From a historic battlefield to ancient cliff dwellings, the nation's past offers a unique, intriguing family vacation.
Vacation destination: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Just 7,600 people live in this neatly kept town, tucked away in the rolling hills of the Cumberland Valley. Visitors might be surprised to find that Gettysburg, already nearly 100 years old when three days in July 1863 changed it forever, still looks, in many ways, as it did back then.
More than 51,000 soldiers died at the Civil War's most famous and tragic battle, and a handful of buildings still bear visible battle scars, including artillery shells lodged in exterior walls. To commemorate this year's 150th anniversary of the bloody battle, both the Gettysburg National Military Park and the town itself have launched a full slate of events, exhibits, and festivals; the largest will be the giant battle reenactment, held July 4–7 on the edge of town (the actual battle occurred July 1–3).
Thousands of reenactors—and thousands more spectators—from all over the world are expected. Visitors will be able to chat with the "generals," learn how to load a cannon, walk through the military camps, see a Civil War-style wedding, and, of course, safely observe lots of dramatic and very loud battles. Tickets start at $15; children 5 and under are admitted free. Visit gettysburgreenactment.com for more information.
Fun fact: Now considered one of the most eloquent speeches in U.S. history, Lincoln's famously to-the-point Gettysburg Address, given here at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, was poorly received in some corners. One Chicago newspaper described it as "silly, dishwatery utterances."
Don't miss: A private tour through the Military Park's most important sites with a licensed battlefield guide, hired through the park service. Rates begin at $65 per car. Go to gettysburgtourguides.org for info.
Do a little reenacting yourself: Don period-style clothing and take a family portrait at the Victorian Photography Studio. Go to victorianphotostudio.com to book a shoot.
Interact: The free Historic Gettysburg Walking Tour app (for iPhone) offers self-guided tours and interesting historical facts and information. Visit the Gettysburg 150 site (gettysburgcivilwar150.com), for information on the year's events, as well as great historical features, including eyewitness journal entries and a tool that allows you to find out whether your ancestors fought in the Civil War.
Get more info: Visit gettysburg.travel.
Vacation destination: Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan
Jutting into the middle of Lake Superior, Keweenaw is the uppermost part of Michigan's rugged Upper Peninsula. Known for its beauty, the area also boasts interesting history: Mineral-rich soil turned this remote paradise into a bustling and important site in American industrial history. During the mineral rush of the late 1800s, the Keweenaw was one of the most vibrant and diverse communities west of New York.
Today, the Keweenaw National Historical Park, a collection of homesteads, mines, a lighthouse, and other sites important to that time period, makes the peninsula a fun place to learn—along with enjoying the great outdoors.
Fun fact: During the region's heyday, the ornate Calumet Theater—at the center of the city of the same name—was an important touring stop for some of the brightest stars of the early 20th century. Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Sarah Bernhardt, and Charlie Chaplin all appeared here.
Don't miss: A chance to head down into Quincy Mine, where visitors can board a tram for a ride through a fascinating chapter of Upper Peninsula history. Go to quincymine.com for info.
Before you leave: Collect a few colorful lake-polished rocks from the beaches of Copper Harbor.
Learn more: Visit keweenaw.info.
Vacation destination: Fort Ross, California
Moscow on the Pacific? For nearly 30 years, from 1812 to 1841, this prime coastal Sonoma spot was the southernmost outpost of the Russian empire during its 19th-century stay on what's now U.S. soil. Intended to supply food for Russia's better-known colonies in Alaska, the shortlived settlement was sold to an American for a deal-of-the-century $30,000.
Today, the Fort Ross State Historic Park includes a simple wooden fort, perched above the Pacific Ocean and reconstructed to appear as it did nearly 200 years ago; a replica windmill crafted in Russia; and the 1830s Russian-style manager's house, which remains much as it was then.
Fun fact: Fort Ross's low profile is in keeping with its stealthy origin: With the United States at war with Great Britain in 1812 and the Spanish 100 miles south on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, it was months before any civil or military leaders were even aware of the Russian presence.
Don't miss: A day of exploring the historic towns and villages that line the Pacific Coast Highway.
Plan to hit: Tomales Bay on an empty stomach. At Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall, you can book a bayside table and feast on local oysters—usually $1 each; shucking instructions and equipment are available (hogislandoysters.com).
Get more info: Visit fortross.org.
Vacation destination: Charleston, South Carolina
Founded in 1670, Charleston, South Carolina, bills itself as "where history lives." Even cooler: You and the kids can live that history for yourselves at Middleton Place, a former plantation that's been transformed into a living history museum.
Fun fact: Middleton Place is home to North America's oldest landscaped gardens, and you can also experience the working life of an 18th- and 19th-century Low Country stableyard.
Don't miss: Potter Jeff Neale and other costumed interpreters. Those gigs aren't easy to get: Before Neale was hired, the Marine vet earned a master's degree in public history. "I love making a connection with the audience," he says. "Look for me—I'll be the filthy one, covered in clay."
Learn more: Visit middletonplace.org.
Vacation destination: Mesa Verde, Colorado
U.S. history did not begin at Plymouth Rock! Step into the way-back machine—like, way, way back—with a visit to Mesa Verde National Park, a unique site in the Southwest's famed Four Corners region. Home to the Pueblo people from 600 to 1300, the park preserves a vast array of high-altitude cliff dwellings and thousands more archeological sites.
Fun fact: Talk about a tough commute! The Pueblo climbed to and from their homes via hand-and toe-hold trails hammered into the cliff walls. Touring the dwellings today still involves a bit of climbing, along reconstructed wooden ladders and age-old stone steps.
Don't miss: A ride on the nearby Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The train snakes along the Animas River, offering spectacular scenery on the route it has traveled for 130 years. Go to durangotrain.com for info.
Learn more: Visit durango.org.