For many visitors to the American capital, the constant sensory overload of endless traffic jams and high-political architecture can prove overwhelming. But, all is not lost. Within easy reach of Washington D.C. there’s a veritable myriad of magnificent national parks and monuments, offering wide open vistas and uncultivated natural panoramas that form a perfect antithesis to metropolitan sightseeing. In northern Virginia especially, the selection of old Civil War battlefields and quaint monumental structures means there’s plenty of history to uncover, while the Appalachian Blue Ridges of the famous Shenandoah Park provide vast swathes of forested creeks and ridges to wash away the petrol and politics of the city.
The biographical stories of not one, but two of America’s great leaders converge under the magnificent neo-classical colonnades of Arlington House, Virginia. While today the site is perhaps best known as the national memorial to General Robert E. Lee (the most recognizable Confederate leader of the American Civil War), its lesser known origins throw up another, equally totemic name: President George Washington. With such a rich story to tell, Arlington House now figures as one of the most worthy national monuments within easy reach of the capitol at Washington D.C.
The Wolf Trap National Park for the performing arts is a cultural hodgepodge of artistic productions like open air jazz and avant-garde, contemporary dance. From early May through to late summer the series of outdoor amphitheatres and performance halls here present a real variety of shows, including theater for kids, poetry readings and classical music. What’s more, regular tours of the grounds allow guests to explore the pristine backcountry and thick beech woods of the area.
The site at Antietam is another of the great Civil War battlefields in eastern America. For military historians the name itself has become synonymous with bloodshed, made infamous in the chronicles by the startling figures of wounded and dead that occurred here in late 1862. It’s estimated more than 20,000 soldiers died in just a single day’s fighting, and while the Union army emerged on top, its victory is an oft-debated fact of the early war. Today, visitors can take several hikes across the fields and stand in the very spots where Generals Lee and McClellan held their lines.
For history-buffs and military enthusiasts the fields at Manassas are an imperative exploration of the east-coast’s section of the Mason-Dixon trail. It was here, in mid-1861, that the first major pitched battle of the American Civil war took place, while little over a year later the Confederate army solidified its hold over northern Virginia with a decisive victory against Union forces. Today, visitors can take tours of the historic battlefield and unravel the story of the world’s most bloody civil conflict, at the on-site Henry Hill Center.
The Shenandoah National Park forms one of the most iconic sections of the Appalachian Trail. Home to the famous Blue Ridge Mountains, and just 75-miles away from Washington D.C., it’s the perfect nature getaway for visitors in the capital, offering nearly 200,000 acres of undulating green hills and hazy forested massifs, all presided over by the towering 4,000-foot Hawksbill Mountain. Famously wild and unchartered, most visitors come here to transverse the ubiquitous Skyline Drive, one of America’s most scenic tarmac routes that winds its way through the forests and valleys of Shenandoah.