A huge collection of airplanes, spacecraft, and related items joins other historic attractions in this region just outside Washington, D.C.
By Kathryn Lemmon
Two for the price of one is a great deal, right? If you visit Fairfax County, Virginia, you’ll have access to the U.S. capital and plenty of other sight-seeing treasures within the county itself. Fairfax is near enough to be convenient to the District of Columbia, but distant enough to escape the big-city pace.
The county is west and south of the border to the United States’ busy capital district. It seems to be equal parts suburbia and historical preservation “” not a bad combination for folks who like to drive around and see the sights. Settle into a campground on the perimeter of Washington, D.C., and take your towed car to see the following destinations.
The first is a well-known home amidst many others: Mount Vernon, where the first president of the United States, George Washington, lived. The land was owned by the Washington family for seven generations, from 1674 until 1858. George was known to be especially fond of Mount Vernon, and today his domicile remains popular with Americans and international visitors alike. He wrote, “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this.”
The mansion is open daily year-round, but hours vary according to the season. For your admission fee, you get to tour the home, museum exhibitions, plantation activities, and grounds. On busy days, lines do form for the mansion tour. On the plus side, the line is continually moving. Guides are stationed inside to answer questions and provide information. Carefully preserved is the exact bed on which Washington died on December 14, 1799.
George and his wife, Martha, are entombed at Mount Vernon in a tranquil, shaded area. A respectful hush falls over the crowds as they near the spot.
One of the estate outbuildings displays possessions that belonged to George and Martha, as well as a terra-cotta bust of Washington. The bust, made by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1785, immediately draws the eye and captures that charismatic look we’ve come to expect. His family said it’s the most accurate likeness of George Washington.
There’s more to see at Mount Vernon, including the pioneer farming site, gardens, and slave memorial. The latter was designed and built in 1983 by Howard University architecture students.
Allow at least three to four hours to visit Mount Vernon. When you need a refreshment break, a food court is available. The estate grounds slope downward to the Potomac River by way of a footpath. The present-day wharf welcomes people arriving on tour boats seasonally. Thirty-minute narrated sight-seeing excursions depart from the wharf in the warm-weather months.
On Veteran’s Day this year (November 11), admission to Mount Vernon is free to all active duty or retired military personnel. A special ceremony will be held at Washington’s Tomb that afternoon. Beginning November 25 through December 11, a holiday program called Mount Vernon by Candlelight offers tours of the candlelit mansion that include the rarely seen third floor.
Admission to Mount Vernon is $11 for adults, $10.50 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 6 through 11. For more information, call (703) 780-2000, e-mail [email protected], or visit www.mountvernon.org.
Not even 70 years after Washington’s death, the nation was threatened by civil war. Manassas National Battlefield Park is just across the Fairfax County line, beyond its western edge. These peaceful, rolling hills were the site of two encounters between the Union and Confederate armies, in July 1861 and August 1862.
Make your first stop at the Henry Hill Visitor Center. This large facility contains a bookstore, a museum, and a variety of war relics on display. A 45-minute film that explores both battles of Manassas is shown every hour (an additional $3 fee is charged).
A larger-than-life statue of Stonewall Jackson on horseback greets visitors to the center. During the first battle of Manassas, his famous nickname was coined, and the statue seems to be surveying the scene, as Jackson did then. However, this time he really is made of stone.
To better understand what led up to the first day of battle in 1861, you can take the one-mile self-guided Henry Hill Loop Trail around the grounds. Many believed the first battle of Manassas would be the start and finish of the clash between the states. They couldn’t have been more mistaken. Neither side had any kind of standardized uniforms, so it must have been a challenge to know friend from enemy.
A solitary farmhouse stood on the edge of the battlefield. Elderly Judith Henry was determined to remain in her home despite the conflict and her own ill health. She was assured by the Southern defenders that all would be fine. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Once fighting began, Mrs. Henry became the first civilian killed in the war. The original farmhouse is now gone, and another stands in its place.
Scattered around the site are cannons, silent sentinels from that 1861 battle that ultimately caused approximately 4,700 deaths.
The Second Battle of Manassas in 1862 resulted in even more tears, with an estimated 22,000 casualties. It was mainly fought to the north and west of the first battle. To see the area where this battle raged, obtain a map at the visitors center and take all or part of the 13-mile self-guided driving tour, which has marked stops along the way.
If you know any Civil War buffs, the visitors center at Manassas Battlefield National Park is the place to find them a gift. A shop there carries a wide selection of hard-to-find Civil War books on all aspects of war, from daring female spies to specific details about weaponry.
Manassas Battlefield National Park is open year-round, and a $3 admission fee is charged. No camping is available. For more information, call (703) 361-1339 or visit www.nps.gov/mana.
Perhaps no other country has been more fascinated by flying machines than the United States. So, it may not be surprising that it boasts the largest collection of aircraft in the world. Many are displayed in two Washington, D.C., area locations “” the National Air and Space Museum, on the National Mall, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located in Fairfax County near Washington Dulles International Airport.
The Udvar-Hazy Center is a companion facility to the more well-known National Air and Space Museum. The unusual name comes from the center’s most generous individual donor, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, who pledged a total of $65 million for the project. The total cost was approximately $311 million, but Congress mandated that only non-federal funds be used.
Even before the opening of the original National Air and Space Museum building on the Mall in 1976, Smithsonian officials knew a companion facility eventually would be necessary. By 1980 the Board of Regents proposed that the museum establish a new facility to display the stored objects. The Dulles airport site met all the criteria and was chosen as the location. Together the two facilities would eventually house and showcase almost all of the Smithsonian’s aircraft and large space objects.
The Mall building was unable to accommodate massive flight icons such as the space shuttle Enterprise and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, as well as numerous collections of smaller artifacts.
The Udvar-Hazy Center received its first guests on December 15, 2003. Unlike traditional museum galleries, the center displays artifacts in an open, hangar-like setting. The main aviation hangar contains three levels of aircraft “” two levels suspended from the huge trusses and a third on the floor. The suspended aircraft have been hung in their typical flight maneuvers, giving the area a vibrant, “in-motion” feeling.
The newest hangar, the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, opened in November 2004. Between the two hangars, the Udvar-Hazy Center displays 116 aircraft, 122 large space artifacts, and more than 1,500 smaller items.
This may be your only opportunity to stand just a few feet beneath a supersonic passenger jetliner, more commonly known as the Concorde. The museum’s Concorde is situated over a walkway, allowing a close-up view of her underside. Sleek and birdlike, this particular jet was the oldest in the Air France fleet. The aircraft cruised at more than twice the speed of sound at approximately 1,350 mph and at an altitude of up to 60,000 feet. Amazing! It makes one sorry if they never had the chance to fly on the Concorde “” and no one probably will again in the foreseeable future. British Airways and Air France retired these airplanes in 2003, marking the end of an era.
Elevated walkways and inside lighting provide a close-up view into the cockpit of the Enola Gay. This B-29 Superfortress dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. For years the historic plane sat hidden away in storage, but it was reassembled at the Udvar-Hazy Center in 2003. The shiny metallic body stands out amid the other aircraft.
Speed fanatics will appreciate another notable aircraft on display, the Lockheed SR-71, called the Blackbird. You’ll quickly see the reason for the nickname after viewing its black exterior. Although it first was designed and built in the early 1960s, the SR-71 is still the fastest, highest-flying jet-powered aircraft ever, capable of more than 2,200 mph (Mach 3+, or more than three times the speed of sound) and at altitudes of 85,000 feet.
The SR-71 was one of the first stealth aircraft. It incorporated radar-absorbing materials and was shaped to have an extremely low radar signature.
One large section of the Udvar-Hazy Center is devoted to space travel. The showpiece is the Enterprise, the first Space Shuttle Orbiter. The craft was originally to be named the Constitution (in honor of the U.S. Constitution’s bicentennial), but avid fans of the “Star Trek” television series launched a write-in campaign urging that it be named after the program’s starship instead. The fans won out, and the name was changed.
Smaller artifacts are on view in glass cases throughout the building. Many of the small collections had never been previously seen by the public, such as the memorabilia relating to Charles Lindbergh, as well as an array of aerial cameras.
An IMAX movie theater and an extensive gift shop also are on-site. Depending on whether or not you like to watch films and browse, figure on spending approximately four hours or more at the center.
Admission to the center is free, and it is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Parking in a public lot at the center costs $12. Or, for $12 per passenger, you may take a shuttle bus that runs between the National Air and Space Museum on the Capitol Mall and the Udvar-Hazy Center.
The center is located just north of Chantilly, Virginia, off State Route 28. For more information, call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.nasm.si.edu.
These are only three of the attractions in Fairfax County, and the visitors center can provide a much larger list. Not every county can call itself the Crossroads of History, but it’s no exaggeration for Fairfax County, Virginia.
Fairfax County Visitors Center
8180-A Silverbrook Road
Lorton, VA 22079
E-mail: [email protected]
Lake Fairfax Park
1400 Lake Fairfax Drive
Reston, VA 20190
(703) 471-5415 (year-round)
(703) 757-9242 (Memorial Day through Labor Day only)
Open year-round, this campground offers 70 sites with electrical (only) hookups; 30 sites with 30-amp and 40 sites with 15-amp electricity. Each site has space for a towed car or parking nearby. Amenities include a bathhouse, showers, a dump station, and a camp store. Wi-Fi is available and pets are permitted. Reservations are highly recommended.
Pohick Bay Regional Park Campground
6501 Pohick Bay Drive
Lorton, VA 22079
This campground is open year-round and has 150 sites; 100 have 30-amp electrical hookups. Amenities include showers, a laundry, a dump station, a camp store, mini golf, and a swimming pool.
Bull Run Regional Park Campground
7700 Bull Run Drive
Centreville, VA 20121
Open year-round, this facility features 92 sites with 30-amp electrical hookups and eight sites with 50-amp hookups. Approximately half of the sites are pull-throughs. Amenities include showers, laundry facilities, a camp store, and a dump station.