened in 2006, the museum traces the Marine Corps’ role in national history through a variety of exhibits and dioramas composed of military vehicles and statues molded from the faces and bodies of actual Marines.

The museum’s exhibits outline the life of the typical Marine, from recruitment through training and deployment, and then show some of the weapons and techniques the forces have employed during various conflicts throughout history. Highlighted artifacts include three airplanes, a helicopter, a Sherman tank and the American flag flown over Iwo Jima.

In June, the museum opened a 10,000-square-foot expansion that brought an additional 250 artifacts onto display.

Leesylvania State Park
History and nature converge at Leesylvania State Park, a 542-acre woodland peninsula on the Potomac River. The forest and river make the park an ideal habitat for numerous species of birds, including bald eagles, but the land is also known as the former estate of Henry Lee III, a Revolutionary War hero whose son Robert grew up to be the president of the Confederacy.

At the park’s visitors center, displays include information about wildlife in the area, as well as some Revolutionary War and Civil War artifacts and uniforms. Various activities are offered on the water and in the woods, among them a guided hike that takes participants through the ruins of numerous buildings that were part of the Lee family’s plantation.

Hikers will also encounter the ruins of an 1825 house, as well as the site where a gun battery was set up in 1861 during the Civil War.

Potomac Nationals
Although there are several big-league sports franchises in Washington (accompanied by big-league ticket prices), sports fans touring Northern Virginia can enjoy an affordable night out at the ballpark during a Potomac Nationals baseball game. The team is a Class A affiliate of the nearby Washington Nationals and plays at the G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge.

Groups can easily get tickets to home games during the team’s full season, which runs from April to September. On Saturday nights, fans stick around after the game for a fireworks display.

Prince William Forest Park
When some residents of metro D.C. want to get out and enjoy nature, they head to Prince William Forest Park. Spanning more than 17,000 acres, the park is the largest green space in the Washington area.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find more than 35 miles of hiking trails in the park, which run alongside streams, ponds and waterfalls. There are also several historic elements: The secluded forest area was used as a training camp for CIA and Office of Strategic Services operatives in the World War II era, and some of these same facilities were converted to house urban youth on summer outings after the war.

Today, the camp buildings are still available for groups interested in a retreat-style getaway. For a more rustic experience, visitors can camp in primitive sites inside the park.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.