Virginia’s Presidents: A History and Guide

What do George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor have in common? They were all born in Virginia–-making the Old Dominion the birthplace of more United States Presidents than any other state in the Union.

Among these eight Virginians were those who established a new nation, drafted our founding documents, fought in numerous battles, led the country through wars and created an international peacekeeping organization. But these men also used their power to force Native Americans off their land, perpetuate the institution of slavery in new states and territories, and prevent women from obtaining the right to vote.

Across the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond are more than two dozen presidential homes, museums and historic sites that tell the stories of the eight Virginia-born Presidents. While some were originally founded to enshrine the memory of our Founding Fathers, most presidential homes and museums no longer uncritically celebrate their lives. Instead, many of these sites have expanded their interpretation to include a more complicated and nuanced story about our Presidents and include the stories of the other men, women and children–-enslaved and free–-who supported them in their political, military and civilian careers.

My newest book tells the stories of the Virginia Presidents and the historic sites that interpret their lives. It includes profiles of each of the eight Presidents and descriptions of the museums, historic sites and presidential homes in Virginia and surrounding states that tell their stories and, by extension, the story of our nation.

Virginia’s Presidents: A History and Guide is now available! Click here to order a signed or inscribed copy directly from the author (me!).

The Civil War

“Road Schooling American History: The Civil War” by Heather S. Cole

We moved to the Shenandoah Valley from the Boston area in 2014. In our first six months, I heard more discussion about “the war between the states” than I had in nearly 20 years in New England. I came to understand that some of this was cultural, but a lot of the reason for a continued interest in the war was purely geographical. Virginia was both literally and figuratively at the center of the Civil War and, even more than 150 years later, the effects are still being felt here in ways that they just aren’t in the north. As I tried to wrap my head around the debate over Confederate flags and statues of dead generals, I realized that there was a lot that I still didn’t understand about the Civil War.

Fortunately, I had a 7-year-old boy who was obsessed with guns and soldiers and warfare. Civil War reenactments were the perfect way to combine his interests and mine. Thus, the Civil War ended up being the first subject that we homeschooled, before we officially pulled him from public school. Our spines for this class were: a map of Virginia, a list of the major battles of the Civil War and a print-out of upcoming reenactments. Here are some of our favorite sites…

Gettysburg/Antietam/Harpers Ferry

We started our Civil War exploration just north of the Virginia border with a whirlwind weekend-long visit to Gettysburg, Antietam and Harpers Ferry. It was, in retrospect, nowhere near enough time. At Gettysburg National Military Park (Gettysburg, PA) we opted for the tour package that included the museum, film and cyclorama exhibit. That, along with a quick drive-through of the highlights of the battlefield, was all we were able to accomplish in one day. There were a myriad of ranger programs and other exhibits that we could have seen; but we just ran out of time.

The Antietam National Battlefield (Sharpsburg, MD) is a smaller site, so here the kids were able to walk around and get a better idea of the scope of the battle. We were there during one of their living history weekends, so the kids were excited to pet the reenactors’ horses and watch firearm demonstrations. The kids also earned their Junior Ranger badges by completing several activities there.

However, the highlight of our weekend was Harpers Ferry (WV). Located at the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the picturesque town comprises both the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Harpers Ferry Historic District. The National Park includes several Civil War-era museums, including the site of abolitionist John Brown’s failed 1859 slave rebellion. The Historic District features beautifully-restored 19th century homes and stores, including my kids’ favorite: an ice cream parlor. The Appalachian Trail also cuts through Harpers Ferry, and there are local outfitters that offer biking, hiking and kayaking supplies.

We made a second trip to Gettysburg later that summer to attend the Gettysburg Anniversary National Civil War Battle Reenactment. Run by a group unaffiliated with the National Park, this reenactment is claimed to be the largest in the country. It certainly was the largest and most well-organized reenactment that we’ve attended. In addition to battle reenactments, there were both Union and Confederate encampments, period shops, musical performances and kids activities. (Just be aware that it is a 100% outdoor event and tickets are non-refundable.)

Shenandoah Valley

Although often overlooked, the Shenandoah Valley has a wealth of Civil War sites: Cedar Creek, New Market, Rockingham County, Waynesboro, Lexington. We’ve enjoyed visiting these sites because they tend to be less crowded, giving kids more of an opportunity to interact with museum staff and reenactors.

One of my favorite Civil War sites in the Shenandoah Valley is the Confederate Breastworks Interpretive Trail in the George Washington National Forest, west of Staunton. The isolated half-mile trail along the top of Shenandoah Mountain has interpretive signs with excerpts of letters from a Confederate soldier to his wife, giving hikers a sense as to what it might have been like to be a soldier marching, sleeping and fighting in the mountain wilderness.

My kids preferred our day trip to Lexington where we visited the Virginia Military Institute Museum, home to an extensive antique firearm collection and the taxidermied hide of Stonewall Jackson’s horse. 

Educational Programs

Joining a reenacting regiment is undoubtedly the best way to really experience life of a Civil War soldier. If your family is the type that enjoys sleeping under the stars, eating over a campfire and marching in wool clothing in 90 degree weather—then you can find information on regiments at any reenactment or through the sidebar links. I, however, wanted to sit in air-conditioned comfort while my children enjoyed those adventures.

So I was happy to discover the day camps at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market. The museum and surrounding battlefield are owned by the Virginia Military Institute, whose young cadets fought in the 1864 battle. Their week-long Civil War Day Camp is focuses on giving students the experience of a Civil War soldier—complete with marching drills and sampling of hardtack. My boys attended the camp for three summers and their favorite experiences included learning period songs and playing war with wooden muskets amongst the historic houses on the farm. I was especially pleased about the reasonable cost of the camp.

Another organization that offers a variety of educational programs about the Civil War is the American Battlefield Trust. My son and I spent a weekend in Washington, D.C. participating in a day-long reenactment that was part of their “Generations” initiative to interest young people in history. The free program also included a period lunch.

Since many of the Civil War sites are owned by the National Park Service, I also wanted to remind readers about their Every Kid in a Park program. Any fourth grader (or homeschool equivalent) can get a free one-year national park pass. Visit for details.


Historic Sites:

Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD:

Confederate Breastworks Interpretive Site, West Augusta:

Gettysburg Anniversary National Civil War Battle Reenactment:

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA:

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Harpers Ferry, WV:

Historic Harpers Ferry, Harpers Ferry, WV:

Virginia Military Institute Museum, Lexington:

Virginia Museum of the Civil War, New Market:

Favorite Books:

Alphin, Elaine Marie. Ghost Cadet. Scholastic Paperbacks (1992).

Beitler, Margaret Bigham. Jimmy at Gettysburg. Horner Enterprises (1992).

Fletcher, Susan. Dadblamed Union Army Cow. Candlewick (2007).

Greenwood, Barbara. The Last Safe House: A Story of the Underground Railroad. Kids Can Press (1998).

Raven, Margot Theis. Night Boat to Freedom. Square Fish (2008).

Other Resources:

American Battlefield Trust:

Civil War Reenactment HQ:

Civil War Traveler (reenactment schedule): 

National Park Service Every Kid in a Park program:

Shenandoah Valley Battlefields:

Kent State May 4th Stories

My interest in American history began in 8th grade with a project I did for History Day on the shootings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Since then, I have revisited the topic for a variety of writing and history projects. Here are a few of them:

Youth Activism in American History: A Homeschool Unit Study for Middle School Students [link], developed as a final project for the “Making Meaning of May 4th” NEH workshop run by Kent State University in summer 2021.

Towards a Historiography of the Kent State Shootings [pdf download], a research paper submitted for a graduate history class at Salem State University in December 2003. (Includes professor comments.)

Thirteen Seconds: A Sixty Minute Screenplay [pdf download], a script for a biopic about May 4th survivor Alan Canfora that I wrote for an undergraduate screenwriting class at George Washington University in 1995. (Includes professor comments.)

History Day Report [pdf download], an essay about my initial History Day project that I wrote as an 8th grader in 1989.

The Biggest, Busiest and Best Suburb in New England

The Biggest, Busiest and Best Suburb in New England: George F. Willett & Progressive Era Municipal Reform in Norwood, Massachusetts
By Heather S. Cole
Rock Street Press, 2022

During the Progressive Era, one dynamic and visionary businessman-reformer undertook a decades-long project to transform a small, industrial, working-class town into a model 20th century community. A wealthy industrialist by the time this study begins in 1900, the businessman-reformer George F. Willett spent more than a million dollars of his own money trying to turn the town of Norwood, Massachusetts into the “biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England,” and a model for other towns across the country.

Click here to order a signed or inscribed copy directly from the author (me!).

Caving in Virginia

caving5“Roads Scholars: Caving in Virginia” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, September-October 2019

I am in the dark, dozens of feet underground, covered by mud and perched on a ledge alongside a small group of family and friends. To get here, I lowered myself by rope into a ditch, then crawled on my belly through the cave entrance. We’ve been scrambling over and under rock formations for the past hour. All I can see is the circle that my headlamp illuminates as I turn my head from side-to-side. I have absolutely no idea where we are or how to get out. And our guide has just handed the only map of the cave to my 9-year-old son. Needless to say, I’m a little nervous.

The Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia are dotted with hundreds of caves, formed over centuries by rainwater seeping through the ground and dissolving pockets in the limestone that comprises much of the landscape. Most of the caves are what spelunkers call “wild”—no lights, no handrails, no paved trails—and are located on private land. However, with a licensed guide and the proper equipment, many of these caves can be explored by the novice hiker.

We were first introduced to wild caving through trips offers by our local Recreation Department. A few months later, we organized a group and hired certified guide Lester Zook of Wild Guyde Adventures ( to take us on a half-day adventure. The spelunkers in our group ranged in age from eight to 65 years old and were all comfortable hiking above ground. We wore helmets, head-lamps and hiking shoes, along with an outer layer of clothing that could (and did) get muddy. Lester spent a lot of time talking about cave safety, taught us how to read a cave map and even the youngest in our group got a chance to navigate. While the formations in the wild cave we explored were not as striking as those in commercial caves, it was more than made up for by the feeling of exploring undiscovered territory.

Most of the trek was hiking upright—on par with many of the moderate trails we’d hiked in Virginia and Arizona. We found that we moved pretty slowly and used our hands a lot more to help us through the cave, as much because the rocks were wet as because it was a difficult trek. We got used to the darkness pretty quickly, and I found the 55 degree temperature perfect. There were a few places where we had to squeeze through smaller spaces or crawl on our knees, so wild caving is certainly not for folks prone to claustrophobia or with health issues.

You should NEVER enter a cave without an experienced guide and the correct equipment. Several municipal recreation departments in the Shenandoah Valley offer guided caving trips for $20-40 per person. There are also several certified guides who lead wild caving treks for small groups, starting at a similar price per person. Search online for “Virginia cave adventures” or ask for a referral at your local hiking outfitter.

When we finally emerged into the sunlight a few hours later, we were exhausted and filthy, but proud of what we’d accomplished and most of us excited to go caving again. (My mom said she’d stick to hiking the desert canyons of Arizona.) We stripped off our outermost layer and threw them into a bag to await our next wild underground adventure.



If crawling on your belly through the mud in the dark is not your idea of fun, then that’s a shame. But you can still see some of Virginia’s amazing underground rock formations by touring a commercial cave. The caverns listed below are fully lit and you will be walking along a paved or gravel pathway, usually with hand railings and stairs. Commercial cave tours generally last one to one-and-a-half hours and rates are $5-$15 for kids, $15-25 for adults. Even with the commercial caverns, the paths tend to be damp and temperatures average 55 degrees year round, so make sure to wear sneakers and bring a sweatshirt. Most of Virginia’s commercial caves are located in the Shenandoah Valley and are listed roughly north to south.

Skyline Caverns, Front Royal:

Skyline is the northernmost commercial cavern in Virginia, located just outside of Front Royal. This cavern includes three underground streams and a waterfall and is one of the only places where you can see a rare needle-like crystal formation called an anthodite. While at Skyline Caverns, visitors can also ride a miniature train and go through a mirror maze.

Shenandoah Caverns, Quicksburg:

Shenandoah Caverns is located on Interstate 81 between New Market and Mt. Jackson. It is the only Virginia cavern with an elevator, although you’ll still need to do lots of walking once you get inside. Some of the cool formations at Shenandoah Caverns include Rainbow Lake and formations that look like strips of bacon. Adjacent to the cave are two museums that feature old parade floats and antique department store window displays.

Luray Caverns, Luray: 

If you’re driving along Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley, you can’t miss the numerous billboards advertising Luray Caverns, the largest cavern in the eastern United States. Tours of Luray Caverns are mostly stroller-friendly and one of the neat features inside is a stalacpipe organ: a musical instrument made of stalactites. Visitors can make a day of visiting Luray, with an adjacent garden maze, rope adventure park and car museum. Luray Caverns offers a homeschool week in March, and the education page of their website has some geology experiments for kids.

Endless Caverns, New Market:

You’ll know you’re close to this cave when you can see the Hollywood-style sign in the mountains to the east. This is one of two caverns in Virginia to have the unusual shield formations inside. There is a campground on site, in case you want to make a weekend of it and explore some of the historic sites in New Market. Please note, however, that Endless Caverns is closed from mid-November to April 1 and strollers are not permitted on the tours.

Grand Caverns, Grottos:

Grand Caverns is our family’s favorite of the Shenandoah Valley caves, both because of the interesting formations and because it’s the closest commercial cave to our Staunton home. There is a small museum on-site and the adjacent municipal park has a playground and outdoor swimming pool. One weekend in early December, Grand Caverns hosts Christmas caroling in the caverns, a popular event. For folks who want something more adventurous than a commercial tour, once a month Grand offers tours of an adjacent cave that has been in disuse since the early 1900s. The Fountain Cave Adventure Tour takes visitors ages 12 years and older along a rugged 100-year-old pathway and requires the use of headlamps (and advance reservations).

Natural Bridge Caverns, Natural Bridge:

Natural Bridges Caverns is next to the state park complex that includes Natural Bridge and the Monacan Living History Exhibit, the three sites combining to make for a nice day trip. The caverns are open from March through November only, and they offer a homeschool day in the fall.

Dixie Caverns, Salem:

Dixie Caverns is located in Salem, about 20 minutes west of Roanoke. Among its attractions is a wedding bell formation, under which you can get married—with advanced notice.The caverns are adjacent to a campground and an antique mall.

Gap Caverns, Ewing:

Gap Caverns is located within the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, encompassing portions of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. The cave tours are described as moderately strenuous and children under the age of five years are not permitted. At the time of writing, bats in Gap Caverns have been found to have White-nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that is harmless to humans but life-threatening and very contagious to bats. See the NPS website for details on what to wear for a tour. Gap Caverns is open April through September and there are a variety of hiking, camping and Junior Ranger programs in the park. 

Heather Cole wrangles two adventure-loving boys in Staunton, Virginia. She is working on an article about homeschoolers hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you and your kids have thru-hiked, slack-hiked or overnight-hiked on the AT, send her an email.

Westward Expansion

IMG_0358“Road Tripping American History: Westward Expansion” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, September-October 2019

Our homeschool covered the story of westward expansion in two week-long trips to Arizona and Wyoming. There are a number of other places we could have gone, but those coincided well with a visit to family in Phoenix and a family get-together at Yellowstone National Park. (Part of successful road schooling is figuring out how to do it as inexpensively as possible!)

Wyoming & The Oregon Trail

We spent the weeks prior to our trip to Wyoming reading historical fiction about the emigrants who traveled west on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails during the mid-19th century. Some of our favorite included: Bonanza Girl by Patricia Beatty, Aunt Clara Brown: Official Pioneer by Linda Lowery (a rare portrayal of an African American pioneer) and the graphic novel Donner Dinner Party by Nathan Hale. We also read books written from the Native American perspective: Sing Down the Moon by Scott O’Dell (a fictionalized account of the Navajo’s forced migration from their homeland) and Buffalo Song by Joseph Bruchac (a true story about how the Salish tribe helped save the buffalo after their near-extinction by white settlers). Older students might enjoy watching Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentary The West, or any of the collections of letters written by westward travelers. For the plane or car ride, you can’t beat the retro Oregon Trail video game, now available online or in a handheld format at some toy stores.

We flew into Denver, Colorado and drove north to Wyoming, stopping first where tens of thousands of westward emigrants stopped: at Fort Laramie. This trading post-turned-military garrison is now a National Historic Site and has a number of restored buildings that date to the period of westward migration. After a tour, we stopped at the post store for a few bottles of sarsaparilla.

Not far from Fort Laramie is one of the best-preserved sections of the original Oregon Trail: the Guernsey Ruts. Standing in the marks cut by thousands of covered wagons through the sandstone rock gives one a powerful sense of just how many people traveled along the trail. Nearby, and not to be missed, is Register Cliff—where emigrants carved their names in the rock as they passed.

From Guernsey, we proceeded to the cowboy town of Casper and the National Historical Trails Interpretive Center. Perched on a hill overlooking the town, the interpretive center has sweeping views of what remains of the scrubland and the North Platte River that emigrants traversed. Inside the free museum are exhibits on the trails, the pioneers and the Native American tribes they encountered. There are also activities where visitors can select what items they would bring with them, try pulling a Mormon hand-cart and take a virtual reality trip across a river on a covered wagon. 

But to really experience what it might have been like to be a westward pioneer, nothing beats an actual covered-wagon trip on Oregon Trail. We opted for a bumpy two-hour trek in a reproduction Conestoga wagon, led by the Casper outfitter Historic Trails West. At one point we held our breath and clung to the side of the wagon as our guide expertly navigated us over a fairly modest hill. The nerve-wracking experience helped us understand why so many pioneers opted to walk alongside their wagons instead!

Tombstone, Arizona: The Wild, Wild West

When one thinks of the wild West, likely one of the first things that comes to mind is the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral—immortalized by dozens of books and movies. Many of those are more legend than truth, but if you’re looking for a town that captures the feeling of a frontier town, you can’t go wrong with Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone is located about an hour southeast of Tucson, the nearest major airport. The historic part of downtown has been recreated into a circa 1881 frontier town. (Think a wild west Williamsburg, without quite as much attention to historical accuracy.) The infamous shootout is reenacted four times per day near the site of the actual event. There is also a small museum and film about the events of October 26, 1881. Several of the buildings along historic Allen Street date to the 1880s and have been turned into themed shops or family-friendly saloons. There’s even a said-to-be-haunted historic theater where visitors can search for bullet holes in the walls left by visiting outlaws.

Part of the story of westward expansion is that many of the towns that sprung up around mines and railroad lines did not survive into the 21st century. One such ghost town is Fairbank, located a short drive from Tombstone. Visitors can take a short hike around the former town site and see the remains of the post office and general store. An old schoolhouse has also been partially restored and is sometimes open as a visitor center and gift shop.

Before driving south to Tombstone and Fairbank, we spent several days sightseeing in Tucson. The Arizona History Museum had several great kid-friendly exhibits about the west, including one about Apache leader Geronimo and a recreation of a copper mine. And if you didn’t see enough gunfights in Tombstone, the nearby theme park Old Tucson offers a number of “western experiences” including stunt shows and can-can dancers.

My kids’ favorite part of our westward expansion unit was learning about the outlaws and lawmen. Among the various tall tales, two favorite mostly-nonfiction books were The Legend of Bass Reeves: Being the True and Fictional Account of the Most Valiant Marshal in the West by Gary Paulsen and Bad Guys: True Stories of Legendary Gunslingers, Sidewinders, Fourflushers, Drygulchers, Bushwhackers, Freebooters, and Downright Bad Guys and Gals of the Wild West by Andrew Glass. The latter added some interesting new lingo to our vocabulary!

Heather Cole is dough boxer, biscuit roller and school marm to a pair of blue belly buttons who take a cotton to seeing the elephant without spending a heap of Lincoln skins. 



Arizona History Museum, Tucson, AZ:

Fairbank Historic Town Site, AZ:

O.K. Corral, Tombstone, AZ:

Old Tucson, Tucson, AZ:


Fort Laramie, WY:

Guernsey Ruts & Register Cliff, Guernsey State Park, WY:

Historic Trails West, Casper, WY:

National Historical Trails Interpretive Center, Casper, WY:

Oregon Trail video game:

Eat Your Way Across VA

“Roads Scholar: Eat Your Way Across VA” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, March-May 2019

AidenatMtCrawford1On a trip through Vermont many (pre-kid) years ago, my husband and I stopped at so many dairies, farm stores and breweries that we joked that we could live for a week on free samples. While I don’t advocate taking advantage of small, family-run businesses, I do advocate eating local as much as possible. And it’s so much more fun if you can see how your food is made, or even make it yourself. In our homeschool, we count food field trips as science, home economics, math… even history. To that end, here are some family-friendly destinations for your own food tour across Virginia.

Every food tour should begin with chocolate! The Arlington store for Artisan Confections ( is also their production kitchen, so you can often see the chocolatiers at work. If you want to make sure, the store holds “demonstration and tasting nights” where you can make your own delicious chocolate goodies. Demonstration nights are $30 per person and are for ages 13 years and up.

Another option for your chocolate fix is Gearharts Fine Chocolates ( in Charlottesville, which offers private tours and tastings, starting at $20 per person.

The only thing better than chocolate is an entire county devoted to liquid gold! For two magical weekends a year (the second and third weekends of March), the towns of Monterey and McDowell host the Highland Maple Festival ( In addition to local businesses selling pancake breakfasts, maple donuts and other sweet treats, the streets are usually packed with artisans and vendors of all types. But the best part of the weekend is visiting the sugar shacks where the sap is tapped from local maple trees and boiled down into thick syrup. The festival website has a map with hours and directions to the sugar shacks and other activities.

If you bring home some maple syrup and want to try making your own buckwheat pancakes, you may want to pick up some stone-ground flour at Wade’s Mill ( in Raphine. Wade’s Mill is the oldest, continuously operating commercial grist mill surviving in the Shenandoah Valley. Visitors can “mill around” three floors of historic milling equipment and learn about the history and process of traditional stone-ground milling. They operate the historic water wheel Saturdays 10 a.m.-noon and Sundays 3-5 p.m. between March 31 and December 23. Admission and parking are free. They will do group tours with advance reservations and visitors can purchase stone-ground flours and mixes on site.

Another historical mill is George Washington’s Gristmill in Mt. Vernon ( They are open April-October and tickets are included with general admission to Mt. Vernon. Their website has some nice videos on the milling process and a virtual tour.

If you still haven’t had enough sugar, visit Red Rocker Candy ( in Troy to watch them make their candy-coated pretzels and nuts. Their factory store is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 12-5 p.m. and offers free samples. During the summer they also have kids days where, for a small fee, kids can make candy to take home.

Once your sugar craving is sated, what about that salty one? Route 11 Potato Chips ( in Mount Jackson fries up an assortment of flavored potato chips for your crunching pleasure. Although you can’t walk through the factory, their retail store has large windows that allow visitors to see the process of making potato chips and staff is happy to answer questions and offer free samples. They recommend you call in advance to make sure they are cooking on the day you wish to visit: 540-477-9664.

Of course you’ll need something to wash down all those treats. Perhaps a tall glass of fresh milk from Mt. Crawford Creamery ( in Mt. Crawford? Although visitors are not allowed in the processing plant, if you time your visit right you may get to see the Holstein and Jersey cows being milked. (Currently they’re milking around 3:30 p.m.) The creamery also offers organized tours of the dairy and free samples in the farm store. If you visit in the summertime, they have a new ice cream parlor. The creamery is open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

For another option in the Piedmont region, visit Richland’s Dairy Farm ( in Blackstone. They offer scheduled tours, field trips and a homeschool day in the fall.

If you’re feeling the need to balance out your diet with some healthier food, I’ll remind you that Virginia also has a myriad of pick-your-own farms offering local produce from March through November. Many of the larger farms and orchards offer field trips or an educational component to your visit. For listings, visit: or

Finally, if the grown-ups in your family want to take an adults-only field trip, I’ll suggest this website as a starting point:

What are your favorite Virginia food destinations? Click on over to the VAHomeschoolers community Facebook page ( to let us know.

Heather Cole edits the Roads Scholars column and wants to know about YOUR favorite Virginia field trip destinations. Email your tips or comments to attn: Roads Scholars.

Off the Beaten Path in Williamsburg

“Roads Scholar: Off the Beaten Path in Williamsburg” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, January-February 2019

The annual Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers Conference is moving to Williamsburg this spring. For those of you bringing your family (and we hope you do!), here are some things to do in the area before or after the conference.

The Usual Suspects

If you have not yet been to Colonial Williamsburg or the historic sites of Jamestown and Yorktown, then by all means put them on your list. If you visit Jamestown or Yorktown, make sure to ask about the homeschool discount. But if you’re looking for some things a bit off the beaten path…

Free Activities

If the weather is good and your little ones need to burn off some extra energy, Williamsburg has two parks that locals recommend. Freedom Park is located about 10 miles from the conference hotel and is open daily until sunset. There is a playground, two miles of hiking trails and more than 20 miles of mountain biking trails in the park. Freedom Park is also home to the free Williamsburg Botanical Gardens and a Treetop Adventure Course ($28-58 per person). Veterans Park, located about six miles from the conference hotel, is open daily until 10:00 p.m. and is home to Kidsburg, a 30,000-square-foot lighted playground. It also has lighted basketball and tennis courts and Wifi.

Another option for good weather is the Yorktown Beach. Although March will probably be too cold for swimming (except for my kids!), you can take a stroll along the mile-long pedestrian Riverwalk or watch the kids play in the sand. Or visit the nearby Fishing Pier and try your hand at fishing, crabbing or spotting dolphins. No fishing license is required for fishing at the pier.

The College of William and Mary, located adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg, is also worth a visit, if for no other reason than to admire the 18th century buildings or throw a frisbee in the sunken garden in front of the historic Wren Building. Older students may be interested in taking a tour of the college, led by current students. Admissions information sessions and tours are offered twice-daily on weekdays and select weekends. See their website for details.

There are several local businesses providing boat rentals or tours, but for a free trip across the James River, checkout the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. The car ferry runs from the end of Rte. 31 at the Jamestown Settlement, across the river and back. The ferry runs 24 hours per day, 365 days per year and you can take a car across or ride as a passenger. (But note that there is nowhere to park your car near the ferry dock.) The crossing is 15-20 minutes in each direction.

Indoor Play Areas

If the weather is crummy, the Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex (WISC) and Bounce House/Laser Tag offer pay-to-play rock climbing, laser tag, bounce houses and other activities. WISC is open daily until 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays. Admission is $20 per person for 90 minutes, but they offer a homeschool discount during the day on weekdays and a family discount on Sundays. Bounce House/Laser Tag admissions is $9-15 per person and they are open until 8:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Newport News/Hampton

If you’re willing to travel a bit further, the Newport News/Hampton area is about a 30-minute drive from Williamsburg and has several additional family-friendly options.

Got a kid interested in tanks and big guns? The U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Joint Base Langley-Eustis might be worth a visit. Admission and parking are free, although you will be required to show identification and check in at the Guard House on base in order to visit. See their website for details on what is required. The museum is open Tuesday thru Saturday from 9:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

What about ships or the Civil War? The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News has a huge collection of maritime-related artifacts including ship models, scrimshaw and artwork. The museum is also home to a full-scale replica of the USS Monitor, the Civil War ironclad ship, and a theater showing maritime-related films. Best of all, the museum just reduced their admission price to $1 for all. ($6 additional for the movie theater.) The museum is open daily until 5:00 p.m.

Or is your kiddo obsessed with space exploration? The Virginia Air & Space Center at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton has a number of interactive exhibits for aspiring scientists, as well as historic spacecraft and an IMAX theater. There is also a Ham Radio station in the museum and an exhibit especially for preschoolers. Admission starts at $19.50 for adults, $16 for children.

Thanks to the homeschoolers on Facebook who recommended their favorite Williamsburg-area activities. Click on over to The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers’ page for more suggestions or to share your own:

Heather Cole edits the Roads Scholars column and is always looking for suggestions on places to visit in Virginia (and beyond) that are off the beaten path. She homeschools her 10- and 11-year-old boys and can be reached at attn: Roads Scholars.


Bounce House/Laser Tag:

College of William & Mary:

Colonial Williamsburg:

Freedom Park:

Historic Jamestown:

Jamestown Settlement:

Jamestown-Scotland Ferry:

Mariners’ Museum:

U.S. Army Transportation Museum:

Veterans Park:

Virginia Air & Space Center:

Williamsburg Indoor Sports Complex:

Yorktown Battlefield, Yorktown, VA:

Yorktown Beach & Fishing Pier:


Visiting Yellowstone

“Visiting Yellowstone: Our First National Park” by Heather S. Cole. 
VA Homeschoolers Voice, January-February 2019.

ystone5The cold, dark days of winter are the perfect time to plan an escape to somewhere warmer. For your 2019 adventures, let me humbly suggest someplace hot. Really hot. Like the middle of a supervolcano.

Last fall, our extended family spent two weeks in Wyoming, including a week in one of the world’s largest volcanic fields: Yellowstone National Park. We had spent several weeks prior to the trip learning about geysers, hot springs and fumaroles, but it did not come close to preparing us for the otherworldly experience of walking through a field of gurgling mud pots and technicolor hot springs. Or watching in amazement as a mama bison and her baby suddenly appeared out of a haze of sulphur-stinking clouds. Or peering eagerly through binoculars to watch a trio of grizzly bears make their way along a stream in search of the last wild berries of the season. It was truly the trip of a lifetime.

Yellowstone was founded as the world’s first national park in 1872. For decades, European explorers had been sharing tales of a land in the west where the earth trembled and roared like thunder, where springs boiled and spit water a hundred feet into the air. But it wasn’t until a 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition—accompanied by artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson—returned with documentation of this strange land that efforts were made to preserve this unique place. Over the next century, Yellowstone became a proving ground for the changing ideas of what a national park should be: a playground for the wealthy? A recreation of some idyllic pre-industrial wilderness? Or something in-between? There are several books that detail the complicated history of the park—including the removal and reintroduction of wolves and the debate over the role of wildfire in the park. Empire of Shadows by George Black and Engineering Eden by Jordan Fisher Smith are my recommendations for adults; the National Geographic documentary Wolves: A Legend Returns to Yellowstone is great for all ages.

Things to See

The thermal features that have amazed visitors for centuries exist because the bulk of Yellowstone National Park sits on land that was subject to huge volcanic eruptions over the past two million years. Some 630,000 years ago, the center of this supervolcano collapsed, forming what is known as the Yellowstone Caldera: a 1500-square-mile crater that sits atop a bed of molten lava. It is the heat from this lava, combined with water and particular types of rock formations, that fuel the geysers, hot springs and other thermal features. Old Faithful is the most famous of Yellowstone’s geysers, but there are thousands of other thermal features throughout the park.

A highlight of our trip to Yellowstone was waiting for the eruption of the world’s largest geyser: Steamboat Geyser. Unlike Old Faithful, which erupts just about every 70 minutes, Steamboat has gone as long as 50 years between eruptions. Beginning in the spring of 2018, however, Steamboat started erupting every five to seven days. We happened by Steamboat on day five of it’s cycle and spent some time with a group of geyser gazers who had camped out in anticipation of the next eruption. We stopped by again on day six, with no luck. That cycle, Steamboat erupted in the early morning of day seven; we missed the actual eruption, but did see (and get drenched by) the jets of steam that the geyser was still sending into the air several hours later.

In addition to the amazing thermal features, folks go to Yellowstone to see the wildlife. And we certainly did. On our first morning in the park we saw bison, elk and moose—all close enough that we needed to remind the kids that we were required to stay at least 25 yards away. A few days later, a group of human-habituated female moose forced us to pack up and relocate our lunch when they wandered too close to our picnic table. And on our final day in the park, we finally encountered a Yellowstone traffic jam, courtesy of a herd of bison making their way from one side of the road to the other. We saw so much wildlife that one day, that when we saw a group of people by the side of the road with binoculars (a telltale sign that there is something interesting nearby), we weren’t going to bother to pull over until we overheard the magic word “bear.” It turned out that the wildlife watchers had spotted a mama grizzly bear and her two cubs—well worth a half-hour detour from our plans for the day.

Planning Your Trip

We went to Yellowstone in early September—the weather was pleasant during the day, but cool enough that we required hats and gloves in the early morning and after dark. Apparently the park is packed during the months of July and August; several rangers encouraged us to return to the park during the winter when wildlife are easiest to spot against a snowy background.

Although it is, in theory, possible to drive through the park in a day, you would only barely see the highlights of the park and one bison-caused traffic jam could derail your entire schedule. The 3,471-square-mile park is roughly divided into quadrants by park roads, and we tried to visit one quadrant each day, with repeat trips to the centrally-located Canyon Village area for special ranger programs and souvenir shopping. One week was enough time to see most of what we wanted to see, with the caveat that we did not have time to do any backcountry hiking or water activities. We also did not partake in any of the concessionaire-led programs or tours, nor did we eat at any of the restaurants in the park. (Although, had we been without kids, I definitely would have had a nice dinner at the Old Faithful Inn.)

There are lots of options for lodging in the park, from rustic camping to a modern hotel. We opted for an AirB&B in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside the western entrance to the park. It allowed us to cook our own meals and do laundry, while also having quick access to the park.

Regarding transportation: you absolutely need a personal vehicle to tour Yellowstone. We saw lots of tourbuses, but busses and RVs were not permitted on some of the smaller roads in the park (which had the best thermal features). We wanted to see several other sights in Wyoming, so we opted to fly into Denver International Airport and rented a car there to drive to Yellowstone. Salt Lake City, Utah, Jackson and Cody, Wyoming are also also options for airports. Or you could drive there from Virginia—in which case we want you to write about that trip for VaHomeschoolers Voice!

Teaching Resources

If you are like me and feel like your kids need some “book learning” to go with all their experiential education, I recommend you start with the official Yellowstone National Park website ( They have videos, fact sheets and activities that can be done at home before your trip. Once at Yellowstone, kids can complete both Junior Ranger and Young Scientist booklets to earn patches. If you want something more formal, the National Park Service’s “Teaching with Historic Places” website ( has several Yellowstone-related lesson plans and the Yellowstone Forever online bookstore ( has a wide selection of books about the park, including kids books.

Heather Cole is the mom of 10- and 11-year-old boys, neither of whom fell into any thermal features while in Yellowstone. She credits this to reading them the introductory chapter of Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.


Road Schooling Virginian Presidents

“Road Schooling the Homes of Virginian Presidents” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, November-December 2018

colegeorgewashingtonPop quiz: What state was birthplace to the greatest number of U.S. presidents? If you said Virginia, you’re right. Bonus points if you can name all eight presidents and their Old Dominion homes.

As a recent transplant, I was intrigued to come across this bit of trivia a few months ago. We had already visited Mount Vernon and Monticello, so why not make a whole unit study of Virginia presidents? It seemed like a good way to spend a summer (or winter) break. We grabbed some kid-friendly biographies and hit the road.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, home of our first president, is located on the Potomac River south of the Washington, D.C. metro area. We went there during their Revolutionary War Weekend in early May and had so much fun talking to re-enactors and watching battles that we never actually made it on the house tour!

Mount Vernon offers a variety of thematic tours, demonstrations and children’s activities throughout the year. Next time we plan to go on their National Treasure Tour that takes visitors behind-the-scenes and to some of the locations that were in the 2007 Disney movie of the same name. The museum also offers discounted homeschool days in the spring and fall.

The Mount Vernon website has a nice virtual tour of the estate, background information on Washington, lesson plans and thematic homeschool guides.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence called Charlottesville home. We paired our visit to Monticello with lunch at the nearby Mitchie Tavern, which serves a buffet-style lunch in an 18th century tavern, complete with period-costumed wait staff. If the weather is warm, you could also pack a picnic and have lunch on the grounds of the Jefferson-designed Rotunda at the University of Virginia, just a short drive away.

Monticello offers a number of tours, including those focused on the lives of the enslaved residents of the estate. We took the Family Friendly Tour, which is offered during late December and select other times throughout the year. The tour guide began by giving each child an object related to Jefferson to hold (an oversized nickel, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a quill pen), then asked the children to share their object with the rest of the group at a relevant point in the tour. This ingenious tactic served the dual purpose of keeping little hands busy and engaging the kids in the tour.

Monticello also hosts a Home Educators’ Day in the fall and their website has background information and lesson plans on Jefferson.

James Madison’s Montpelier

Thirty miles northeast of Charlottesville, near the town of Orange, is the home of our fourth president, James Madison. Best remembered as architect and promoter of the US Constitution, Madison also served in our first Congress prior to being elected president in 1808.

Montpelier offers a variety of thematic tours, and we chose their family tour: Discovering Montpelier. This tour was our absolute favorite of all the presidential home tours. Rather than marching through the details of Madison’s biography, this tour focused instead on how historians know the things they do about the past. In each room, the tour guide shared an artifact from Madison’s life (a letter, a painting, a scrap of wallpaper) and talked about how it was discovered and how it shed light on something about him, his family or the house. The guide ended the tour by reminding us that archaeologists continue to make discoveries about the house, and sent us to their Archaeological Lab to see how newly discovered artifacts are cleaned, labeled and stored.

My 10-year-old was absolutely enthralled by that idea that he, too, could make an archaeological discovery. When he found a bit of metal half-buried near the Montpelier parking lot, he was ready to launch a full-scale dig to uncover more artifacts. I told him to start saving his allowance: Montpelier offers week-long “expeditions” where kids (ages 12+ and accompanied by a parent) can work alongside professional archaeologists on an actual dig on the grounds of Montpelier. The Montpelier website has information about this and other educational programs at the estate, as well as several articles relating to Madison and the US Constitution.

James Monroe’s Highland

It’s one thing for a kid to uncover a previously-overlooked metal artifact, but what happens when the discovery is a whole new building? The staff at James Monroe’s Highland faced just this dilemma in 2016, when an archaeological dig uncovered the foundation of a 1799 building under the front garden. It turns out that the building they had been interpreting as our fifth president’s home was not his original home, but instead a smaller guest house on the estate. (The original home burned down after Monroe sold the property.)

The tour of Highland focused on the varied accomplishments of our fifth president: Revolutionary War veteran, Virginia governor, ambassador, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase. Staff explained that they are hoping to undertake a larger archaeological dig to learn more about Monroe’s original home and have recently rolled-out a “augmented reality” tour to give visitors an idea of how the estate may have looked during Monroe’s life.

Highland is located in Charlottesville, just a short drive from Monticello. The museum does not currently offer specialized family tours, but can do a discounted school group tour for ten or more people.

William Henry Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation

William Henry Harrison, our ninth president, is notorious for serving the shortest term in office (a mere 31 days) and being the first US president to die in office (of what was then believed to be pneumonia). I was eager to see how interpreters at his Charles City birthplace would tell the story of his brief presidency.

The 45-minute tour of Berkeley Plantation actually made only cursory mention of Harrison and, instead, focused on telling the fascinating history of the colonial-era estate, which was also the birthplace of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served as a Union encampment during the Civil War. The museum, located on the James River between Richmond and Williamsburg, offers a kids scavenger hunt and discounted homeschool events twice a year.

John Tyler’s Sherwood Forest

The home of our 10th president, John Tyler, is located just a few miles down a winding Rte. 5 from Berkeley Plantation. Sherwood Forest was purchased by Tyler in 1842 and is currently owned by his grandson. (A great mathematical exercise would be to figure out how that is possible. Hint: it involves second marriages!) The house is only open for tours by appointment, but visitors can take a self-guided tour of the grounds. The highlight of our walk around Sherwood Forest, according to my kids, was their encounter with the Tyler family cat: “We met the grand-cat of a president!”

Zachary Taylor’s Montebello

Our 12th president was born in Orange County, but just barely. His father was in the process of moving the family to Kentucky when some of their traveling companions contracted measles. The whole group was quarantined, and took up temporary residence on an estate named Montebello, near Gordonsville, where Taylor was born. The actual house is no longer standing, but is marked by a historical marker.

Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace

The most recent president born in Virginia was Woodrow Wilson. Born in Staunton, he served as our 28th president from 1913-1921. My kids toured his Staunton home through a one-day class offered by the Staunton Recreation Department. The highlights of the tour, according to my kids, were seeing Wilson’s “cool car” (a 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine) and the guns in the museum’s World War I exhibition.

Visits to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum include a guided tour of the house where he was born and self-guided explorations of the adjacent museum exhibits about Wilson’s life and presidency. The museum does not currently offer specialized family tours or homeschool programs, but does have several kid-friendly museum scavenger hunts.

Heather Cole is based in Staunton and homeschools her boys all over Virginia. She is the new editor of the “Roads Scholars” column and wants to hear from you about the best field trip destinations in Virginia. What are your favorite places to visit? What are the “hidden secrets” in your hometown? Do you have a favorite museum, beach or historic site that you’d like to share? Email your tips to: