As a national day of remembrance, Memorial Day is an opportunity for civilians to acknowledge and pay respects to those who have given their lives in service to our nation. While venerating fallen soldiers and decorating their graves is an ancient practice, the origins of the United States holiday are contested. Many cities and towns on both sides of the North-South divide laid claim to the day in the wake of the nation's Civil War, but every state accepted the day as it’s now recognized in 1971.
To most, the last Monday in May represents the unofficial kickoff to summer: a three-day weekend to camp, fish, break out the grill and relax outside in warming weather. But too often, the point of the holiday is forgotten. Get out and explore these getaways of historic military significance, while also marking the solemnity of the day—honoring and remembering the fallen veterans who fought to protect these remarkable public spaces.
Fredericksburg National Cemetery
Since 1996, the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, located within the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, has paid tribute to the fallen in a touching ceremony known as the luminaria. Beginning at 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 28 (rain date Sunday, May 29), local Scouts light 15,300 candles to commemorate each of the interred. A bugler plays Taps every half-hour during the three-hour event, and park staff, posted throughout the site, will share accounts and stories of certain Soldiers. Open for military burials from 1866 through 1945, the cemetery holds the remains of 15,243 Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, of whom 12,770 are unidentified. More Info: nps.gov
A few miles north of Fredericksburg lies the absolutely stunning Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, a 3,800-acre wilderness area. With nearly 15 miles of trails ranging from easy to moderate, visitors will be treated to a dense hardwood forest composed of mature oaks and hickories. The preserve also features coastal wetlands and a canoe launch allowing visitors to experience the Crow’s Nest Water Trail on Accokeek Creek. The main trailhead parking area is only open from Thursdays to Sundays, so plan accordingly. More Info: dcr.virginia.gov; dcr.virginia.gov (trail map)
Gettysburg National Military Park
Perhaps the most well-known battle of the Civil War, Gettysburg is remembered as the turning point in the conflict and the site where, four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address. More Info: nps.gov
Today, the picturesque little city of Gettysburg plays host to a large volume of tourists throughout the year, its Colonial brick building-lined streets packed with an array of artisanal shops and eateries. There are also a significant number of apple and fruit orchards, making it one of the area’s best spots for super fresh fruit.
For those seeking more challenging recreation, Michaux State Forest lies 15 miles west of Gettysburg and offers visitors the opportunity to hike, bike, horseback ride, fish and camp. One notable destination is the 37 miles of Appalachian Trail that traverse the length of the park. Many access points to this trail exist, along with some 200 miles of other trails. More Info: dcnr.pa