Gettysburg National Military Park with kids: how to plan your trip

Gettysburg is a sobering, powerful, amazing, and vast destination, and definitely worthy of a trip with kids. We recommend dedicating at least 1.5 days to the Gettysburg National Military Park with kids, plus another for attractions in town.

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We always preach researching destinations ahead of time, and this advice goes double for Gettysburg: kids who have been given some background information on the three day battle (either at school or at home) ahead of time will get much more out of the experience. We planned our trip to coincide with our sons’ Civil War and American History studies in their respective grades of 10th, 8th, and 4th.

What to do at the military park:

The National Military Park is located just outside Gettysburg (about a five minute drive from town). The battlefield is 25 square miles in size, segmented into several sections and divided in places by private land and homes. There is a self-guided auto tour, but navigating the roads can be confusing. There’s also an impressive (and again, vast) visitor’s center with many programs on offer.

Car tour with Licensed Battlefield Guide:

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There are many ways to tour the battlefield, including the self-guided auto tour mentioned above, plus a group bus tour ($30 per adult, just under $20 per child), horseback riding tours, Segway tours, and bike tours. By far the best way to tour the battlefield: hiring a Licensed Battlefield Guide to take you on a private two-hour tour. The guide meets you at the visitor’s center, then drives you in your vehicle along the route of your choice. Sounds indulgent? Not so! Booking a private tour is only $65 per car (1-6 people), making it the most affordable option for most families. And it’s phenomenal. I cannot emphasize enough: booking a Licensed Battlefield Guide is the way to go.

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Our guide, David Eisenhart, asked us what we wanted to see (we wanted a basic overview of all three days of battle), and gauged our level of knowledge (we were traveling with my father, a retired history teacher specializing in the Civil War, but also with our three school-aged kids who needed more basics). David did an excellent job tailoring our tour to all our needs. Our two-hour tour extended to almost three hours due to its thoroughness, and while an extension should not be expected, we heard other firsthand accounts of guides doing the same. When it ended, our teen son said, “I wish it had been four hours.” Our other kids agreed.

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Guides drive families throughout the battlefield, giving a very easy-to-understand timeline to the battle. If you have special requests, such as to see specific sections of the field or specific monuments, these can be granted. During our tour, in each location, we were able to get out the car, stand on the land David was currently discussing, and actually see what was there: cannons, stone fences used for defense, where each regiment stood, and more. David brought history to life, and we were all enraptured.

Parents can book tours at the visitor’s center, but will be limited to tour times available day-of (witch are rare). It’s best to book ahead of time online for the date and time you want. Tips are welcome (we tipped our guide $20). Tip: Battlefield Guides are self-employed and tested by the National Park Service, and can be booked via the center or the Gettysburg Foundation. Families can save $5 on their tour by booking directly through the foundation website

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Museum, Film, and Cyclorama:

In the visitor’s center, families can buy tickets to the museum, film, and cyclorama. One ticket gets you into all three. The film and cyclorama is by timed ticket, but getting these day-of is fine. The film, entitled ‘A New Birth of Freedom’ is approximately 30 minutes and gives a very good overview of the three day battle and aftermath, including Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Directly after viewing the film, the audience is directed upstairs to view the cyclorama, a multi-media display featuring an impressive 360 degree oil painting of the battle with audio and visual effects. After this, the museum awaits. The museum is not by timed ticket, so families can come back and do it anytime. It’s massive, and incredibly informative, so you’ll want to budget several hours. Very young kids may want to go through more quickly.

Ranger talks:

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Throughout the day at the visitor’s center, ranger talks are on offer in two large outdoor tents on the center grounds. We joined one on ‘battlefield first aid’ which was very interesting and keep our group entertained for the full hour. Others included ‘a day in the life of a soldier’ and a kid-focused talk on ‘what it took to enlist’. Small kids may learn more at these talks than in the museum. Tip: if you have even more time, a short (free) bus trip from the visitor’s center takes you to the site of a farmhouse pressed into service as a field hospital during the battle.

Gettysburg National Cemetery:

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Adjacent to the visitor’s center is the national cemetery dedicated by Lincoln in November of 1863, where thousands of Union Civil War soldiers rest today. It’s also the final resting place of other war veterans, especially from WWI and WWII. The Gettysburg civilian cemetery is next to it. There’s a monument and flag marking the place Lincoln gave his address, and docents on-hand to answer questions.

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How to plan your day(s):

Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Book a battlefield tour for 10 am (book this from home).
  2. Arrive at the visitor’s center when it opens (usually 8:30 am). Pick up your tour tickets, and buy tickets to the museum, film, and cyclorama, opting for an immediate film time.
  3. Watch the film and see the cyclorama. Save your tickets to get into the museum later.
  4. At 9:30 meet your guide and take your tour. Afterward, grab lunch picnic-style or at the visitor’s center cafe.
  5. Tour the museum after lunch. See a ranger talk if there’s time afterward.
  6. Later that evening (or the next day) return to the battlefield by yourself in your car, stopping at any sites you didn’t get to see with your guide. Then tour the cemetery. We took this time to check out the views from one of the battlefield observatories, and to walk some trails around Little Round Top and Devil’s Den, both sobering locations of devastating casualties that provided a strong historical narrative to our visit.

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I recommend touring in this order because the museum is heavy on detailed information on logistics for each day of the three-day battle. Had we not just returned from our tour, where this information was already presented to us in a manageable way, we would have gotten overwhelmed trying to read it all. Instead, by the time we hit the museum, we had a very good grasp on the battle logistics, enabling us to spend more time on the artifacts and personal letters in the museum. Certainly, you can do the day in reverse, but we were very glad we were fresh for our tour with our Battlefield Guide.

Date last visited:

June 2104

Hours of operation and admission:

The battlefield is open until dusk each day, and the museum is open until 5 or 6 pm, depending on season. Museum and film tickets are $12.50 for adults and $8.50 for kids (6-12).

Directions:

The museum and visitor center is located at 1195 Baltimore Pike (Route 97) with a back entrance from the Taneytown Road (State Rt. 134). From North or South, follow US 15 to Gettysburg and watch for signs to direct you to the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center.

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Our day at Gettysburg was hosted in part by the Friends of Gettysburg, for the purpose of review. We’re grateful for their hospitality, but all opinions are our own.

About the author

Amy Whitley

AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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