To hear Julie Schmitz Jensen tell it, when it comes to American history, seeing is believing.
“Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the shrine of democracy, and people come here time and time again,” said Schmitz Jensen, the president and CEO of Visit Rapid City. “Once they see it, they want to share it with their kids and grandkids or bring their neighbors.”
It doesn’t get much more America and apple pie than that.
Well, actually, it just might. Turns out there are additional spots — from sea to shining sea — where it is possible to get a close look at the places and people who helped shape the country.
Try this recipe for a patriotic serving of five quintessentially American destinations. Start with the first English settlement in the United States: Jamestown, Virginia. Add an extra-large dose of historic Boston. Mix in a couple of famous battle sites: Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. And finally, top it off with the aforementioned magnificent monument that features four U.S. presidents.
Here is more information on those influential places, which provide groups with a main course of history and a heaping helping of experiences.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Rapid City, South Dakota
Tucked away in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, the mountain carving that features the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt welcomes more than 3 million visitors a year.
“I love taking people to Mount Rushmore to see the faces but also seeing their faces when they take in the monument for the first time; they are just awestruck,” Schmitz Jensen said.
One of the main spots where that awe strikes is Grand View Terrace, a large space where travelers can enjoy sweeping views of the faces and the surrounding mountains. The viewpoint can be reached via a short stroll along the Avenue of Flags, which is a paved path flanked by flags that represent all 56 American states, districts and territories.
“My favorite thing at Mount Rushmore is the evening lighting ceremony,” she said. “They light up the faces nightly, all year, when it gets dark, and there is a program in the amphitheater from Memorial Day to Labor Day. One neat thing they do is ask any veteran who attends the program to come down to the stage to be acknowledged.”
The visitor center is the hub for the many group activities at the memorial. Visitors can see exhibits and watch an introductory film there, and it is where many of the ranger-led activities begin. One of the programs takes guests to Gutzon Borglum’s studio, where they learn more about what the sculptor and his team faced as they developed the iconic carving.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Located in south-central Pennsylvania, Gettysburg is a must-visit destination for history lovers. The city was the site of the crucial and bloody three-day battle in 1963 during the U.S. Civil War and was where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address months later.
“The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center obviously is a great starting point,” said Donna White, senior director for Destination Gettysburg. “It includes the Cyclorama, the 360-degree painting that depicts the three-day battle. They offer some experiences where you can go beneath the Cyclorama and see what the canvas really looks like.”
Another option for groups is hiring a licensed battlefield guide, who can lead a walking tour or step on the motorcoach to provide a customized and personalized experience.
“Say you had a distant relative that fought in the battle,” she said. “If you let them know that in advance, they will research it, in hopes of taking you to the monument that may have the name on it.”
In addition to those more traditional tours, visitors can wheel around the battlefield on a bicycle, on a Segway or in a Scoop Coupe, a small, electric-powered car.
White said there are plenty of other attractions in the city that offer glimpses of Gettysburg’s history. She suggests visiting the Gettysburg Heritage Center and the Shriver House to get a civilian’s perspective on the battle. She also recommends going to the Eisenhower National Historic Site, a working farm that is the only home U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ever owned.
Virginia’s Historic Triangle
The tale of European settlement in the United States dates back to 1607, when English explorers first set up camp in Jamestown, Virginia. Today, the city, along with Yorktown and Williamsburg, form Virginia’s Historic Triangle, and the three places within 20 miles of each other combine to form one formidable and fascinating destination.
Groups get a strong sense of those early traditions at the area’s big five attractions: Historic Jamestowne, the Yorktown Battlefield, Colonial Williamsburg, the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
These places feature a wide-ranging A-list of engaging activities, among them visiting the museum and seeing a re-created Continental Army encampment, learning about daily life for soldiers at Yorktown and walking in the footsteps of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas at Jamestown Settlement with a staff archaeologist. The five sites also offer re-enactor talks, docent-led tours, educational exhibits, hands-on demonstrations and other interactive programs.
“All of the attractions we have here meticulously research everything and then expertly present it, which means you can experience so much more when you visit,” said Miranda Jarrell, communications director for Visit Williamsburg.
Jarrell is quick to note that the stories being told aren’t the same ones visitors have heard year in and year out, which is welcome news to travel planners who regularly bring groups to the Historic Triangle and need something new each time.
“I love that our history here is a living, ever-evolving story,” she said. “There is a big move to not just tell the stories in a familiar, palatable way but also to tell a truer story of what life was like for all people who lived here without candy-coating as much.”
Similar to Virginia’s Historic Triangle, the Freedom Trail in Boston is an amalgam of different museums and attractions that combine to form one of the most history-rich spots in America. The Freedom Trail starts on the Boston Commons, goes through downtown to the North End and ends in Charlestown.
As groups follow the 2.5-mile trail, they are treated to centuries of traditions at well-known sites such as Faneuil Hall, the King’s Chapel and Burying Ground, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church and the Bunker Hill Monument.
“Since the Freedom Trail is a collective, there are many special programs offered by individual sites, many of which are museums,” said Emily Kovatch, experience manager for the Freedom Trail Foundation. “They frequently have behind-the-scenes tours; for instance, the Old North Church does a tour where they take you down into the crypt and to the bell tower where the famous lanterns hung.”
The heart of historic Boston is a pretty dense area, which means the best way to take on the Freedom Trail is on foot. If visitors aren’t up for doing the entire route at one time — many aren’t — it can be done in sections. That is what Kovatch recommends, noting, “there is so much to take in that you need a lot of time if you really want to see everything in any depth.”
Groups seeking unique experiences can check with Kovatch about two of the foundation’s newer offerings: the Revolutionary Women Tour and the evening Lantern Tour. Another only-in-Boston option is the Huzzah! Tavern Nights private group dinner experience that takes place at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
When you approach the serene, bayside setting of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial today, it is hard to imagine the chaos that unfolded December 7, 1941, during the bombing that led to the United States’ entry into World War II. The site stands as a reminder of the sacrifices made by those who lost their lives on that day and over the ensuing four years as the war played out.
“Pearl Harbor is very much a part of American history but also global history,” said Karishma Chowfin, director of sales for the Oahu Visitors Bureau. “You have the starting event for the U.S. in World War II right here on Oahu — the attack of the USS Arizona — and the ending of the war with the signing of the peace treaty on the Battleship Missouri.”
The site, which is managed by the U.S. National Park Service, includes four independent memorials and museums: the USS Arizona Memorial, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and the new Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, which opened early this year.
After a day of touring the campus, Chowfin said, groups can add one final piece to their Pearl Harbor puzzle: a private dinner on the deck of the Battleship Missouri.
“What an experience to have your event on the deck where a historic peace treaty was signed,” she said. “And at the Aviation Museum, you can enjoy VIP receptions out on the runways or in the hangars, which also is special.”