“If you go to Gettysburg and take the time…you will come away changed.” ~ Jeff Shaara, Author
There is no other historical site anywhere in the world quite like the Gettysburg Battlefield.
Not only has this battlefield been remarkably well preserved, but nearly every inch of it is marked with monuments and plaques. And that’s on top of the breathtaking natural scenery.
However, its sheer size and complexity can leave a visitor feeling overwhelmed and confused.
The battlefield sprawls over countless miles and dozens of roads. Most of the park roads are one-way and will often send you where you least expect.
But around every turn is the potential to discover something magnificent.
Seeing every last bit of the Gettysburg Battlefield in one day is simply not possible.
And certainly not if you, like myself, want to read every word chiseled in stone and admire the artwork on every monument.
I seem to recall there are more than 1,500 monuments in the Gettysburg area. Spending just one minute with each would take you 25 hours!
And that’s not including walking between them or admiring the grand views. And let me assure you, the views are worth taking in.
But if you know where to go and what to look for, it is possible to see all the magnificent highlights in a single visit.
The central axis of the park is Emmitsburg Road, or Business 15. Other roads spiral out of downtown Gettysburg like spokes on a wheel.
Business 15 marks the western edge of the primary Union positions, while Taneytown Road and Baltimore Pike cut through the interior of those lines and allow more direct access to key Confederate sites.
Discover the Confederate Line
The place to start your tour is Confederate Ridge. This is perhaps the trickiest part of the battlefield to tour. There’s only one road in, and it’s one-way. And the entrance is not easy to find.
To get there, you’ll take W. Middle Street out of the downtown area until you find a left turn onto SW Confederate Avenue. This road runs the entire length of Confederate Ridge — the positions the Army of Northern Virginia took up after the first day of fighting. (The First Day’s monuments are further west on Middle Street along Seminary Ridge, but you’ll need to leave those for another visit.)
Not surprisingly, the Confederate Line is much less developed than the Union positions. Gettysburg represents essentially the only battlefield on northern soil — and of course was a monumental victory. Affluent northern states have poured the bulk of their attentions into this one field, while the southern states have spread their efforts out over hundreds.
However, every Confederate state has dedicated one state monument along that line.
The not-to be-skipped highlight of this road is the Virginia Monument — a grand statue of General Robert E. Lee upon his horse, Traveller. His statue is placed at the jump-off point for General Pickett’s infamously doomed charge.
Pickett’s Virginia Division led that charge, and on that mile’s stretch of open fields was where the best of Virginia’s soldiery died. The march is marked by a trail that is open to pedestrians. However, other than the spiritual experience of recreating the charge, there’s nothing to see in those fields. The route is also bisected by the main road which is heavily traveled.
Further down the Confederate line, you will find the first of two observation towers on the battlefield. These towers are not for the faint of heart — they are a tough climb — but offer a fantastic view.
However, the Confederate position by default was the low ground. So the view from there is still inferior to many of the views available from the Union positions. But if you have the time and the energy, it’s certain to offer something memorable.
Now, there’s a chance to turn off early and head straight into the Union positions, but I highly encourage you to stay on Confederate Avenue until it crosses Bus. 15.
As I mentioned before, a lot of roads are one way, so how you enter the Union positions will dictate what you can easily see.
Confederate Avenue will lead you right to the next big stop: Big Round Top.
Scale the Union Defenses
Again, I won’t lie. Climbing Big Round Top is a real challenge and it’s quite tempting to just give it a pass — but I implore you to tackle it.
The views at the top are more than reward enough. In fact, climbing Big Round Top is such an accomplishment that everyone who does conquer it adds a small stone to a pile at the top.
There are monuments and markers upon Big Round Top that very few tourists ever see.
Right next to Big Round is Little Round Top. And it’s impossible to miss. This may be the single most striking view in all of American history. It’s completely clear of trees and offers a vista that will literally take your breath away.
Along the ridge are dozens of monuments and markers. On the left end, there’s even a castle with a second story that visitors are welcome to climb. And below you lays the Valley of Death, across which Confederate soldiers valiantly strove to assault the impregnable Union positions.
At the base of the hill on the left is the infamous Devil’s Den where soldiers from both sides fought one of the most vicious engagements in the entire war. This giant pile of boulders is said to be among the most haunted locations on the entire battlefield.
Before you leave Little Round Top, there’s one more monument you should definitely see. On the backside of the road you drove in on, towards Big Round Top, is the memorial to the 20th Maine, who’s victorious stand was featured prominently in the movie, Gettysburg.
Further out past Devil’s Den are other stories areas, like the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field. They are interesting, but trying to navigate all the one-way roads around there will eat up a lot of time.
Devil’s Den can be easily reached by making a big loop down and in front of Little Round Top. Seen from the bottom, you will get both perspectives of this magnificent natural redoubt.
Ascend Above the Battlefield
After Devil’s Den, start working your way north and back towards town. You’ll quickly get funneled on to Cemetery Ridge, which is heavily lined with markers and monuments. This is where we find the Pennsylvania Monument.
This massive structure dominates the fields from every direction. This is the second monument — and by far the more impressive — that allows visitors to climb up and explore its second story.
Pennsylvania made sure that their state monument was the largest and grandest in the entire battlefield!
The views from atop are incredible, but don’t forget to look at the structure too! The history and artwork on this structure are highly detailed.
Not much farther down the road from this mammoth monument is the “High Water Mark” — the furthest the men of Pickett’s Charge advanced.
Now, if you still have time for one last scenic stop, head for Culp’s Hill. You can either work your way over to Baltimore Pike and follow the signs to tour the entire area, or take a short-cut from inside the town by jumping on E. Confederate Avenue. This road will take you right to the hilltop and past many of the slow-going cars. This is a bit of a locals’ secret.
Culp’s Hill is already the highest point in the entire area, which makes the placement of the second observation tower upon it gratuitously fantastic.
Regardless of the climb, this tower is not one to skip. Plus, it gets you above the dense trees that crowd the hilltop.
From the tower, you can see. . . well everything. Simply everything, for miles and miles. And panoramic guides help you fix all the battlefields’ many locations in relation to where you are standing.
After that, there are still numerous monuments to see on the grounds of Culp’s Hill, as well as the Gettysburg National Cemetery and the Battlefield Visitor’s Center — if there is any time left in your day.
To recap, these are the key points you need to tour:
- Virginia Monument on Confederate Ridge
2. Longstreet Observation Tower on Confederate Ridge
3. Big Round Top
4. Little Round Top (and the 20th Maine)
5. Devil’s Den
6. Pennsylvania Monument
7. High Water Mark
8. Culp’s Hill and Observation Tower
I assure you, if you aim for these 8 critical stops, you will have done Gettysburg right and you will have a terrific grasp on this vast, impeccably well-preserved historic site.