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Few places in America are more important to the founding of our country than the Valley Forge National Historical Park. This park is the most famous of all the U.S. Revolutionary War sites. The hills and fields of this vast park set the stage for the birth of the country and illuminated the temperament of the American spirit.
Today, the Valley Forge National Park is a vast expanse of greenery in Montgomery County and one of the best outdoor spots in the region. Visitors come from all over the world to learn the history of America’s founding as well as utilize the park’s 3,500 acres for recreation. It’s one of our favorite spots in the area for long walks or sledding in the winter.
In the fall of 1777, General George Washington built a temporary fortification in what is now known as Fort Washington State Park. The high hills offered commanding views, but little in terms of protection from the harsh winters and minimal access to water. A better camp was needed.
Fort Washington was abandoned, and the entire Continental Army was moved to the Valley Forge encampment for the winter. From December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778, this encampment would become the fourth largest city in America. Over 12,000 soldiers would spend the winter here, along with many non-military support personnel and some soldier’s families.
The winter of 1777 was particularly harsh and camp conditions made the situation worse. Disease was rampant in the camp and sanitation was poor. Over 2,000 people perished, primarily from disease, but also from exposure to the elements.
Over the course of the winter, the Continental Army put in place a complex system of procedures to supply and protect the troops, better training for soldiers, and better intelligence and planning. The army that emerged from the winter in these rolling hills was vastly better trained and prepared than the one that arrived here six months earlier.
Touring the Park
The first stop on any visit is the Valley Forge Park Visitors Center. This small but excellent educational center is the main parking lot for the historical park. Inside, visitors should watch the 19-minute film “Determined to Persevere: The Valley Forge Encampment” because it provides an orientation to the site and the history. The film is shown every 30 minutes. Pro tip: We recommend watching the film online prior to going to maximize your time in the park.
Nearly all visitors will take The Encampment Tour. This self-paced driving tour goes throughout the park in a clockwise loop hitting all of the major highlights:
- Log Huts of General Muhlenberg’s Brigade
- National Memorial Arch
- General Anthony Wayne Statue
- Washington’s Headquarters
- Artillery Park
- Steuben Statue
- Varnum’s Quarters
- Washington Memorial Chapel, including the Justice Bell
If you don’t want to drive, the park offers trolley tours that make stops at the Muhlenberg Lines and Washington’s HQ. The trolley tours need to be booked in advance (see complete details below), but can be nice way of seeing the park and letting someone else do the driving.
It’s worth noting, a sidewalk called the Joseph Plumb Martin Trail parallels the roadway and many people do The Encampment Tour while walking, running, bicycling, rollerblading, and even on horseback. I’ve spent many a weekend running along the 5-mile loop while training for marathons.
Most people doing the driving tour will spend about two hours in the national park. If you’re a real history buff and want to stop more frequently at the numerous statues, monuments and sites, so you might spend a little longer.
The NPS offers a very inventive cell phone tour which takes visitors on a magical journey of the winter of 1777. The stories come alive and the cell phone tour is a great way explore Valley Forge for kids. To use it, dial 484-396-1018 and follow the prompts. The service is free, except for using your cell phone service minutes.
There are special Valley Forge tours offered by private guides and organizations based on interests like history. These can be booked through The Encampment Store, a 501(c)3 non-profit affiliated with the park service.
Valley Forge is a great destination for kids. There’s lots of open space to run around and explore. Most school children learn about American history in the 5th grade, so visiting after that can help bring their studies to life.
The National Park Service also runs a Junior Ranger program, designed for children ages 7-12. You can pick up the Junior Ranger Activity Book at the visitors center. OR, you can download it in advance so you can hit the ground running (and only need to visit the visitors center at the end to pick up your Junior Ranger Badge).
While most people visit in the summer, Valley Forge is also a popular destination in the winter with kids for one important reason: sledding. When there is snow, the hills in the park are some of the best sledding in the western Philly suburbs. There are four popular sledding areas in the park: the hill behind the Memorial Arch, Wayne Hill (under the Anthony Wayne statue), the slope from the Washington Memorial Chapel down to the Maurice Stephens House, and finally the big hill at the Knox Quarters off Baptist Road.
What to Know
Location: The National Historical Park is located 24 miles northwest of Philadelphia in suburban Montgomery County at the intersection of the PA Turnpike, I-76, US-202 and US-422. The main Visitors Center is on North Gulph Road at PA Route 23.
Trolley Tours: A popular way to see the park is by taking a trolley tour. The tours are ADA accessible and a very good way to see the park if you have mobility challenges. The tours make extended stops at the Muhlenberg Brigade Lines and General George Washington’s Headquarters.
Unlike visiting the park, the trolley tours are not free. The cost is $20 for adults, $18 for students/seniors, and children under 11 are $10. There may be some limited day-of spots, but it is best to book your trolley tour in advance by calling The Encampment Store at 610-624-5010. Trolley tours are run daily June-September, as well as on weekends and some holidays from late March-June and again from September-December.
Hours: The park is open all year from sunrise to sunset. The visitors center is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm and closed on major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Even when the park is closed, it is possible to drive through the park on one of the major roadways that crosses through it: Highway 422, Routes 23 and 252, and also Gulph Road.
Cost: The park is free to all visitors.
Concessions: There aren’t any restaurants or concessions within the historical park. There are a nearly unlimited number of restaurants in the vast King of Prussia complex less than a mile away. It is possible to pick up food in King of Prussia and bring it into the park and have a picnic at either Wayne’s Woods Picnic Area (the most popular spot) or at the Varnum Picnic Area. Remember to dispose of your trash appropriately.
During the summer, it is possible to rent bicycles to ride within the park, and biking is a great way to explore the whole park. Bicycles can be reserved by contacting The Encampment Store at 610-624-5010.
Tips for Visiting: If you visit Valley Forge, be sure to bring a water bottle with you. While there are several places to use drinking fountains, it is a good idea to have water with you. Also, while there are trees in the park, many of the major sites are in the open without shade. Sunscreen is a smart idea, particularly in summer.
Additional Information: If you have additional questions or need additional information, visit the Valley Forge NHP website.
Where to Stay
There are a large number of hotel options in the King of Prussia area that are within a mile or two the historical sites. The closest hotel to the park is the Sheraton, which features suites, indoor pool, and close proximity to the restaurants in the King of Prussia Town Centre. The Hyatt House Philadelphia is a newer hotel that offers sleek, modern accommodations close to the mall restaurants and local attractions.