After spending a few days exploring Washington DC, we were ready to head to Virginia for a day outside the city. On our fifth day of adventuring in the Washington DC area, we head to George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Great Falls Park.
George Washington’s estate near Alexandria, Virginia is about 20 miles south of Washington DC, and about a 35-mile drive from where we were staying at Cherry Hill Park. After a beautiful drive through Alexandria, we arrived at Mount Vernon and parked for free.
After picking up the self-guided audio tour (free with admission) in the welcome center, we began our exploration of the estate. The gardens throughout the grounds were beautiful. Near the house are both wildflower gardens and more traditional English gardens. What was so striking was how detailed and involved George Washington was in his estate. He designed the gardens himself, picking out each plant, and even bringing some in from other parts of the world. There is even a really cool brick greenhouse where he could grow exotic tropical plants. A little farther away from the house are vegetable gardens and orchards. To this day, these gardens are functional and provide a lot of food for the restaurant on the grounds as well as the community.
In order to go inside the house, you must purchase additional $2 tickets for a 30-minute mansion tour. The tours are relatively small with about 10-15 people per group. Our guide was fantastic and taught us all about the features of the home and how Washington lived his daily life there. We learned all about the brightly painted walls, the furniture, the artwork, and special pieces like the harpsichord his granddaughter played and the chair with a foot-operated fan in his office. Although it is a large home, it is interesting how it still felt very reserved and tasteful. Later in our trip, we visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and the difference was striking. Jefferson’s home was much larger and flashier compared to Mount Vernon. It is like their personalities were displayed in their homes.
There are many other tours available in addition to the mansion tour, including a flowers tour, an enslaved people tour, a Mrs. Washington’s Mount Vernon tour, and even a National Treasure 2 tour and a Hamilton the musical tour.
After the mansion tour, we continued with our self-guided audio tour by visiting the outbuildings - the smokehouse, the washroom, the coach house where several of Washington’s carriages and other vehicles remain, the spinning house, the salt house, and more. One of the most interesting to us was the ice house. Right next to the Potomac river was an enclosed and insulated dry-well. During the winter, enslaved persons were sent out to cut blocks of ice from the frozen river and haul it back to shore. They would store it in the well to use throughout the year. A 10-foot ladder allowed them to access the ice. Apparently, the Washingtons enjoyed this new thing called “ice cream”. :)
There are two tombs on the estate. The Old Tomb is just a small opening in the side of a hill by the river where the Washingtons and some of his family members were all buried. However, Washington left instructions and design plans in his will for a new tomb to be built. 31 years after his death, the New Tomb was complete and the entire family was moved. Today, you can visit the tomb and see where George and Martha are buried in a lovely brick vault.
Not far away, burial sites have been discovered for enslaved people. Unmarked, leaf-litter-covered grounds in the forest. Today, archaeologists are very carefully documenting and marking as many burial sites as possible without any excavation. This is a sobering reminder, just steps from Washington’s New Tomb, of the realities of slavery in that era. The disregard for their humanity in life and death is incomprehensible. A group memorial stands solemnly in the center of the enslaved cemetery.
Down on the farm area, we visited a recreation enslaved person’s quarters, talked to living history volunteers displaying trades of the day, and learned what life would have been like for those working on the estate. Families separated even within the farm. Men working and living in one area and women and children in another. They maybe saw each other once a week.
The 16-sided barn was fascinating. Washington’s own design was built in order to protect the wheat from the weather and also from thieves. Throughout the day, there are demonstrations with horses on how the horses worked to thresh the wheat from the second story down to the first story. It is very interesting and a neat part of touring the property.
Finally, we made our way on a trail back through the forest to the front of the estate.
After wrapping up visiting the grounds, we did a quick visit to the museum. Here, we learned a chronological history of George Washington’s life from his childhood to his days as a surveyor to his military career in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War to his days as President and retirement back to Mount Vernon. It is very well done and not to be missed.
We thoroughly enjoyed spending about four hours at Mount Vernon. It is a beautiful, pastoral property with plenty to do for history buffs and non-history buffs alike. We had a great time. I think if we ever go back, we will have to take the National Treasure 2 tour!
Great Falls Park
About 20 miles west of Washington DC is Great Falls Park. It is part of the National Park Service and sits on the Potomac River, just where the river narrows, creating rapids or falls. After leaving Mount Vernon, we drove about 45 minutes to the park. It was a Saturday afternoon and was quite busy, full of birthday parties and people having picnics. Unfortunately, the visitor center was closed, but we were still able to enjoy the rest of the park for a couple of hours.
There are a few trails that lead out to overlooks to see the falls from different vantage points. There are also some areas to climb on rocks which of course the kids loved. There are plenty of other longer trails as well. We just did one longer trail that followed the river to an outlook a little farther downstream. It is a really beautiful view down the river. What a great little piece of nature right outside the city. We certainly could have spent more time at Great Falls, but we were ready to head back to our campground.
That was a great day, escaping the hustle and bustle of the city and Metro. As you can tell, we really loved the whole Washington DC area and can’t wait to share the rest of our time there.
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Where We Stayed
Cherry Hill Park