About six years ago I stopped by Gettysburg, PA with my son for a half day while on a trip to nearby Baltimore. I've wanted to go back ever since. Gettysburg is like no other historical attraction I've ever visited. The National Park Service has maintained the site and battlefields in a condition that mirrors almost perfectly their state on July 1, 1863, when the pivotal battle of the Civil War began.
This week I got a chance to go back with the luxury of some time for exploration. A full day at Gettysburg still doesn't do the place justice, but I discovered the history bargain of a lifetime: the private guides provided by the Park Service.
For just $55, you can hire an expert to accompany you in your car for a two-hour tour of the battlefield. After that, you can return at your own pace, armed with the wisdom your guide has imparted. With group bus tours running $26/person, this service pays for itself quickly. Our guide was Mike (left, explaining cannon ballistics for my kids), one of about 150 contractors who work in this capacity, and his knowledge was voluminous. There was barely a question we could throw at him that he didn't answer.
The great thing about tour guides is that they're unique. You can take the same tour with two different guides and learn entirely different things. The last time I toured Gettysburg, we had a group tour guide who was an expert at describing the scene on the battlefield. Mike was great at defining military strategy, and we couldn't have had a better setting for his expertise.
Standing in a wooded area, looking across an open field, we could almost see the Confederate troops advancing on Cemetery Ridge for the fateful Pickett's Charge, the tactic that nearly turned the war in the south's favor but ultimately forced Lee into retreat. The great thing about Gettysburg is that the entire six-mile battlefield is spread before you. You can survey the scene almost exactly as the generals did before the battle.
Mike told us how authorized tour guides have to leap tall buildings to gain NPS approval. He said he had to finish in the top 10 of roughly 200 people who took a written exam, then submit to an oral test and finally a tour of the battlefield with experts who fired all sorts of trivia and trick questions at him. All this so he could earn $25/hour giving tours (I tipped him a well-deserved $20). That is dedication. And the Park Service has no shortage of applicants for these jobs.
I also recommend the Eisenhower house tour. My knowledge of our 34th President was minuscule, and the self-guided 90-minute tour of his final home in Gettysburg gave me new respect and admiration for him. The Park Service guides punctuated the visit with bits of wisdom and skillfully answered all questions without being intrusive.