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Taking a ‘day-cation’: National parks offer alternative fun

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Mar 19, 2021

Antietam Battlefield in nearby Sharpsburg, Md., offers an opportunity for a “day-cation,” enjoying nature and learning about history. Toni Milbourne

SHEPHERDSTOWN — As spring approaches, people are hoping to escape their cabin fever and move past the COVID-19 restrictions. However, due to the ongoing pandemic, travel to vacation spots may not yet be the safest choice for many. Visiting a national park on a “day-cation” is one vacation alternative that allows individuals to get outside and explore, while not having to congregate with a lot of other people.

Within Jefferson County, people can travel to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, where all facilities are open again except for the Harpers Ferry Visitors Center. Parking is available at the national park facility, where visitors are encouraged to park so the lives of town residents are impacted in the least possible amount.

Tourists can explore Harpers Ferry by visiting local shops, museums and eateries, and hiking trails around the park, which includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail.

“Harpers Ferry witnessed the first successful application of interchangeable manufacture, the arrival of the first successful American railroad, John Brown’s attack on slavery, the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War and the education of former slaves in one of the earliest integrated schools in the United States,” according to the National Park Service website.

The C&O Canal also runs through Jefferson County, with a towpath that allows visitors to hike and bike along, or otherwise explore. Campsites are available along the canal, although some remain under restrictions due to COVID-19. Visitors Centers along the canal remain closed, although their restrooms are now open.

Those willing to travel a bit further can walk the fields of Antietam National Battlefield in nearby Sharpsburg, Md. The Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history with a combined tally of 22,717 dead, wounded or missing, was played out over more than 2,743 acres of land in Sept. 1862.

While the ANB’s visitor center theater and museum currently remain closed to the public, its lobby, park store and restrooms are open. Informative signage dots the roadways, along with cannons and time-appropriate fencing. Many of the park’s buildings remain from the time of the battle, offering a resource for history not often found in many locations. These homesteads show a perseverance by those who lived in the time and remained after the war ravaged the country.

The beauty of Antietam National Battlefield can be found in its open fields, as well as the many woods and bodies of water that lie within its borders. Antietam Creek runs through the Snavely Woods, where Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, for whom a bridge is named, attacked Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops, forcing the Confederate line and helping to lead to a Union victory.

In addition to these neighboring parks, there are additional national parks in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, many of which are within driving distance for a “day-cation.” Currently, the Leave No Trace policy is in effect in most areas, meaning visitors must not leave their trash at any national park, as there is no scheduled pick-up in the parks. Visitors are also advised to avoid crowding and high-risk outdoor activities.

National park visitor locations are gradually being reopened. To learn more about Jefferson County’s or other parks in the National Park Service, visit www.nps.gov.