WHY GO: It’s rare that an Eastern State has more than two National Parks, but Washington County MD, just one county on the PA border, has five: Antietam Civil War Battlefield, part of the Appalachian Trail, the longest stretch of the C&O Canal, a good deal of Harper’s Ferry NP, and the Potomac National Scenic Trail. And this just represents a fraction of historic and natural sites in the region that famed novelist, Nora Roberts, calls home. You can actually stay in a luxury inn owned by the Robert’s family, dine in a couple of restaurants in town, and shop for gifts and books in Roberts’-owned stores. But you’ll also discover a stunning winery, an unsung cave system, a premier Art Museum, and a new Cultural Walking Trail on this surprisingly satisfying History, Art, and Bookish getaway.
Things to Do in Washington County MD
TOUR: Antietam Battlefield, Sharpsburg. The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, pitting 75,300 Union soldiers against 52,000 Confederate troops, was the bloodiest day of the Civil War, with over 23,000 Confederate and Union soldiers killed, wounded or captured. The antithesis of Gettysburg in terms of commercial encroachment and crowds, Antietam, left exactly as it was 150 years ago, is the country’s “most pristine battlefield of any war.”
Until this Battle, the War Between the States was fought in the South. Maryland, at the center of the North/South divide, was under Union Martial Law. Confederate General Robert E. Lee miscalculated Marylander’s loyalties. He expected the bulk of the population to feel oppressed; eager to join the Confederacy when he arrived. But many locals were devoted to the Union and had no wish to be part of Lee’s ragtag troops. To add insult to injury, Lee’s mislaid battle plans got into the hands of Union General George B. McClelland.
Due to the Union General’s Civil Engineering-overanalytical mind, however, McClelland was slow to act, leading to a one day clash that would take the lives of more Americans (on both sides) in one day than at any other time during the Civil War. There were so many dead soldiers buried in haste on this field, farmers couldn’t plow their own land without striking bodies (which were later reinterred elsewhere: Union in the National Cemetery down the road and Confederates in Hagerstown). Neither side “won,” and in fact, President Lincoln came out to the field to “fire” McClellan, a meeting captured for all time in a famous photograph on exhibit at the Visitor’s Center.
Begin at the Visitor’s Center for an overview in an excellent museum. Pick up an Audio Tour and begin your 5-mile loop drive by stopping first at what became the “iconic shot of Antietam,” the Dunker Church, riddled with bullet and cannon shot, taken right after the clash. Before the battle, the pacifist Anabaptist congregation prayed for peace – obviously to no avail.
Stop at “Bloody Lane,” set within a naturally occurring depression, called a “Sunken Road,” between two “worm fences” – zigzagging split rail fences demarcating property lines that could be raised quickly without the need to dig holes. Fifty five hundred troops from both sides burrowed in, believing that the shallow “foxhole” would protect them, when in fact they were sitting ducks. Throughout the battle, horses and carriages continued to run over the dead or injured soldiers, adding to the carnage, and engendering the road’s gruesome nickname.
Before leaving Antietam, drive and then walk down to the just restored Burnside Bridge, one of 26 beautiful stone bridges in Washington County. There’s a split-trunk “witness tree” at the foot of this one, named for commanding Union General Ambrose Burnside (whose heavy muttonchops inspired the term “sideburns”) who led a “suicide mission” across the river where Confederates held the high ground. It is, like most of Antietam, untouched by time. Visitor’s Center open daily 9-5, $5 per person for 3 days, $10 per car.
TOUR: Pry House. Part of Antietam, and serving as an extension of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (in Frederick MD) this home was headquarters for Union General George B. McClellan and a field hospital during the Battle of Antietam. Inside, one room is devoted to the “Father of Battlefield Medicine,” Dr. Jonathan Letterman, who first put his revamped steps in a soldier’s care into practice here; from emergency treatment on the battlefield, to field hospital, and then, when stable, to a larger city facility for recovery. At Antietam, Letterman moved 17,000 men off the combat zone in 12 hours, and his process is still the basis for our modern military evacuation system.
A guided tour of the Pry House includes juicy stories about real characters portrayed in exhibits and dioramas. An 1874 Pry Family Memory Quilt, signed by members of the local community following the Civil War, is a huge draw here, but most of the displays concern medicine and injuries of Generals on nearby fields. One of these was Joe Hooker, who was treated and sent back to DC to “do some politickin’” after a cannonball passed right through his foot. Patched up with warm water bandages and ointment in the Pry House, he was sent to a Washington asylum (at that time for medical rather than mental reasons) to complete his recovery. Another was Israel “Fighting Dick” Richardson, a West Point grad from Pontiac Michigan considered “slovenly,” “slouchy,” and “unpretentious” by those who knew him. Richardson, injured on the field, died of pneumonia in a 2nd floor bedroom, and might have stuck around to haunt it. Word has it that the Pry kids wouldn’t step foot in this room for fear of encountering the Major General’s ghost, so it was where their Mother stored her pies and cookies.
You tour will end in the barn, also used as a field hospital as it had water (in the nearby Springhouse), hay and ventilation for the horses. It now houses a reproduction of an 1861 horse-drawn ambulance. You can climb into it and take pictures – a great photo op. Open Fri-Sun 11-5, $5.
VISIT: Other Antietam sites – the National Cemetery to pay your respects to the soldiers who died here, and the Newcomer House, the second of two pre-Civil War houses you can tour (the other is the Pry House), featuring exhibits that explore several themes of the Heritage Area.
VISIT/TASTE: Big Cork Vineyard, Rohrersville, MD. Not only is Big Cork Vineyard’s production and tasting building a stunner of epic proportions, the wine within is some of the best in the region. “A winery starts with wine,” says the “humble GM”, Jed Gray. “If you don’t have a legitimate product, you won’t stay in business long.”
So far, this destination winery, opened in 2015, has stayed in business by virtue of the “ultimate experience” that guests enjoy in its public spaces, and the “California level of grapes” grown on this former farm, owned by Randy and Jennifer Thompson. The Thompsons love wine and entertaining and discovered that their property was ideal terrain to plant a vineyard. In the Mid-Atlantic, says Gray, “summers are defined by moisture; so it’s generally not so great for winemaking.” But this valley-nestled property features a constant breeze and exceptional drainage, perfect for growing Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Barbara, and Nebbiolo grapes, ripened to perfection.
Winemaker Dave Collins, aka “Mr. Nebbiolo” is a maestro at turning 95% of estate- grown grapes into complex, full-bodied, award-winning Malbec, Cab Franc, old-world Meritage, and a host of other Reds and Whites, all of which you can taste in the contemporary, highly stylized tasting room/shop. Though the focus is on dry, sophisticated wine here, Big Cork is becoming known for its smooth, slightly sweet Black Cap Port, made entirely with raspberries – a treat for the taste buds, especially when paired with dark chocolate. Open Thurs-Mon 11-5, Fri. 11-9pm, tours at 12 and 1pm.
TOUR: Crystal Grottoes, Boonsboro. It’s easy to pass by the small building on busy Route 34 that marks the entrance to Crystal Grottos. But don’t. On the National Historic Register, this cave system has some of the most extraordinary formations along a 1,200-foot walking path, some of it so sparkly, it’s like being inside a giant geode. Discovered in 1920, when road builders lost several drill bits and went to look underground for them, Crystal Grottos launched its first tour in 1922 for seven cents.
It’s a wet and drippy tour, with stalactites till forming, drops of water falling along “melty” flow stones, ribbons and drapes on cave walls, serrated edged stalactites, “soda straws”(baby stalactites), frozen waterfalls, a small salamander-filled lake, and the glittery Crystal Palace Room festooned with calcite crystals.
There are more formations per square foot here than in any other public cave in the world, according to owner, Gerry Downs, and after a visit, you won’t doubt it. April-Nov, 10-5 daily, $20.
COOL FACT: One of the earliest rock-crushing machines in the country sat right at the end of the Crystal Grotto driveway. It provided crushed stone for the very first Macadam Road in America, the “Boonsboro Turnpike” (now Route 34), paved in 1823 between Boonsboro and Hagerstown MD.
TOUR/HIKE/BIKE: C&O Canal National Historical Park, Williamsport. According to the National Park Service, the C&O Canal is the nation’s 12th most visited National Park. Who knew? The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal ran 184.5 miles from Cumberland WV to Georgetown in Washington DC along the Potomac River– the longest stretch, 80 miles of it – in Washington County MD. Began in 1828, the canal, with a 600 ft. elevation requiring 74 locks, was already obsolete when completed in 1850 (due to the railroad). In Williamstown, you’ll see every canal feature within a half-mile stroll; lift gates, locks, aqueduct, lock house, warehouse, and turning basin. But that’s not all.
Bikers and hikers are already aware of this fantastic, gorgeous, relatively level 184.5 mile path. Nearly 75,000 bikers came through last year, staying overnight at lodges and B&B’s that advertise on the trail and provide shuttle service. Starting on May 7, 2017, $7.5 million in grant money will be applied towards restoring the Aqueduct Bridge (partially destroyed by a canal boat that fell off into the river) to its 1920 appearance. Improvements to this C&O Canal Visitor’s Center will no doubt bring a deluge of new tourists to this small town. Visitor’s Center Open March-Nov, Wed – Sun 9-4:30, $5.
VISIT: Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown. This premier free-to-enter institution, one of only four accredited art museums in Maryland, is a gift to the community and to the world. Right off of I-81 and I-70 and just an hour from Washington DC and Baltimore, the WCMFA first opened in 1931 (with several serious expansions since) has been drawing big city patrons for decades. In other words – there’s nothing “small town quaint” about it.
This classic institution is a cool respite on a hot day and warm on chilly afternoons, when you can peruse its marble halls and gaze upon prestigious works of art, from Old World Masters to 18th and 19th Century American, Original WPA Muralists, Hudson River School painters, a Guzman Borglum bust of Abraham Lincoln, and several Rodin sculptures, among a host of others. Curious about a particular painting or artist? There are interactive touch-screen kiosks in most galleries for instant info. Free, Open Tues-Fri 9-5, Sat. 9-4, Sun 1-5.
WALK: Hagerstown Cultural Trail, Hagerstown. This brand new half-mile trail (still in process) begins at the City Park lake right outside the Washington County Art Museum. Just follow the Red Brick Road. Along the way, you’ll see the work of new artists, passing an old rail yard, industrial buildings, a white washed former factory building – canvas for the future “Mural of Unusual Size”- a sculpted, whimsical garden juxtaposed with the bordering “Car Wash Auto Spa,” and “Faces of Hagerstown” mounted on sculptural fencing. Anchored on one end by the Art Museum and at the other by Hagerstown Arts and Entertainment District, the Cultural Trail is the perfect way to slow down and enjoy the city’s artistic heart.
SEE: A Show at Maryland Theater, Hagerstown. Small towns are enriched by community and regional theaters – and this one has the added component of the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts – a magnet public High School right next door. Thought the Maryland Theater attracts comedians like Jay Leno, and other first class acts, it is a showcase, also, for students and a venue for local events.
CATCH: A Sun’s Game, Hagerstown. Baseball enthusiasts will want to catch a Minor League Hagerstown Suns’ game in season. A winning team, they’ve got a mega fan base here.
WANDER: Hagerstown City Park. Designed by a student of Frederick Law Olmstead, this strikingly landscaped park has acres of water features, delightful footbridges, playgrounds, concession stands, sculptures, and a spring-fed crystal clear pond.
SHOP: Turn the Page Bookstore, Boonsboro. What happens when the husband of a best-selling author opens a bookstore? This place. Though the shelves in the “Nora Room” are stocked with nearly all of the 200 plus books that Nora Roberts has written (that are still in print), you will find the work of many other writers in a warren of spaces, as well as a small Organic Fair Trade coffee nook. Though Roberts doesn’t sit behind the counter (she’s too busy writing at home from 9-5 daily), she does come to the store for book-signings six times a year. Extremely prolific, Roberts publishes five books a year – two under her pseudonym JD Robb, two out of three in a series, and a stand alone Nora Roberts tome. Pick up signed copies here, and/or sign up to receive her latest, delivered on your doorstep on the date it’s released. Open Mon-Sat 10-6, Sun 11-4.
SHOP: Gifts Inn Boonsboro. If you love the Cedar Ridge soaps, lotions and shampoo at Inn Boonsboro, you’re in luck. You can buy larger versions in this gift shop across the street from the inn, along with great jewelry, fiber arts, and crafts made by 100 local and regional artists in a four-room gallery. Open Mon-Sat 10-6, Sun 11-4.
Best Places to Eat in Washington County MD
EAT: Dan’s Restaurant and Tap House, Boonsboro. “Dan” is Dan Roberts, son of Nora, who is an apparent fan of American Craft beer, Bourbon, and Scotch, as are the restaurant’s patrons who congregate at the attractive brick-backed bar to sample flights of each. Specialties of the house include half-pound burgers ($10), Taphouse Carbonara ($15), IPA-Battered Asparagus ($8), and other upscale pub food.
EAT: Vesta Pizzeria and Family Restaurant, Boonsboro. Nora Roberts owns this understated family spot – a good choice for a wallet-friendly lunch. The “Boonsboro Farmer’s Market” Pizza brims with portabella mushrooms and other veggies on thick crust (pizzas $11-$16), and you can get “Hand Helds,” Salads, and even Mussels. The vibe is casual and friendly and the food is good.
EAT: Schmankerl Stube Bavarian Restaurant, aka “The Stube,” Hagerstown. A local favorite, this Bavarian spot excels at great German beer on draft and a variety of Wursts.
EAT: Hagerstown locals also recommend 28 South, Dolce, and Rik’s Café.
EAT: Bonnie’s @ The Red Byrd, Keedysville. Locals love this homey red and white checked tablecloth authentic homespun eatery, especially for its signature pies, Red Velvet Cake and “Big Byrd Sandwich Platter.” It’s “Cheers” as country café.
Best Place to Stay in Washington County MD
Most of the better hotels in this part of Maryland are chains, like Hampton, Comfort, and Country Inns and the like – mostly in the Hagerstown area, and those are certainly OK.