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Northern Piedmont Region of Virginia
Lisa Halvorsen, Camperways
The rolling green hills, picturesque horse farms, and rich heritage of Virginia’s Northern Piedmont region make it the perfect destination for spending a few days or a few weeks. The area is dotted with Civil War battlefields; wineries; architectural treasures; along with sanctuaries and parks ideal for bird watching and outdoor recreation.
Loudoun County located in the northernmost part of the region is the heart of the state’s horse and hunt country. Only 35 miles from the nation’s capital, its charming landscape and deep historical roots give it a strong sense of place.
Leesburg, the county seat, has an impressive grasp on its historic past, which makes what it has to offer visitors all the more interesting. Although you could do a self-drive through the community, you’ll discover more about the historic downtown on a guided walking tour with the Loudoun Museum. You’ll learn about the county’s many famous residents as you view historic buildings, churches and homes, from a 1767 log cabin, to Victorian mansions and the 1894 courthouse.
Plan to spend some time at this regional history museum. Much of its collection consists of historic papers, from letters signed by U.S. presidents to slaves’ correspondence, and textiles – three centuries of clothing, quilts, and hand-stitched samplers made by northern Virginians. Other exhibits focus on the county’s history and prominent citizens.
Another historic treasure is White’s Ferry, in operation since 1828. It’s the last working ferry on the Potomac River, offering several crossings daily between Leesburg and Poolesville, Md.
Continue your exploration of Loudoun County’s past by dining in one of its historic buildings. Tuscarora Mill serves up American cuisine in a restored 19th-century grain mill, part of Market Station, which contains several interesting shops and eateries. Or dine at the Lightfoot Restaurant located in the renovated People’s Bank Building, a Romanesque Revival-style edifice built in 1888 and now a National Historic Landmark.
Another local favorite is the Mighty Midget Kitchen, a Leesburg institution since 1947. This eatery, just big enough for the cook and a server (diners eat outside), is inside the fuselage of a World War II B-29 bomber and serves up pulled pork sandwiches, burgers, and slow-cooked barbecued ribs.
Leesburg’s most significant Civil War battle occurred at what is now Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park. In 1861 Union troops suffered a great defeat with several men captured or killed as they tried to cross the Potomac River. Fifty-four Union soldiers were laid to rest here in the national cemetery, one of the nation’s smallest. Signs along the loop trail interpret the battle for visitors. From May through October costumed interpreters offer free guided walking tours on weekends.
The Leesburg area also has many historically significant homes open to the public. The 1,200-acre Morven Park was home to two governors, first, Maryland governor Thomas Swann, and later Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis. In addition to the Greek revival mansion, your tour of this historic site will also include the Museum of Hounds and Hunting and the Winmill Carriage Collection, which features more than 100 horse-drawn carriages, including one used by Barnum and Bailey Circus performer Tom Thumb.
Call ahead to inquire about tours and special programs, as the mansion and museum may be closed at times during ongoing renovation.
Morven Park’s International Equestrian Event Center hosts numerous horse events and is a training facility for the U.S. Olympic equestrian team.
Palacial Oatlands Plantation Built for a prosperous Virginia family, Oatlands is a circa-1800s plantation house. In its heyday, this elegant estate was a working plantation on 3,400 acres with its own store, school, church and farm buildings, as well as a brick factory, blacksmith shop and an innovative greenhouse with its own water heating system. The latter, built in 1810 with bricks manufactured on site, is the second-oldest propagation greenhouse in the country.
Today you can tour the 22-room Greek revival mansion, formal gardens, and grounds. Traditional afternoon tea is offered on different days throughout the season, so ask for the schedule if interested.
Take a drive through the nearby Oatlands Historic District, which encompasses the old Oatlands village including its 1878 Episcopalian church and a one-room school that finally closed in 1953.
Another interesting historic district is located northwest of Leesburg. Waterford, which was founded by the Quakers in the 1730s, is a National Historic Landmark District with numerous well-preserved 17th- and 18th-century buildings including an old grist mill.
Despite its proximity to urban Washington, D.C., the county has a surprising number of environmental centers and parks, many of which are included in the Piedmont section of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. Telephone (866) 822-4737 to request a free copy of Discover Our Wild Side: Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail guide for the Piedmont Area.
Among the more interesting places around Leesburg to bird or just enjoy the outdoors are the Audubon Naturalist Society Rust Sanctuary and Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, previously a working farm and now a 695-acre remnant of undeveloped meadows, wetlands, and woods, the ideal habitat for a great many wildlife and bird species, including barn owls and bluebirds.
Purcellville’s Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship is a place where people can learn from the land, about the environment, sustainable agriculture, wild species or archaeology. Claude Moore Park in Sterling appeals to both wildlife and history buffs. Of special interest are the heritage trails, including one that follows the historic Vestal’s Gap Road; Lanesville Heritage Area with its 19th-century buildings; and the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum highlighting 300 years of the county’s agricultural history and people.
Adjacent Fauquier County is a haven for horse lovers, with its many equestrian events through the year, including the Virginia Gold Cup Steeplechase at Great Meadows. Several stables rent horses, including Sky Meadow Trail Rides at Sky Meadows State Park, which offers guided trail rides and monthly themed rides focusing on such topics as Civil War history or bird watching.
Park visitors can tour Mount Bleak Manor House, once home to the Abner Settle family and now furnished as a 1850s middle-class family farmhouse. Other outdoor opportunities can be found here, at Chester F. Phelps Wildlife Area near Sumerduck and at C.M. Crockett Park in Midland.
Culpeper County is best known for its Civil War history. The Museum of Culpeper History provides a good overview of local battles, including Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain. The museum also features Culpeper’s oldest house, a Native American Village, and exhibits on everything from dinosaurs to famous county residents.
The Battle of Brandy Station in June 1863 was the largest cavalry battle of the war involving more than 20,000 troops, including 17,000 cavalry. Make a stop at the Brandy Station Battlefield Information Center, also known as the Graffiti House, a two-story building built around 1858 and used as a Civil War hospital. The center has battle exhibits but, for most visitors, the highlight is the graffiti – drawings and writings on the walls of rooms where injured soldiers recuperated.
Themed tours of different areas of the battlefield are offered on alternate Saturdays, April through November, starting at the Graffiti House. Pick up a map and take your own walking or driving tour.
Civil War enthusiasts will want to see where two other battles took place, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford and Cedar Mountain. Or they can visit the Civil War Museum at the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville in Orange County, which is housed in a railroad hotel that became a Civil War hospital. Among the many exhibits are medical artifacts from this era.
The county’s most frequently visited attraction is Montpelier, the 2,750-acre estate of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison, and his wife, Dolley. Take a restoration tour of the mansion or visit the many active archaeological sites to learn what is being done to restore the estate to Madison’s time. At the Education Center, you can sneak a preview of what some of the rooms will look like and view some of the Madison’s’ furnishings and personal items.
Wander through the early 20th-century formal garden, landscape arboretum, or old growth forest where some of the trees date back 200 years. Or visit the Madison family and slave cemeteries and a restored cabin built by a Montpelier slave in 1872, when he was freed after the war.
Then explore the James Madison Museum in Orange, which features an extensive collection of items belonging to Madison, including a favorite Campeche chair, a present from Thomas Jefferson. The museum’s Hall of Transportation and Agriculture – a nod to his agrarian interests – has vintage farm tools, several vehicles, including a 1931 Seagrave fire engine, and a 1733 cube house. A separate exhibit highlights the county’s history, starting with the early Native Americans.
Whether you spend time seeking birds or battlefields, palatial homes or museums, Virginia’s Northern Piedmont region won’t disappoint.
Bull Run Regional Park
7700 Bull Run Drive
Centreville, VA 20121
Culpeper Department of Tourism
Loudoun Convention and Visitors Association
(800) 752-6118, ext. 11
Department of Tourism
and Visitors Bureau
Greenville Farm Family Campground
14004 Shelter Lane
Haymarket, VA 20169
Travel Trailer Village
16058 Dumfries Road
Dumfries, VA 22025
For more information on campgrounds along your route, consult your Woodall’s North American Campground Directory.