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This portion of our Winter 2017 visit to the Mid-Atlantic took us through seven national park units in Delaware and Maryland. We still have many more to go in this area, especially when you add in Washington, DC, but every little bit counts!
The National Park Service currently has a total of 417 units, which includes National Parks, National Monuments, National Historic Sites and many other types of sites. If you are a regular reader of our site, you probably know that most of our US travel is to visit these sites. We would love to visit all of the national park units at some point in our lives. Some of these sites are extremely difficult to get to, but we’ll at least try!
The sites in the contiguous United States are easy enough to get to, though. While winter may not be the best time to travel due to weather concerns and decreased hours of operation, we still try to make good use of the time that we have.
It is interesting to me how the units of the National Park Service are spread out. Texas, the second largest state, has 14 sites. Maryland, one of the smallest states, also has 14 sites. Additionally, only 10 of the 59 National Parks are east of the Mississippi River. Of course, there are many legitimate reasons for this, but it is still interesting.
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First State National Historical Park
Ironically, Delaware, the first colony to adopt the new United States Constitution in 1787 (making it the first state), was the last state to have a unit of the National Park Service. President Obama established the First State National Monument as the 400th unit of the National Park Service and Congress declared it a national historical park in March 2013.
As a relatively new national park site, First State NHP is still mostly operated by the state of Delaware. This is common for new NPS units. Even after nearly five years, the park service has not set up an official visitor center or even a staffed phone (according to the website). Despite this, you can still enjoy a visit to First State NHP.
The First State NHP is actually seven separate sites spread out across the state. You will find Beaver Valley, Fort Christina and Old Swedes Church in Wilmington. New Castle has the New Castle Court House. In Dover, you will find The Green and the John Dickinson Plantation. Finally, the Ryves Holt House is located in Lewes.
Our first stop in Delaware was Beaver Valley, which is along the Brandywine River on the border of Delaware and Pennsylvania. This border was the original boundary between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Delaware. The land was first deeded to William Penn and has been preserved since 1906.
The river is quite pretty and the area has several trails. Alas, the temperatures were a bit too low for us to really get out and do much. That is one drawback of traveling in the winter.
If you collect National Park passport stamps, you can find one at the Brandywine Creek State Park Nature Center. We use the Passport app, rather than a physical Passport Book, so we did not seek out this center.
From here, we continued into town to Old Swedes Church. Located in the downtown area of Wilmington, not far from the Delaware River, Old Swedes Church is the oldest church in America still used for worship. The church was built by Swedish and Finnish settlers in 1699.
The church is a cute little stone church surrounded by a graveyard. Alas, the church was almost completely covered in scaffolding as part of a restoration when we arrived. The one ranger on duty was not in the Visitor Center when we arrived, rather in the church doing a tour. We were on a bit of a time crunch, so we did not wait.
Just a few blocks away is Fort Christina, which is where the first Swedish and Finnish American settlers landed and settled the first American Swedish colony, New Sweden. Again, the site is currently completely closed for renovations. We drove by, but that was about as close as we could get.
From Wilmington, we headed south to Dover. Our first stop was the John Dickinson Plantation. This site was definitely a hidden gem and the highlight of the First State NHP.
John Dickinson was a noted politician and “penman of the Revolution” in the 1700s. He was a member of the Continental Congress and helped write the Declaration of Independence. You have probably never heard of him, though… His “demise” was in not signing the Declaration of Independence.
While he was a strong proponent of independence, he did not believe that the colonies were ready just yet. Despite strong pressure from others, he held fast to his principles and did not sign. While we are certainly glad that the Declaration of Independence was signed, we appreciate that Dickinson stuck to his principles and did not bow to pressure from others.
This site preserves his plantation, just south of the city, which contains the main house and barn, granary, smokehouse and several other buildings. After watching the introductory video, a volunteer provided a tour of the house, where we learned more about Dickinson and his life.
The visit took us a little over an hour and, best of all, was free!
Next stop: The Green. Right in the middle of the Historic Downtown, The Green was one of three public squares in Dover in the early 1700s. Surrounded by government buildings, homes and taverns, it quickly became the heart of the city. In fact, it was at one of the taverns on The Green that the US Constitution was ratified, giving Delaware the honor of being the first state.
According to the NPS website, there is a visitor center at the First State Heritage Park, but we arrived right at closing time, so we missed it.
Other First State Sites
Since we planned to drive south to Ocean City, MD the next day, we decided to stop by the Ryves Holt House in Lewes. This house, built in 1665, claims to be the oldest surviving house in the state.
Timing struck us again, as we arrived before they opened (many sites in this area have very limited hours in the winter). We didn’t really care too much about the museum inside anyway, so we just took a couple pictures and moved on. Honestly, we probably would not have even stopped if it wasn’t on our way.
We did not attempt to visit the seventh site within the First State NHP, the New Castle Court House. New Castle is located about 15-20 minutes southeast of Wilmington. We just did not have time in our schedule for the stop. The limited hours this time of year does affect what you can see in a day.
We enjoyed most of what we saw but were frustrated by the lack of National Park services, visitor centers and memorabilia. Grant was really hoping to find a magnet for our collection, but we never did. Perhaps we’ll visit again in the future when the park service has had more time to get this Historical Park operating more smoothly.
Assateague Island National Seashore
Yep, we’re the crazies that went to the beach when the temperatures were in the 20s! Needless to say, we did not spend much time actually walking on the beach. We certainly did not put on a bathing suit and swim or sunbathe!
The National Seashore is actually in both Maryland and Virginia. We only visited the Maryland side, which is about 20-30 minutes south of Ocean City. There is also a portion that is a state park and there is a National Wildlife Refuge. Needless to say, this is a very protected area!
Assateague Island NS is best known for the wild horses that live there. It is also a pretty great beach and I’m sure one that is VERY busy in the warmer months!
Things to do at Assateague Island NS
In the winter, there really was not much to do other than the short drive and a few short nature trails. We, of course, walked out onto the beach and took a few pictures. But, the low temperatures and wind made it difficult to stay out too long.
The main drive has a couple of short side roads on the bay side. In the summer, you can kayak, canoe, go clamming and crabbing or rent a bicycle. None of this was open in the winter. What we did have was plenty of parking spaces and very few people!
We enjoyed the Marsh Trail, which was a short, mostly boardwalk trail over the marsh. We didn’t see much more than frozen water on our trek, but it was still pretty and interesting.
Other than the beach, the highlight of the park is definitely the wild horses. We found the horses right off the main road, in a couple of the beachside parking lots and near the campground.
You are not supposed to touch or feed the horses because, well…they are wild. Please follow these rules as they are there for your protection and the horses!
We only spent a couple of hours here. In the summer, I would definitely expect to spend the better part of a day, or even several days if you wanted to do some camping. If you are looking to visit the Virginia side, you will have to exit the park and drive around, which is a little over an hour.
We stayed in nearby Ocean City, MD at the Hilton Suites Ocean City Oceanfront right on the water. It was an excellent use of a free night certificate and we would gladly stay here again.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHP is located on the west side (bay side) of the eastern peninsula, commonly known as the Eastern Shore, of Maryland. Be careful to not confuse this site with the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, NY.
I will also caution you to not get too wrapped up in the fact that this site is a National Historical Park. The site really is little more than a museum. Granted, it is a new park and is still a “work in progress.” The NHP Visitor Center claims to be a gateway to the larger Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway.
Again, as a new park, it is operated through a partnership with the Maryland Park Service. The Visitor Center museum has exhibits sharing the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, who was born a slave in this area of Maryland. Tubman eventually escaped slavery, yet continued to return to Maryland to help more than 70 friends and family members escape through the Underground Railroad.
We spent about an hour touring the museum exhibits. We thoroughly enjoyed the museum and found it very well done and informative.
Our biggest gripe is the lack of services for a National Historical Park. I suppose we just wanted “more.” We do understand, though, that it is a new site and the National Park Service is still working on updating the overall visitor experience.
Hampton National Historic Site
Located about 20 minutes north of downtown Baltimore, Hampton NHS preserves a historic Georgian mansion. What is unique about Hampton is that it has no real historical or national significance, other than its architecture and ornate furnishings.
According to the Hampton NHS brochure, Henry Winthrop Sargent wrote, in 1859, “It has been said of Hampton that it expresses more grandeur than any other place in America.” Indeed, everything about the mansion is opulent from the grand entrance hall to the hand-painted window shades.
Built in the 1780s by Captain Charles Ridgely, the estate presents the wealth and grandeur of a prominent Maryland family. Capt. Ridgely made his fortune in ironworks during the Revolutionary War. Future generations continued amassing wealth through coal mining, marble quarries, crops and cattle and other ventures.
Ownership of the estate passed to the eldest son of each generation. The estate stayed in the family through the mid-1900s when it was designated a National Historic Site. Even after opening for tours, John Ridgely Jr. and his wife continued living on the property, in the farmhouse.
Visiting Hampton NHS
You will likely need at least a couple of hours for a complete visit. The highlight and must-do activity is a tour of the mansion. We almost skipped the tour due to our schedule, but, in hindsight, that would have been a horrible mistake! The tour was definitely worth the hour-long wait for it to start. The tour lasted about an hour and was free.
You can sign up for a house tour at the small Visitor Center. While waiting for your tour to start, you can visit the Lower House, which contains the farmhouse and slave quarters. The Ridgely family lived in the farmhouse while the mansion was being built in the 1700s and after the mansion was opened for tours in the 1900s.
Back at the mansion, there are many small buildings to explore, as well. The ice house and orangery were particularly unique for the time.
The tour itself started with an informational video. We would have much preferred the video be played at Visitor Center, so visitors could watch it before the tour or even instead of the tour. The video does provide a good overview of the family and the estate.
The tour itself was very informative with additional historical information and details about family members, rooms and furnishings. One unique aspect of the mansion is that the park service decorated each room for a different time period, rather than showing the house as one moment in history.
Our visit to Hampton NHS was another hidden gem. We had little to no idea what to expect going in, but thoroughly enjoyed the visit and the history lesson.
Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine
With probably the most unusual national park designation, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is located in Baltimore, right off I-95. We have visited MANY coastal forts over the years, and Fort McHenry is not that dissimilar to the majority of them.
What is significant about Fort McHenry is that the defense of the fort against a British naval attack in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner.
As usual, stop at the Visitor Center to start. The visitor center, film and exhibits are free. There is, however, a $10 fee to visit the fort itself. The exhibits provide a very thorough explanation of the battle for Baltimore and the story behind “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We won’t give away any spoilers, but be sure to watch the movie and stay through the end.
The National Park Service offers several programs, weather permitting, including flag changes and flag talks. The day we were there was extremely cold and windy, so they did the flag talk inside, for which we were very appreciative!
We did just a quick walk through the fort and grounds. Altogether, we probably spent a little over an hour visiting Fort McHenry. I would suggest allowing at least a couple of hours, especially if you are a history buff or have not visited a lot of other forts. Warmer temperatures would also make a stroll along the water much more enjoyable!
Fort Washington Park
A little more than an hour south of Baltimore and just 30 minutes south of Washington, DC are a couple of small national park sites, near Fort Washington, MD.
The first of these for us was Fort Washington Park, located right on the Potomac River. Nestled behind a thriving neighborhood, you are not going to find Fort Washington accidentally!
Fort Washington was built to protect the approach to the capitol after its predecessor, Fort Warburton was destroyed during the war of 1812. The fort was used in the Civil War, Spanish-American War and World War I. It was also used as a training facility during World War II. The National Park Service officially took over in 1946.
There is a small visitor center with a short film. After watching the video, we took a quick walk around. Again, visiting in the winter will certainly cut your visit short, unless you have some great weather or are really hardcore! The wind was especially brutal, which is not surprising considering its location on the Potomac River.
In addition to the fort itself, there is a three-mile trail around the park boundary. There are also opportunities for fishing and bird watching.
Just about 15-20 minutes south of Fort Washington is Piscataway Park. Piscataway preserves wetlands, woods and meadows. It is also home to National Colonial Farm.
Alas, the visitor center was closed when we stopped, but we did enjoy a quick walk through a farm area with sheep and chickens. I wish we could tell you more about this place, but we can’t at this point.
While Piscataway looks and sounds like a pretty cool site, we certainly would not suggest a winter visit. The park is technically open, but there isn’t much of anything you can do unless you are already familiar with the area.
The nearby Thomas Stone National Historic Site closes completely in the winter. I am sure that when we return to visit Thomas Stone we will also return to Piscataway and, possibly, Fort Washington.
Mid-Atlantic National Park Sites in the Winter
As teachers, we enjoy quite a bit of time off throughout the year. Additionally, our school system is on a modified calendar, so we get a full week off in both September and February, and a full week off for Thanksgiving. This is in addition to the traditional two weeks off at Christmas and one week of Spring Break in April.
While we enjoy a lot of time off, we generally cannot take additional time off aside from a three-day weekend here or there. I mention this because we travel when we have time off, which is not always the best time to travel!
The winter is certainly not the best time to visit this area of the country for several reasons. First, it is cold. We were traveling for nearly two weeks and seriously only saw temperatures above freezing for a few hours total. Most of our daytime temperatures were in the 20s.
Second, most of the sites operate on limited hours or are closed completely. Several places we visited only were open on the weekends or only gave tours on certain days. This definitely affected what we could do on any given day.
Third, the sun goes down really early this time of year! Seriously, by about 5:00 or 5:30 it was nearly, sometimes even completely, dark. This definitely made it difficult to do a lot of sight-seeing.
Regardless of the downsides, we enjoyed our trip and everything that we saw and did. We will likely return to at least some of these places when it is warmer and we can enjoy them more.
New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina Sites
This particular trip started in New Jersey; you can read our coverage of New Jersey’s three National Historic Sites here. Following Maryland, we spent several days in Virginia and North Carolina.