Imagine driving through history, moving effortlessly from the American Revolution to the middle of the Civil War. Toss in mountain vistas, authentic food and architecture, as well as lots of horses—and you have the 175-mile (282-kilometer) route called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground.
The name was coined by preservationists to champion a prime stretch of American geography threatened by the sprawl emanating from our nation's capital. Their efforts revealed a drive rich in attractions, from battlefields to gourmet restaurants, backed by the Blue Ridge, coursed by stone walls, and sprinkled with wineries. "The journey is not just cerebral; it's also invigorating," says Cate Magennis Wyatt, who directs a three-state coalition to preserve the corridor.
The route starts in Charlottesville, Virginia, stomping grounds of early American presidents, and heads generally northeast through Maryland and on to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the greatest battle of the Civil War. Along the way lie Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier, and James Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland, sites of some of the bloodiest moments in America's past at Gettysburg, and a succession of dining fare and linguistic accents, from the broad vowels of the Old Dominion to the quips of the Keystone State. What's more, much of this calming drive is through rolling pastures.
Start at Monticello
Just southeast of Charlottesville sits stately Monticello (Rte. 53; tel. 1 434 984 9822; www.monticello.org), the private home of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's quirky brilliance is reflected in his iconic country mansion, which he designed, and in his inventions—including the wheel cipher, an early encryption device—on display here. Monticello's extensive gardens, now in cultivation again, once grew imported wine grapes and 330 types of vegetables. From the north terrace, Jefferson, the wealthy land (and slave) owner, watched the construction of the University of Virginia through a telescope. Much of the surrounding Piedmont region, which embodied Jefferson's 18th-century agrarian dream, is little changed since this third president's residence here. To get a feel for that time, lodge at the nearby Inn at Monticello (1188 Scottsville Rd.; tel. 1 434 979 3593; www.innatmonticello.com), a country manor house dating to the 1800s. For authentic local cuisine, head over to the historic Ivy Inn (2244 Old Ivy Rd.; tel. 1 434 977 1222; www.ivyinnrestaurant.com) for the spring carrot soup, "Rag Mountain" trout, and strawberry-rhubarb crisp.
A short drive southwest from Monticello stands a more modest farmhouse in a pastoral setting, Ash Lawn-Highland (1000 James Monroe Pkwy.; tel. 1 434 293 8000; www.ashlawnhighland.org), built by James Monroe before he became the fifth U.S. president and moved to grander digs. Visitors often tell Carolyn O'Brien, who works in the gift shop, "Now, this is a house I could actually live in." Grab a sandwich at one of the several gentrified country stores in the Charlottesville area.
Jog north on Route 20 to Barboursville, whose eponymous vineyards and winery (17655 Winery Rd.; tel. 1 540 832 3824; www.barboursvillewine.com) specialize in homegrown European varietals. Nearby stand the ruins of the James Barbour mansion, built for the early 19th-century governor of Virginia and future secretary of war. Just north of Barboursville, near Orange, rises grand Montpelier (11407 Constitution Hwy., Montpelier Station; tel. 1 540 672 2728; www.montpelier.org), the 2,750-acre (1,113-hectare) estate of Jefferson's pal James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and architect of the U.S. Constitution. A careful renovation offers a rare glimpse of 18th-century construction techniques as well as a trove of discoveries, including newspaper clippings and fabric scraps recently found in mouse nests in the exposed walls. "Those mice," says tour guide Joann Powell, "are good preservationists." Shop for antiques in the little town of Orange, or farther north in larger Culpeper.
Manassas National Battlefield Park
Now the route moves ahead to the 19th century, from the era of the Founding Fathers to that of the Civil War. On this stretch you'll see signs not just for highways named for James Madison and James Monroe, but also for the Mosby Heritage Area (www.mosbyheritagearea.org, named for John Mosby, a Confederate guerrilla who harassed Union troops. The Civil War is still a big deal in Virginia. "We kicked theirs at Bull Run," says a woman in a convenience store near the town of Haymarket, a reference to the first battle of Manassas, which took place on July 21, 1861, at what is now the Manassas National Battlefield Park (6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas; tel. 1 703 754 1861; www.nsp.gov/mana). Here, Union and Confederate armies first clashed. The Rebs prevailed, sending spectators from Washington (some with picnic lunches) scurrying back home, stunned to realize that victory would be neither fast nor easy.
The town of Middleburg (www.middleburg.com), to the northwest of Manassas, is ground zero of American fox hunting. Its quaint three-block downtown is home to the historic Red Fox Inn (2 E. Washington St.; tel. 1 540 687 6301), which offers lodging and good crab cakes; the Hidden Horse Tavern (7 W. Washington St.; tel. 1 540 687 3828), which occupies a 200-year-old building and popular for its homemade potato chips and spiked cider; and The Chronicle of the Horse, a specialty paper published on the grounds of the National Sporting Library (102 The Plains Rd.; tel. 1 540 687 6542; www.nsl.org). Sometimes you'll see locals walking around town in breeches and knee-length boots.
Now detour west of Middleburg to pass through the field where the dashing Rebel general J.E.B. Stuart, covering Gen. Robert E. Lee's march north to Gettysburg, engaged Union General David Gregg. Continue a few more miles to reach the tiny burg of Paris, known for the historic Ashby Inn (692 Federal St.; tel. 1 540 592 3900; www.ashbyinn.com). Here you may dine on herbed roast chicken with pineapple rice and sautéed spinach, sip fine local wines from the Stone Mountain and Windham vineyards, and lodge in a guest room full of period furniture. A young George Washington is said to have bivouacked nearby when he was a surveyor. Later, John Mosby, the "Gray Ghost," would pass through Paris many times during his raids on the bluecoats.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Retrace your route back past Middleburg, then head north, across the Potomac River at Point of Rocks, into Maryland. As the land rises toward the verdant Catoctin Mountain Park (a 50-mile-long/80-kilometer-long ridge), the north-south dialectic becomes less obvious. "I'm a cross-dresser," says Jason Grabill, a Civil War reenactor I meet in the city of Frederick. He's wearing a blue uniform for a dramatic presentation downtown, though he usually prefers gray. "My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Confederate, but my family also had Union soldiers." In Frederick, see numerous 18th- and 19th-century buildings in the town historic district, home to the unique National Museum of Civil War Medicine (48 E. Patrick St.; tel. 1 301 695 1864; www.civilwarmed.org). Its exhibits of battlefield triage—with reenacted sounds—give a sobering taste of the horrors of war.
End at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Proceed north of the Mason-Dixon Line toward Gettysburg, site of the conflict that turned the tide of the Civil War. Take the first Gettysburg exit on Route 15, now called the Blue and Gray Highway, and watch for stone walls crisscrossing Gettysburg National Military Park (97 Taneytown Rd.; tel. 1 717 334 1124; www.nps.gov/gett). Stop at the Visitor Center at 1195 Baltimore Pike (Rte. 97) to study the electronic map that explains in detail this complicated three-day engagement and view artifacts from that time, including a portable wooden field desk used by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. You may also consider hiring a guide to narrate a tour of the battlefield as you drive together in your car. Pause at the cemetery that is the last resting place for some of the 51,000 soldiers who fell in battle. Take in a landscape preserved in much of its original character and peppered with monuments put up by the various states who sent fighters. Then marvel at the high cost, and enduring benefits, of America's bold democratic experiment.
Optimal seasons for this drive are late spring (April–May) and early fall (Sept.–Oct.). Summers tend toward hot, humid, and crowded; winters can be cold and snowy. For general travel information on Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, visit www.virginia.org, visitmaryland.org, and www.visitpa.com. For more on the historic route, see www.hallowedground.org.
—Text by James Conaway