Doggin’ American History

Experienced canine travelers are all too aware of the prohibitions against dogs on national park trails but not so many know about the hidden gems the national park service reserves for dog owners: historical parks and battlefields. Dogs are typically allowed anywhere outside buildings in these places and hikers will often find the same mountain views, verdant forests and refreshing streams familiar in national parks. All with the added bonus of engaging in our shared heritage along these tail-friendly trails.

Here are great places for your dog to learn about America’s heritage:

Colonial National Historic Park - Eastern Virginia
By 1781, fighting in the Revolutionary War had continued for the better part of six years with no real resolution in sight. The British, frustrated by Nathanael Greene’s continuing efforts to thwart their southern expedition, contented themselves with raiding parties in the Colonies.

In the summer of 1781 Lord Cornwallis set about fortifying Yorktown and Gloucester Point but on September 5 the French Navy and Admiral Francois de Grasse engaged a British reinforcement fleet and inflicted enough damage to force the British Navy back to New York. General George Washington followed the French fleet down the coast with an Army of more than 17,000 men and laid siege to Yorktown. Without reinforcements, the 8,300 British soldiers had no choice but to surrender 19 days later, triggering talks that would end the American Revolution.

Yorktown doesn’t maintain formal hiking trails - the park is traversed by two driving loops - but there are plenty of opportunities to explore the battlefield with your dog on foot. The historic site is graced by an abundance of trees and rolling hills in a park-like setting. Turnouts and wayside exhibits afford easy access to these canine leg stretchers.

A prime stop is at the reconstructed redoubts 9 and 10, which anchored the east end of the British line. The Americans under Alexander Hamilton assaulted Redoubt 10 and the French stormed Redoubt 9. After intense hand- to-hand fighting both earthen forts were overrun in less than thirty minutes.

The Battlefield Tour is a 7-mile driving loop that could actually be hiked with your dog; traffic is generally light and there is plenty of room to step off the paved roadway if necessary. Footpaths also connect to the hiking trail system of the adjacent Newport News Park.

The 23-mile Colonial Parkway connects Yorktown with Jamestown and Williamsburg. Your dog is welcome to stroll the grounds and cobble streets of the reconstructed Colonial town but can’t go inside any of the buildings to view the demonstrations.

Mount Vernon - Mount Vernon, Virginia
George Washington was not merely the Father of Our Country but the Father of the American Foxhound. Washington, an avid foxhunter, sought to breed a new type of dog to course the terrain around his Virginia estate at Mount Vernon. He crossed French hounds from his friend the Marquis de Lafayette with his own smaller black-and-tan English hounds. Washington listed 30 new "American" foxhounds by name in his journal and hounds currently registered with the American Kennel Club are all descended from those originals. Either for whimsy or because a good part of his personal fortune derived from the sale of corn mash, the General often favored silly names for his beloved dogs: Drunkard, Tipler, Tipsy.

Today dogs are still welcome at Mount Vernon - the gate attendants provide a bowl of water for canine visitors. Mount Vernon is not actually a state or national park. The idea of maintaining an ex-President's old house, even George Washington's, was unheard of as Mount Vernon sat rotting a half-century after Washington had died. The estate was saved in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham who spearheaded one of the oldest national historic preservation organizations in the country. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association oversees the most visited private estate in America.

George Washington wrote about his plantation on the Potomac River, "No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this." He controlled 8,000 acres here and today your dog can trot across much of the 500 acres that have been preserved. On the grounds are more than 20 outbuildings and 50 acres of gardens for your dog to explore. She may even meet some grazing livestock. The Forest Trail is a short interpretive walk through a wooded area over a ravine and past an old cobble quarry that was used to create roadways, walkways and the main entrance. This little hike features one steep climb and a wide, groomed path for your dog.

One last story about George Washington and dogs. Two days after the Battle of Germantown outside of Philadelphia on October 6, 1777 a dog was found wandering in the American Camp. Inspecting the dog's collar it was apparent the dog, whose name and breed is lost to history, belonged to British commander General William Howe, who remained at Germantown. Even with the loss of the Colonial capital of Philadelphia hanging over his head, General George Washington steadfastly adhered to the code of gentlemanly behavior in wartime by returning the dog with a handwritten note: "General Washington's compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe." Now that's a rescue dog.  

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park - Corbin, Kentucky
Wandering animals, buffalo and deer, were the first to discover this natural break in the daunting Appalachian Mountains. These migratory mammals blazed the trail that American Indian tribes would later follow. American settlers seemed destined to be bottled up on the East Coast until April 1750 when Dr. Thomas Walker discovered the gap through the mountains. Later, Daniel Booneblazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in 1775.

Over the next 20 years, although no wagons rolled through the pass, more than 200,000 people made the journey west into the wilderness of Kentucky and beyond. The Cumberland Gap was honored as a national Historic Park in 1940 and a new tunnel through the mountains will enable the Wilderness Road to one day be restored to its 1700s appearance.

The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park encompasses more than 20,000 acres of rich forest lands in the mountains on the Kentucky-Virginia border. The best spot to view the gap is at Pinnacle Overlook, accessible on a 4-mile paved road. Most visitors don't make it beyond the overlook but canine hikers can take off on a wide, rolling walk at the top of mountains with good views through thin trees and from rocky perches. The Ridge Trail is an easy walk from the campground. It runs for 19 miles through the woods on the ridgetop; all told, there are more than 50 miles of marked trail in the park.
To walk on the Wilderness Road, try the Tri-State Peak Trail, a steady 1.3-mile climb around the mountain. After a narrow, rocky beginning up switchbacks, the trail goes through the historic gap before heading to the 1,990-foot summit on a wide logging road. From the pavilion on the summit are views of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

At the base of the Tri-State Peak Trail are the remains of a 30-foot-high, charcoal-burning blast furnace that produced iron through much of the 19th century. Built of limestone slid down the mountain, the Newlee Iron Furnacewas the focal point for an iron-making community here. The furnace could produce about 3 tons of iron a day to be shipped down the Powell River to Chattanooga.

Wright Brothers National Memorial - Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
Early in the 20th century two Dayton, Ohio bicycle mechanics tamed the skies for all humankind at Kitty Hawk. Orville and Wilbur Wright were lured to the Outer Banks - then a near wilderness - to test their experimental fliers by the high dunes, blustery winds and the promise of soft, sandy landings.

The brothers achieved lift-off and powered flight on December 17, 1903. The first flight lasted only 12 seconds but three subsequent flights that day improved their success exponentially. The secretive nature of the brothers kept their achievement from becoming public knowledge for several years when improved flyers were demonstrated for huge crowds in New York and Paris. The Art Deco-influenced stone memorial to the conquest of the air on Big Kill Devil Hill was designed by the architectural firm of Rodgers and Poor and dedicated in 1932.

The National Memorial features a large open area with two walking destinations of interest. Big Kill Devil Hill, where the Wrights conducted glider tests to test their theories of flight, has been stabilized and is laced with paths around and to the top of the 90-foot dune. Out on the flats you can hike with your dog on rubber mats along the path of the world’s first flight. Although it may be tempting to take your dog around the inviting open space, sand spurs and prickly pear are waiting to stab your dog’s paws.  

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park - Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
No place in America packs as much scenic wonder and historical importance into such a small area as Harpers Ferry National Historic Park where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers join forces. George Washington surveyed here as a young man. Thomas Jefferson hailed the confluence as "one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature" and declared it worth a trip across the Atlantic Ocean just to see. Meriwether Lewis prepared for the Corps of Discovery in 1804 by gathering supplies of arms and military stores at Harpers Ferry. A United States Marine Colonel named Robert E. Lee captured abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry when he attempted to raid the United States Arsenal and arm a slave insurrection. General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson scored one of his greatest military victories here during the Civil War. Congress appropriated funds for a national monument in Harpers Ferry in 1944 and 2,300 acres of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia were interwoven into the National Historic Park in 1963.

Dogs are welcome in Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and hikes are available for every taste and fitness level. On the Maryland side of the Potomac River is the towpath for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which was completed in 1850 as a 184.5 mile transportation link between Washington D.C. and Cumberland, Maryland. The trail is wide, flat and mostly dirt.

Beside the canal, the Maryland Heights rise dramatically 1,448 feet above the rivers. The Stone Fort Trail up the Heights is the area's most strenuous hike and one of the most historic. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union Army sought to fortify the strategic Maryland Heights with its commanding views of the waters and busy railroad lines below. The roads leading to the summit were remembered by Union soldiers as "very rocky, steep and crooked and barely wide enough for those wagons." Wayside exhibits help hikers appreciate the effort involved in dragging guns, mortar and cannon up the mountainside. One 9-inch Dahlgren gun capable of lobbing 100-pound shells weighed 9,700 pounds. The trail leads to the remnants of the Stone Fort which straddles the crest of Maryland Heights at its highest elevation. A branch off the Stone Fort Trail winds down to the Overlook Cliffs, perched directly above the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. The best view of Harpers Ferry is from these rock outcroppings where it is easy to understand the town's importance to transportation in Colonial America, its value to the jockeying of battling armies in the Civil War and its susceptability to crippling floods. There are no protective fences and dogs should be watched carefully on the open rocks at the Overlook Cliffs.

Access to Lower Town in Harpers Ferry is by National Park Service shuttle bus from the visitor center. Dog owners can best access this area by driving to the Maryland Heights for parking and walking across the Potomac River. The bridge features open grating that can intimidate skittish dogs not familiar with grates.

On the other side of the town of Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, along the Shenandoah River, is Virginus Island and the ruins of a thriving industrial town that finally succumbed to flooding in 1889. The trails that weave through the ruins are flat and shady and connect to the trails in historic Lower Town, where abolitionist John Brown barricaded himself in the town's fire engine house and battled Federal troops. Climbing up the steep grade out of Lower Town is a short trail to Jefferson Rock, where Thomas Jefferson recorded his impressions in 1783. Also available in the West Virginia section of the park is the Bolivar Heights Trail over wooded terrain on the site of Jackson's triumphal Civil War battle.

On the Virginia side of the Potomac River are the heavily forested Loudon Heights. Mountainside trails here lead to the Appalachian Trail and there is several hours of hiking in this area of the park.