Jody's family has lived in Gettysburg since the 1750s, successfully surviving the battle and the ensuing 150 years of tourist infiltration.
Gettysburg: Where the History Is
From July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate soldiers converged on Gettysburg and fought one of the most important battles of the American Civil War. By the end of it, over 50,000 soldiers were dead, thousands more wounded, and the Confederate army was in retreat.
Since then, Gettysburg has been a mecca for people wanting to see the battlefield or perhaps to see where their ancestors fought or died. Each year, an estimated 1.2 million people visit, almost double the population of the county, and many of them come for the anniversary and reenactment normally scheduled in the beginning of July.
When I was a kid, "tourist season" ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Now it runs from April until after Halloween, thanks to the ghost tour industry that has taken hold. So for Gettysburg, I would suggest "off-season" means November through April.
If you are thinking about a visit to Gettysburg, consider coming during that time. There are some big advantages to visiting off-season. Here are five good ones!
The Number One, Hands Down, Top Reason to Visit Off-Season: THE CROWDS
1.2 million people visit on average every year. In the few years after the movie was released in 1993, it was closer to 2 million. Most tourists come in the summer and I can tell you from experience that it is no fun. If you visit during peak season, this is what you have to look forward to:
- Packed restaurants
- Traffic backups, people going the wrong way, people driving 5-10mph.
- Groups of people absentmindedly walking out in front of your car all the time
- Crowds in the museums making it difficult to hear or get close to exhibits
- Screaming, running children playing and climbing on signs, monuments, and cannons
- Buses and RVs blocking views, monuments, signs.
- Difficulty taking great pictures without a LOT of people in them
- More trash (sad but true)
Most locals avoid tourist areas of town like the plague during summer, but the problem is that the town is also part of the battlefield, so there is only so much you can do to get away from the hustle and bustle. Learn from a local - stay home in the summer! I joke that I do what my ancestors did: I hide in the basement.
However, in November or March? Restaurants are open with plentiful seating, traffic moves smoothly, no RVs and few buses, and the museums are almost quiet! And you will be guaranteed to get beautiful photographs or video without people climbing on monuments.
Reason 2: Prices
This is a tourist town and, as such, prices go up during prime tourist times. There is a reason why it's called "tourist season"! Gas prices, food, lodging, possibly even museums and tours are sold at a premium.
Off season, you will be able to get a hotel for much less than the average summer price, and you'll likely score some excellent deals on B&B stays, too! Restaurants, too, are cozy off-season and since they have to rely on locals to frequent them, they often have very good deals and pricing in order to compete with other restaurants - something the smart tourist can also take advantage of!
Reason 3: Weather
The refrain of weathercasters on local news stations from June through September is the three Hs: Hazy, Hot, and Humid. It is typical for our summers to be in the 80s or 90s with the humidity 85% or higher. Usually higher.
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And let me mention something else about the Gettysburg battlefield: it is not 5 square acres. It is not one field. The fighting quite literally went through the entire town and for a few miles on almost all sides. It takes serious history buffs a few days to really "do" the battlefield. Even if that's not you, there will still be a lot of walking, or biking or horseback riding if that's what you want. If you decide you're only going to drive it you will be getting in and out of your car regularly to see certain features or monuments, because many of the important things require parking and walking.
If you decide to go in June, July, or August, plan on it being at least 85 degrees with 85% humidity or better.
If you come in November or March you will likely miss the snow (usually January and February are more snowy), miss the really cold weather, and still have a great time without sweating buckets. Also, no leaves on the trees, which means you can see a bit further.
Reason 4: Solitude
This may fall in closely with "lack of crowds" but I wanted to focus on one specific aspect of having fewer people around.
Many of us view the battlefield as one big graveyard and try to treat it as such. As I said before, over 50,000 people died during the three days of the battle. There are still soldier's bodies buried on the battlefield that they have not yet found, a sobering fact to think about. Sometimes people just need some time to take it all in, the distance those soldiers marched during Pickett's Charge, or how others faced snipers at Devil's Den.
While most tourists treat the grounds with respect, not all do. It can be upsetting to see children climbing on monuments to war dead while the parents do nothing. Just having groups of people around talking, even a tour guide explaining the scene and what happened, can be very distracting if you want or need some time to process it all.
There is an incredible quiet that comes over the battlefield in the winter. I won't call it "peaceful" because that's not a word one uses to describe a great battlefield, but if you want time for reflection, space to think, or are looking for your own personal time to take something in, the absolute best time to visit is during winter. You will have areas almost to yourself. As a local, I take advantage of this regularly.
If, on the other hand, you do come in peak season and are still looking for that solitude, your best chance is very early morning or just before dusk. It is much quieter and less crowded on the battlefield during that time, but there will still be people and cars around.
Reason 5: The Locals Are Friendlier
Like many tourist towns, locals view the influx of people as a mixed blessing. Many businesses rely on the income tourist season brings, but honestly by mid-August a lot of us have just had it and sometimes it shows.
Everything slows down off-season. We all rest and take a breather before going at it again in April. The restaurants and bars aren't as busy and the servers are more likely to have lengthy conversations. Residents, too, are more likely to strike up conversations, which often leads to insider tips on restaurants or, if you're lucky, stories of local color or family history you just can't get from the tours or books. It can be a beautiful thing.
If you come visit off-season, don't be afraid to start those conversations. Many of us are very proud of our family connections to the town and battle and would love to share them.
Hope to See You!
Bottom line: come visit anytime! Gettysburg is a battlefield, true, but I have never known anyone to leave here without their own personal takeaway, even if they aren't a Civil War buff or history fan.
But if you want a better experience, off-season is key. You and your family will get more out of it when you're not trying to find parking or dealing with hangry kids when you can't get in the door of a restaurant.