Commentary: Visiting The Battlefield at Gettysburg

One of the questions I frequently receive via e-mail concerns requests for information about visiting the battlefields. I thought that perhaps an opinion or two here might prove useful for some. Please be cautioned that the dynamic nature of battlefields, especially as the National Park Service continues to pursue restoration to its 1860's appearances, means that anything written here may change literally within days. If any of the information contained here no longer appears accurate, please feel free to e-mail me.

If anyone chooses to visit the battlefield, I would both respectfully and earnestly request that they do not walk on, or permit children to climb upon, the monuments, carvings, or cannons. The soldiers who fought there, north and south, erected the monuments and markers to honor both their efforts those three days in 1863 and their injured and fallen comrades. They exist for present and future generations to remember what they did and to ponder who we have become because of their actions. Time and visitors past however have not necessarily been kind to these monuments. Many need immediate repairs as cracks, chips, and other damage continue to expand. Battlefield carvings on many of the rocks and stones over the fields are now barely visible and at serious risk of disappearing forever. So please help to preserve the monuments by respecting the men, deeds, and memories for which they stand.

Suggestions for Visiting

First time visitors have many options to acclimate themselves to the battlefield and town with the National Park's New Visitor Center situated between the Taneytown Road and the Baltimore Pike. Inside you will find dedicated, knowledgeable National Park Service Rangers who eagerly assist all visitors with navigating the park's near 6,000 acres and 26 miles of park roads. The rangers frequently provide in-depth "Battlefield Walks" and outdoor lectures at both key and obscure locations on the park grounds. The Park Service posts a schedule for these events just inside the Visitor Center doors.

For an in-depth, personalized tour of the fields, visitors can hire Licensed Battlefield Guides who accompany you in your car as you explore the sections of the battlefield of your choice. Also stationed at the Visitor Center, the guides provide tours for about 2 hours which cost generally about $50 for between one to six persons. Prices increase with the number of people included in the tour.

Those who prefer to travel the fields on their own have multiple options for self-guided tours. Maps, books, and audio tours, all available at the Visitor Center's Book Store, allow for a variety of choices to guide and explain the actions of the Confederate and Union Armies. The audio tours vary in quality with the TravelBrains versions usually, at least in my opinion, proving to be the highest quality of the group. The Visitor Center has troop position and movement maps along with similar resources for those interested in locating any of the over 1,400 monuments and markers throughout the park. The Park Service also offers free battlefield maps.

Concerning the question of when to visit, that depends entirely upon what you would like to accomplish during your visit. Due to the Park Service's continued efforts to restore the grounds, you now have a greater opportunity of seeing Seminary or Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, the Trostle Farm and other sections as they appeared in July of 1863. Visiting May through September heightens the chance to experience the fields as they appeared some 145 years past. A variety of paths and trails allow you to walk along the crest of Little Round Top, the lines of the 20th Maine, Devil's Den, or the fields of the Pickett / Pettigrew Charge. However, during these summer months, crowds predictably swarm upon all of the more popular, well known sections of the field limiting your opportunities to sit and ponder the events which occurred without distraction. The winter months offer the greatest opportunity for viewing the fields undisturbed, but you will need to brave the sometimes frigid Pennsylvania weather.

The United States National Park service notes that the park hours vary based on the season of your planned visit. As of October 2008, they note that park hours are as follows:

Park Hours:
April 1 to October 31: 6:00am to 10:00pm
November 1 to March 31: 6:00am to 7:00pm

Vistors Center Hours:
April 1 to October 31: 8:00am to 7:00pm
November 1 to March 31: 8:00am to 6:00pm

The Battlefield Park and Visitors Center are closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.

Be warned that the NPS plans to enforce the above hours, stating in a press release, "Beginning January 1, 2006, fines would be enforced as specified for a Closed Area Violation ($75 fine)." The Visitor's Center opens at 8am daily and closes at 6pm during summer hours and 5pm otherwise.

Parking during the summer can be difficult at best. Although I have not yet explored the new Visitors Center, I can say from their maps that parking during the summer hours will remain difficult at best. 

Because of the park's size, there is no one place where a visitor may park to access all areas of the battlefield. Visitor's can find limited parking at Devil's Den, a Ranger's station near the McPherson Farm on Route 30, Spangler's Spring, Little Round Top, Big Round Top, Oak Hill, and the Longstreet (Seminary Ridge), Oak Ridge, and Culp's Hill Towers. You may also park along most of the Battlefield's roads with the caveat that you remain on the road and do not pull onto the grass. Please watch for the many small flank markers that dot the entire battlefield. They are often close to the sides of the road.

Please, when visiting the park, consider your safety and that of those with you. During the summer months, take precautions against ticks and poison oak/ivy (a threat during the autumn months too). Days of even moderate heat and humidity make water an essential item to carry with you. Also, high grass or undergrowth easily hide the multitude of groundhog holes, small streams, and other hidden hazards. Add this to the sometimes rocky terrain and the unwary traveler may be in for a stumble or two. During the winter months, keep an eye on the weather forecasts and wear sufficient protection from the wind and sometimes bitter cold. Regardless of the season, always take care to watch for traffic.

I have visited the battlefields at Gettysburg countless times in the last several years. Each visit brings new discoveries and sites which I had not previously encountered. Assuming that your experience will likely prove similar, I would recommend tempering expectations that you will "see everything", especially since the park grounds continuously evolve. The Park Service personnel can assist with general orientation, directions for visiting specific sites of interest, and clarification of park rules and guidelines. Enjoy your visit, see what you hope to see, and return again to experience even more of our shared heritage and history. As long as we preserve these sacred grounds, they will remain for our and future generations to experience and enjoy.

This guide is not intended as a substitute for the National Park Service information, guidelines, and regulations. For more information on visiting Gettysburg and the Park, please visit these sites:

Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg National Military Park News
Welcome to Gettysburg

This page last updated October 19, 2008.

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