Valley Forge National Historical Park Valley Forge, Pa. Visited: March 22, 2004 Second Visit: December 7, 2006 NPS Site Visited: 2 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
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WHAT IS IT? Site of George Washington’s Continental Army’s encampment during the winter of 1777-78.
BEAUTY (4/10) Valley Forge NHP's rolling deforested terrain serves as a wildlife and recreational oasis from the surrounding out-of-control commerce of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, home of America's second largest shopping mall. Reconstructed hollowed-out huts stand perched looking over the Pennsylvania Turnpike reminding visitors of the hardships of 1777-78 and the traffic mess they will face after leaving the Park. Washington's Headquarters, a two-story stone country house, enjoys a pleasant setting wedged in a nook between the Schuylkill River and the Valley Creek.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10) Valley Forge is a place of legends. It speaks to who we are as Americans: stubborn, steadfast, determined, obedient pious sufferers. Elementary school history books and a collective mythic ethos tell us that Valley Forge is where we won the American Revolution. Amidst these undulating Pennsylvania hills George Washington turned his ragtag group into a mean fighting machine with the help of the charismatic Prussian Baron von Steuben. It was here that soldiers from all 13 colonies culled together to form an American consciousness.
Is any of this true? Somewhat. After Valley Forge the Continentals drew with the British at Monmouth and both armies retreated to their positions at the War's start. No more battles were fought in the north. The consequential fights occured, with soldiers not trained at Valley Forge, in the Carolinas at Cowpens and Kings Mountain. In addition, the diplomatic efforts that brought Spain and France into the war on our side probably aided our independence hopes more than any actual fight. Does the veracity of Valley Forge's influence really matter? Not at all. The American Revolution story works better and holds more sway as legend.
CROWDS (7/10) The surrounding community has embraced Valley Forge NHP. Joggers and dog walkers packed the Park's well-maintained paths and large open swaths of land. We love when battlefields shed their somber pretexts and become places where the local residents can enjoy green space. We saw it at Guilford Courthouse, Kennesaw Mountain and now here.
The locals have also embraced Pennsylvania Routes 252 and 23, the roads that make up the western and northern arms of the auto tour. The high-traffic and tailgating drivers on these windy, narrow suburban Philly roads added some undue stress to our visits.
Local white-tailed deer love the Park even more, so drive slow. Their overpopulation is evident but understandable because a) the Park is a desperate last refuge amidst a growing community and b) the National Park Service doesn't allow hunting in National Military Parks; hunting that would bring the deer count to a manageable level.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Two visits. Two approaches from two directions (east and west) and two times lost after exiting I-76. Both times the haphazard nature of the brown Department of Interior directional signs was our downfall. The Park's entrance is just a few yards west of the Valley Forge Road (Route 23) Exit of U.S. Route 422 (the Pottstown Expressway). Keep that in mind and you should be OK. We repeat. Approach the Park from U.S. Route 422.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The Encampment Store has it all: pewter drinking mugs, presidential action figures, coffee mugs, elaborate Christmas ornaments, 18th century shaving cream, toy rifles, dolls, chinawear and so much more. The book selection is pretty good too. There is even a small coffee shop across from the information desk.
COSTS (3/5) Entry into Washington's Headquarters runs $3 per person. The rest of the Park is free. Currently, GW's HQ is free because of construction. We are assuming that $3 fee is waived if you have the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) During our 2004 visit we were disturbed by the Site's Ranger scarcity. The 2006 solution? Cell phones. Yes, cell phones. Each auto tour stop has its own pre-recorded message which you can access using your cell phone minutes. We prefer flesh and blood Rangers but admire this out-of-the-box solution to a funding-related problem.
TOURS/CLASSES (4/10) The museum exhibits display some good information but their disjointed presentation makes concentration difficult. We could not figure out the proper walking path through the displays so we just gave up. We were about to watch the introductory film until we realized we had seen it before and it had put us to sleep.
In 2004, we had a wonderful, educational conversation with a Ranger and a volunteer at Washington's Headquarters. The HQ is the only place you are sure to find a Ranger every day. Ranger-led walking and bike tours occur during the weekends in the off-season and, presumably, with more frequency in the summer. Summer also brings guided Valley Forge trolley tours. These all sound like fun.
FUN (5/10) Valley Forge NHP has the most corporate and least NPS-influenced feel of any history-related park. The Visitor Center is "presented by Exelon," the cell phone service by Lipton and the museum's prominent touch-screen computer is not educational, it is a Chester County Visitor Info kiosk. There are no NPS Rangers at the info greeting desk and the volunteers wear non-NPS polo shirts. The museum's exhibits take a back seat to the superb bookstore, the Valley Forge Canteen coffee shop and the wall of Philadelphia tourist brochures. Valley Forge only became a National Park in 1976, it had been a Pennsylvania State Park since 1893, so perhaps that is an explanation. We were not bothered; just a little disconcerted.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10) Our proximity to Gettysburg NMP meant frequent trips there with out-of-town guests. Gettysburg became our pre-teen mind's eye standard for all battlefield parks. During one mid-eighties summer, Michael convinced his mom to take a day trip to Valley Forge NHP. He was excited. But when they got to Valley Forge it was not Gettysburg. Sure, there was an auto tour, statues, cannons and even a gargantuan Arc de Triomphe-like monument but other things were lacking. No drama, no story, no electric map, no interestingly-named places and, most importantly, no battle.
First impressions die hard. We have never lost this underwhelming feeling. We keep expecting the Park to be more exciting. We keep expecting the historical story to change. It doesn't. When Michael suggested a 2006 return to Gab she was indifferent, "OK, sure. I'll stay in the car while you take pictures." Valley Forge NHP is a destination of historical obligation. A visit here is about strength, resolve and boredom. If it was good enough for George Washington it should be good enough for you.
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