Memorials Worth Exploring

Mark your Memorial Day at the top historic military sites where you can both pay solemn respects and enjoy outdoor activities.

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

Fredericksburg, VA

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

Nearby Activities

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

Gettysburg, PA

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

Nearby Activities

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

Pea Ridge National Military Park

Garfield, AR

In early March 1862, Union and Confederate forces met in Northwest Arkansas at what would come to be known as the Battle of Pea Ridge. Today, the national military park there is one of the most intact battlefields of that time and features a visitor’s center, hiking trail, driving tour, restored battlefields, and a section of pre-war telegraph wire. More Info: nps.gov 

Nearby Activities

Roughly 10 miles south of the park is Bentonville, Ark., the self-proclaimed “mountain bike capital of the world.” If you ride bikes, you’ve heard of Bentonville and all the amazing trail work that’s happening there. Start with the Slaughter Pen trail system right in the middle of town, which has over 20 miles of trail with varying degrees of difficulty. More Info: simpleviewinc.com; visitbentonville.com

Manhattan Project National Historic Site

Los Alamos, NM

This high-desert city is where the Manhattan Project, part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, secretly developed the atomic bomb during WWII. While not a military site, it is the nucleus of what was arguably the most world-shifting event in history: the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Today, the scenic, mesa-top city has many sites where visitors can learn about the Manhattan Project and its classified mission, including a visitor’s center, museums, bunkhouses and the famous Los Alamos Park Gate. More Info: nps.gov  

Nearby Activities

Los Alamos is surrounded on all sides by outdoor recreation. A good place to start is the 6-mile Quemazon Trail, an out-and-back with a trailhead right in town. There’s also the 1.6-mile Natural Arch via Old Mitchell Trail, just outside of Los Alamos, which, as the name implies, takes you out to one of New Mexico’s famous natural arches (and back). More Info: visitlosalamos.org

Manzanar National Historic Site 

Independence, CA

While Manzanar isn’t a park to memorialize a significant military battle, it can be considered military-adjacent. In the wake of the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants ineligible for citizenship were imprisoned in 10 isolated camps across California, Oregon and Washinton. Manzanar is one such camp in the high desert of California that offers visitors a solemn look at a difficult chapter in our nation’s history. More Info: nps.gov  

Nearby Activities

Less than an hour north of Manzanar is the sleepy town of Bishop, Calif., known at one time as the last major stop for those heading on to Mammoth and June mountains, is now a destination unto itself, especially if you like world-class climbing and bouldering. Start with the Happy Boulders area, just 7 miles north of Bishop, warm up on The Pursuit of Wow on Tom Peter’s boulder and go from there. Even if you’re not a climber, this bizarre volcanic tableau is well worth a visit. More Info: blm.gov  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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