5 Tips for Planning a Great Civil War Bicycling Adventure

Do you need some help with your U.S. bicycle touring plans? Here are five tips for planning a great Civil War bicycling adventure. Over the years, I have learned that “common sense” wasn’t so common (for me) when I first started touring U.S. military parks.

In this post, I abstract the details of planning particular tours — to specific battlefields — into five high-level points. I got to these five points not by theorizing, but by planning and riding. I started from my personal experience and worked backwards. These are my “lessons learned” about planning a great Civil War bicycling adventure. I hope that they help you.

Bicycling Gettysburg and Antietam

I begin with an example — two different battlefields, Gettysburg and Antietam.

Two Battlefields

Gettysburg National Military Park is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is the site of the deadliest (three day) battle in American history, where on July 1-3, 1863, over 51,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Antietam National Battlefield is in Sharpsburg, Maryland, a rural mountain town near Antietam Creek. It is the site of the deadliest single day in American history, where on September 17, 1862, over 22,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing at the Battle of Antietam.

Two Bicycle Tours

Gettysburg

This summer, I will bicycle the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields. I’ve bicycled Gettysburg so many times that “planning” is a habit like packing for any trip. In other words, it has become routine and not much different from packing a suitcase to visit family.

But Antietam is a different story. Although I have toured Antietam National Battlefield several times, this will be my first bicycle trip to Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Similarities and Differences

Antietam

Planning a trip to Antietam is different from planning a trip to Gettysburg. Sure, there is significant planning overlap — like selecting a bicycle, packing and carrying food, and selecting a bicycle-friendly hotel — but there are many significant differences, too.

Most notably, Sharpsburg is about thirteen miles (via the C&O Canal) from Harper’s Ferry West Virginia, which opens up the possibility of a multi-town tour. Gettysburg National Military Park, on the other hand, is about twice the size of Antietam National Battlefield and easily supports multi-day tours in this one town.

In my opinion, multi-town tours are inherently challenging to plan. That’s because I am a recreational bicyclist, not a performance road bicyclist. I try to avoid major roads, and bicycling distance is not a goal. My goal is to have fun learning U.S. history on a bicycle and to do that safely.

Finding Higher-Level Commonality

Rather than allow the differences between each U.S. military park result in totally different approaches to bicycle tour planning, I recommend a different approach:

Research, research, research … BEFORE you start pedaling. No, BEFORE you travel to your battlefield. No again, BEFORE you commit to plans. 

5 Tips for Planning a Great Civil War Bicycling Adventure

1. Beef-up your history knowledge with some pre-trip reading.

planning a great Civil War bicycling adventure

Please don’t postpone all of your learning until your arrival at a U.S. military park. This might work for passive tourists who rely on tour guides to spoon-feed them information and entertainment. But if you are planning a great Civil War bicycling adventure, you are in-charge.

I recommend that you beef-up your history knowledge with some pre-trip reading. Why?

So that you will know …

  • Where to visit (and why)
  • How to get there
  • What to look for (and what it means)

These annotated bibliographies are good places to start:

2. Decide what you’d like to see or learn on your trip.

Of course, you will want to be flexible and open to new, unplanned experiences. After all, that’s one of the joys of bicycling — you can explore and discover things freely, however you want.

On the other hand, it’s easy to feel paralyzed by your options. If everything interests you, then you risk feeling disappointed in the end when you cover “everything” superficially and nothing deeply. … And that one thing that you wanted to see? You didn’t see it.

One way to handle these conflicting feelings is to set aside a block of time to learn or do something very specific. Examples include:

  • “Collecting” photographs on a particular topic (e.g., all equestrian monuments)
  • Finding monuments associated with a particular battlefield event
  • Finding a particular battlefield location, rock carving or witness tree
  • Visiting a memorial or marker that celebrates your home state

These Civil War Cycling links might spark some ideas:

3. Make decisions about equipment, transportation, and lodging.

The need for logistical planning is obvious. You would do this for any vacation.

And fortunately, the rules-of-thumb for making decisions about equipment, transportation, and lodging for bicycling a U.S. Civil War battlefield do not vary from park to park. I regularly write on this topic. Please see Civil War Cycling’s Blog Archive.

4. Plan the specifics of your bicycle route (which impacts food, water, and clothing choices).

planning a great Civil War bicycling adventureThere are two ways to plan a bicycle route. In that respect, planning a great Civil War bicycling adventure is no different.

The first way is to plan by trial-and-error. Through time, you discover what maps are accurate (and what not); what roads offer the best ride; which circuits take how long; which parts of the battlefield offer the most dense learning opportunities; and more.

The second way is to design your bicycle route. You may change it as you go, but you will at least have a starting plan:

  • Collect as many maps of the area as you can find. Google and Amazon are great resources.
  • Try to plan routes that are circuits (loops) so that you can cover twice as much new ground.
  • Try to plan routes that avoid non-park roads.
  • Figure-out how and when you will use your car to transport your bicycle.
  • Research weather considerations and pack food, water, and clothing based on that.

My Gettysburg bicycling plans started as trial-and-error. I could afford to do that, because I had the time and I lived within a few hours drive of the park. But Antietam is a little farther away for me, and I have a little less time available for travel. I need to plan.

5. Check for NPS alerts, notices, and battlefield events.

You don’t want to arrive at a U.S. military park and discover that your main point of interest is closed for renovation, a “prescribed burn,” or other maintenance work. Go to the home page for the National Park Service, search for your park, and look for a link to “alerts and conditions.” For example, as of this writing, the “Alerts & Conditions” page for Antietam National Battlefield says “No alerts at this time.”

Wrap-Up

Pre-trip planning is the key to a safe, educational, and enjoyable bicycle tour. Of course, flexibility and humor are important, but if you omit the planning step you may laugh straight through a comedy of errors that at best, reduce your learning opportunities, and at worst, endanger your safety on the road.

I recommend that you plan to have fun and have fun planning.

Do you need help planning a great Civil War bicycling adventure? I hope that the five tips in this post help you. Good plans support safe, educational, and enjoyable bicycle tours. That’s the prize.

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