As summer winds down, you might be like me – longing for one last break before it’s back to hectic after-school schedules, hours of homework, and heavy backpacks. Maybe your week at the beach feels like ages ago, or you never got around to it in the first place? Why not get away to Prince William County? Richmond’s prime location means a great selection of family entertainment is only a short drive north on I-95, so whether you’re interested in a day trip, or looking for a reason to get a hotel for a night, I’ve got the destination for you.
For years, we’d been passing the enormous slanted, silver something, just off the highway about ninety miles north, while traveling to places beyond, and wondering what that structure was all about. This time, we took the exit to see for ourselves. Designed to mimic the famous picture of the Marine flag-raisers at Iwo Jima, the National Museum of the Marine Corps is not your typical history venue. Sure, it houses photographs, artifacts, and interpretative texts, but the sights and sounds of the past also surround visitors here.
Before you dive into the interactive exhibits, however, take the time to watch the short introductory film in the auditorium just off the Leatherneck Gallery, as it’s a great way to become familiar with 200 years of Marines. Then, enjoy the Legacy Walk, where you’ll encounter the museum’s most famous artifact – the American flag from Iwo Jima. Your tour begins with an exhibit on boot camp training, titled “Making Marines” and ends with the Vietnam War. While already expansive, spaces will be added to the museum over the next five years in order to tell the Marines’ story from the mid-1970s to the present.
What makes this museum particularly powerful is its use of realistic environments and special effects. For example, in the World War II exhibit, we walked through a soldier’s tent with a cot, heard insect sounds, and saw a moving silhouette of a soldier on the other side of the tarp. In the Vietnam gallery, we were “airlifted” into a helicopter, complete with rotor wash roaring and hot air blowing. And in an exhibit on the Korean War, we shivered in a recreation with Chinese soldiers advancing toward Marines on the snowy mountain. It’s so rare to be immersed in history in this way that it made for a truly memorable experience.
The second deck offers two dining options for visitors: the Devil Dog Diner, which is a cafeteria setting, and the Tun Tavern, which is a sit-down restaurant based on the Marines’ birthplace in Philadelphia. While the tavern is a good representation of the colonial brew house, complete with pewter plates, the photographs along the mezzanine outside the eating establishment were my favorite part of this part of the museum, for they showcased emotional family reunions with Marines after their deployments.
It’s also worth noting how family-friendly this museum is. Kids can take part in the Devil Dogs and Semper Fly gallery hunts as well as enjoy some free play time in a great open space called Chesty’s Corner. Here, children can color or play with toy soldiers, while parents peruse the annotated timeline running along the exhibit’s interior wall.
In addition, considering the museum centers around Marine military conflicts, I was ready for some violent images. However, the casualties of war were conveyed with the utmost sensitivity. My 9-year-old never had to look away, and the disturbing footage in the Vietnam exhibit, for example, was behind a wall and was clearly marked. While the many sacrifices of the Marines were noted in both video clips and museum docent conversations, the themes of honor and brotherhood prevailed. By the time we finished, I understood the significance of the saying, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
After the museum, we headed west, driving through the beautiful Prince William Forest National Park. Although we didn’t have time this trip to hike any of the thirty-seven miles of trails or complete any of their letterboxing tasks, it’s on our list for next time, and it made for a scenic drive to our next destination.
More family dining options can be found in downtown Historic Manassas. It has art galleries, antiques, and specialty stores as well as a museum system, which includes six diverse historic sites located within close proximity to the main Manassas Museum, and charming eateries. For a relaxed atmosphere, you might try El Cactus. If craft beers interest you, you can dine at Heritage Brewing Co., while Carmello’s is for wine lovers. We happened to be in town during the annual Manassas Heritage Railway Festival. This street fair was loads of fun. There were model train layouts, live performances, and scenic train rides. So if special events interest you, check out DiscoverPWM.com for more details on upcoming festivals, like the Manassas Fall Jubilee in October.
We ended our full day with a game of foot golf at General’s Ridge Golf Course. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, we wondered if we were at the right place when we pulled up. Sure enough, tucked behind the clubhouse was a picturesque mountain course. After some quick instructions on the rules of the game – foot golf involves kicking a soccer ball into holes – we set off in our golf carts (which I highly recommend because it’s an expansive course). For three hours, we meandered along the wooded path – passing ponds with deer frolicking, stopping to kick our balls along the fairway, and taking water breaks from coolers placed strategically throughout the course. It was such fabulous fun my daughters declared it the best part of the weekend.
At over 5,000 acres, visitors can explore Manassas National Battlefield Park all day, either by foot or car. We opted for a stop at the Henry Hill Visitor Center, which has an introductory film and exhibits, and the Henry Hill Cell Phone Walking Tour, which took about forty-five minutes. While hiking the property, we enjoyed a 3D video program at the Henry House, made from incredible stereographs taken in March 1862 to show the devastation of the war. Then, we drove to the Stone House, which had been an aid station during both battles at Manassas. As part of the National Park Junior Ranger program, children can not only collect Civil War trading cards, but also complete a scavenger hunt to earn
a badge. The self-guided adventure is a great way to engage kids, and the fun can continue when your vacation ends by tracking the trails at kidsinparks.com to earn free prizes.
Last, but certainly not least, we spent the remainder of our second day in Manassas at SplashDown Water Park. While it’s one of northern Virginia’s largest water parks (at thirteen acres), it’s not as big as a favorite park of ours that’s closer to home, which is exactly why my 9-year-old loved it. It was a gorgeous weather day, but the lines moved quickly (yes, this was a weekend!), so my children could ride as much as they wanted. The attractions were close together, so energy could be expended swimming, not walking from ride to ride. Prices were also affordable and parking was free so it was the ideal way for us to bring our weekend in Prince William County to a close.
On our trip home, my husband drove, my kids slept, and I made a list of things to do the next time. In addition to visiting at Prince William Forest National Park, Historic Occoquan seems like a delightful riverfront town, complete with walkable streets and historic sites. Prince William County also offers a lot of fun on its waterways. Visitors can paddleboard at Leesylvania State Park, kayak on Neabsco Creek, and hike the trails at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. There’s so much to discover in Prince William and Manassas, I definitely recommend it for your family’s last summer getaway, too.