By Ken Wilson –
Tired of London? Sick of Paris? If a European vacation is unappealing (see your doctor) or out of reach, stick around and look around. It’s a truism that locals neglect what tourists take pains to visit, and Central Virginia is full of tourist destinations, not to mention lesser known historic and aesthetic treasures. Let’s look at a few easily planned, pain-free day trips for the sophisticated and/or broke Virginia traveler.
The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center
We’re proud of our history here, and there is so much of it to be proud of. The Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 that first explored the West for the American government was conceived of by Thomas Jefferson and led by two men—Meriwether Lewis and William Clark—with Albemarle County roots. Today the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center sits on the banks of the Rivanna River in Charlottesville’s Darden Towe Park, adjacent to land where the Clark family once lived.
With Lewis and Clark’s own journals, maps and drawings as inspiration, the Center uses activities including hiking, journaling, carpentry and model boat construction, art projects and compass and GPS games to understand the expedition, inculcate a love of the outdoors, and teach the skills necessary to explore it. Tours explore full-sized replicas of expedition boats. A permanent exhibition focuses on the expedition and the local roots of its leaders.
The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center is open to the public Fridays and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Tuesday through Thursday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. The last tickets are sold an hour before closing. Admission is $7 a person.
Vietnam War Foundation & Museum
Ruckersville’s Vietnam War Museum calls itself “A Museum to Honor Our Vietnam Veterans,” and is dedicated to presenting the story of the Vietnam era by acquiring, restoring and maintaining equipment and other artifacts used during the 10 years of the Vietnam conflict. That includes weapons and historic vehicles including trucks, aircraft, jeeps, and APCs, as well as military and even civilian memorabilia such as the omnipresent peace symbols.
The Foundation also provides school children and the general public the opportunity to hear veterans share their stories. The museum is open by arrangement only, but members of the public who wish to visit are encouraged to call and make an appointment. Admission is free; donations are welcome.
116th Infantry Division Foundation Museum
Augusta County is home to a number of small museums sure to intrigue lovers of history. In the little town of Verona, students of military conflict will find the 116th Infantry Division Foundation Museum, devoted to the 7th oldest military organization in America.
Founded in 1741 as part of the Virginia Militia, the 116th Infantry Regiment during the Civil War included the famed Stonewall Brigade, trained and commanded by General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The Regiment later fought in World War I, was among the first to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day in World War II, and in recent years has been deployed to Bosnia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.
The museum displays artifacts and objects of historical significance from the Regiment and provides educational activities.
The museum’s vision is that everyone will know, understand, and appreciate the history, heritage and legacy of America’s citizen soldiers. Currently the museum has opened a WWI centennial gallery focusing on Division history from mobilization to Armistice Day 1914-1918, including a replica of a trench that guests can walk through.
A D-Day exhibition displays maps, helmets, boots and other uniform relics. From mid-March through mid-November it is open to visitors Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. In inclement weather, call to make sure it’s open. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
The Plumb House Museum
In nearby Waynesboro the historic Plumb House, the oldest frame dwelling in Waynesboro, was home to five generations of the Plumb Family. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the house was built between 1802 and 1804, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.
The Civil War Battle of Waynesboro raged around the house on March 2, 1865; today it hosts an annual reenactment of the battle, in which the forces of Union Brigadier General George A. Custer routed those of Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early.
Civil War and Native American artifacts as well as bird and butterfly collections are on display in the house; a slave-built brick patio, a historic garden, summer kitchen, and other outbuildings may be seen on the grounds.
This free museum is open to the public Thursday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and is just a block from the old Presbyterian Cemetery where 25 Confederate soldiers are buried.
Camera Heritage Museum
Daytrippers curious to trace the history of photography can hie themselves to the picturesque and artistically happening city of Staunton and the Camera Heritage Museum, with its extraordinary collection of over 6,000 cameras, accessories and photographs dating from the 19th century to modern times.
Many of these cameras are historically significant as the most technologically advanced cameras of their day. Others have stories attached, like the ones which belonged to local photographers whose work became nationally known.
The area’s first known photographer starting shooting in 1847, just nine years after the first “daguerreotype” was created in Paris. The son of one local shutterbug, Barnett Clinedinst, became official White House photographer for Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson. The museum also showcases photographs by Bernie Boston, official White House and personal photographer for Ronald Reagan.
The Camera Heritage Museum is fittingly housed in what for 70 years has been a camera shop on West Beverly Street. It is free and open to the public from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday and 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Visitors are encouraged to bring old cameras, photos and accessories that may have historic significance.
Frontier Culture Museum
Many of America’s first pioneers were English, Irish and German farmers and craftsmen looking for better lives. Many others were West Africans forced into captivity and brought here against their wills.
Staunton’s Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia tells the story of these men, women and children who were America’s first pioneers: of their new ways of life, and of the traditions they carried on and created. The museum is open seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. through November 30.
Visitors can take walking paths and trails to the museum’s 11 permanent exhibits. Costumed interpreters bring history to life. Allow three to four hours to see everything by foot, or take a shuttle cart, or rent a golf cart for a nominal fee. Advance Registration is requested for guided tours.
George Gilmore was born into slavery at Montpelier in 1810. After emancipation he bought land across the street from what are now Montpelier’s gates, and built his family’s cabin in 1873.
Today the Gilmore Cabin site is open to visitors daily for self-guided tours. Admission is free. From April through October the property is staffed on Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Two free tours are on offer. The “Journey from Slavery to Freedom” walking and driving tour visits sites of enslavement near the Madison home, as well as the Gilmore Cabin and the 1910 Train Depot.
The “Civil War Trail and Gilmore Farm” walking tour retraces the steps of McGowan’s Brigade on Montpelier’s Civil War Trail, carving a path through archaeological remains of this Confederate winter camp to a reconstructed camp street, concluding at the Gilmore Cabin.
Folks who prefer to combine nature with air-conditioning can drive the Nelson Scenic Loop, a 50-mile tour along Route 56, Route 151, Route 664, and the Blue Ridge Parkway (built as a WPA project in 1935).
The Route rises in elevation from 850 feet in the foothills of the Piedmont to 4,050 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and breweries, cideries, farm markets, restaurants and historic structures including an 1830s manor house beckon along the way.
The beautiful Appalachian Trail winds through Central Virginia. Look for the following trail crossings along the Blue Ridge Parkway: Reeds Gap at Route 664, and Rockfish Gap at Afton Mountain (exit 99 off Interstate 64).
One of the most popular hikes around here is along Humpback Rocks Trail, which affords spectacular view of the Rockfish and Shenandoah Valleys. Humpback Mountain was a landmark for wagon trains passing along over the Howardsville Turnpike in the 1840s, and parts of the trail still exist today.
The Visitor Center and mountain farm exhibit include a single-room log cabin and a series of outbuildings representative of area architecture in the late 19th century. Costumed guides demonstrate weaving, basket making and gardening. The 1,214-foot Crabtree Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.
The mission of the Augusta County Railroad Museum in the Staunton Mall is to encourage interest in the history of railroading and promote the hobby of model railroading.
This free museum is a father and son’s dream, with railroad artifacts and model trains, some of which are decades old and are now collector’s items. In addition to model train layouts, the Museum displays a large selection of railroad art depicting railroad scenes and steam, diesel, and electric locomotives, many no longer in existence.
Train buffs will also love the Culpeper Train Depot. During the Civil War, the Depot was the site of the Battle of Culpeper Courthouse on September 13, 1863. Both Union and Confederate armies used the original depot for its telegraph, and for transportation and supplies.
A new depot was built on the site in 1874. That structure burned in 1903, was rebuilt in 1904, and was completely renovated in 2003. Today the renovated structure houses the Culpeper Tourism and Visitors Center and the Museum of Culpeper History.
The Depot is also the site of one of the Commonwealth’s Virginia is for Lovers sculptures, “Reel Love,” made from over 150 film reels donated by the Library of Congress Audio Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper highlighting the arts in Culpeper. Visitors are encouraged to pose for selfies.
The Visitors Center at the Depot is open seven days a week: Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and weekends from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Pleasant Grove Park
From the Rivanna River to forests and fields, visitors to Fluvanna County’s 800-acre Pleasant Grove Park will find every type of Piedmont Virginia habitat and a diverse population of wildflowers, animals and birds.
The Rivanna is the place to watch for river otters, eagles and ducks; the grassy fields are home to songbirds, hawks, and rabbits; the tree identification trail is lined with many native Virginia trees. Newly re-naturalized areas attract coveys of quail. A pollinator garden attracts bees, butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds, and work on a bluebird nesting trail is in progress.
Athletically inclined visitors can walk the Heritage Trail to the Rivanna, jog along park meadows, enjoy 21 miles of horse riding, mountain biking, and hiking trails.
Groups can use softball, baseball and three multi-use fields, all open to the public when not scheduled for league use.
A dog park and picnic shelters are available, and the park is home to the Fluvanna Farmers Market, Tuesdays from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon. Visitors can also tour the 1854 Pleasant Grove House, now a museum (admission is free), browse the transportation history galleries, and visit the reading room to discover Fluvanna’s history.
Take a look around and discover Virginia. You needn’t go far.