RVing Through History

How to make RV travel educational and fun for the whole family.
Gretchen Holcomb's son plays a keyboard in the garage of their Jayco Octane Toy Hauler.

My husband Dave and I are self-proclaimed history nerds, so passing along this love of the past to our four boys is one of our biggest parenting goals. The best way to accomplish this is to make sure that we don’t just read about history but actually experience the places where history happened. RVing is a natural fit to do exactly that.

Mix Educational Stops with Fun Stops

We’ve found that if we want our kids to really enjoy our history-themed road trips, then we need to make a point of mixing historic sites with more conventionally “fun” stops. And having our Jayco toy hauler makes trips with multiple, different stops super easy. We’ll spend a couple of days at a living history museum and then drive a few hours to stay at a campground near a beach or a theme park. This way, our kids look forward to the trip, as opposed to seeing it more like a field trip. If you’re lucky, some of the historic sites will even let you camp or boondock on the property. This makes it especially easy to have a great educational trip and a fun camping experience all in one.

Make Stops Culturally Relevant

Another key for planning fun historical trips with kids is to make them culturally relevant. I often plan trips around things the boys are learning about in school or subjects they’ve taken an interest in. For example, we made sure to hit plenty of Revolutionary War and early American history sites the year everyone was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. When you let your kids walk the battlefields they’ve read about in history class or see the birthplace of an icon they’ve only ever heard about in the news, it stays in their minds on a much deeper, more personal level.

Expand Your Search

If you’re having a hard time finding historically significant places within driving distance of your home, try expanding your search beyond just battlefields and historic landmarks. The national parks system might be most known for preserving natural spaces, but it also protects hundreds of historically significant sites. These sites are usually very well done, with short films, museums, and ranger-led talks and tours. Local state parks are also great to check out, as they will often run programs or exhibits that highlight the state’s unique history.

Take Age Into Consideration

If you’re traveling to a historic place with younger children, make sure to take their ages and attention spans into account. I, personally, could tour lavishly decorated historic houses all day long, but my seven year old doesn’t always share my love of interior design (especially if he can’t touch anything). Fortunately, many historic sites are kid-friendly and go the extra mile to make sure young visitors have a great experience. Look for places with lots of outdoor space where kids are free to roam. Nearly all of the National Park Service units offer a Junior Ranger program. This program allows kids the opportunity to complete various activities and fill out a workbook as they go around the site. At the end of their visit, they can turn in their workbook and be sworn in as a Junior Ranger, complete with a custom badge. Other museums and historic sites sometimes offer scavenger hunts or activity packs that you can rent. These aren’t always well-advertised, so it’s worth searching the website before your visit to see what’s offered or ask about kid activities once you get there.

One final note to all the parents out there: Don’t worry if you feel like your kids are not listening to every word of the tour guide or reading all of the signs and plaques. I’m sure they are still soaking up a lot of knowledge without you even realizing it. And even more importantly, they’re building fun memories that will stay with them for their whole lives.

Over the years, my husband and I have taken our boys to countless different historic landmarks and parks but there are a few that stand out more than the others. Be it the unique exhibits, kid-friendly activities or ease of being able to park our RV nearby, here are some of my favorite historic locations across the country.

  1. Gettysburg National Military Park

    Battlefields are always fascinating, but there’s something extra special about Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. It feels both haunting and sacred, and seems to bring the Civil War to life like nowhere else. Our kids loved the ranger-led “Join the Army” program, and had a great time rock climbing and seeing what the battle might’ve been like at Devil’s Den. If you go, make sure to check out the film “A New Birth of Freedom” and the Cyclorama at the Visitors’ Center and Museum. Gettysburg is also a perfect destination for RVers, with a wealth of excellent campgrounds to choose from and plenty of restaurants and shops nearby.

  1. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

    These might not seem like the ideal RV destinations, but Liberty Harbor RV Park in Jersey City is only a mile and a half from Liberty State Park—the same park where you can catch the ferry to both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. At Ellis Island, you can wander through the cavernous buildings where thousands of immigrants first touched American soil. Take advantage of the kid-friendly audio tour—it kept our five year old engaged for a surprisingly long time! If you want to see the Statue of Liberty, be sure to get your tickets in advance, especially if you want to hike up into the actual statue. There are a lot of steps, but all of our kids—even the little ones—made the climb with no trouble. If you plan far enough ahead, you can even score some very limited tickets and go all the way up into the statue’s crown.

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park

    Tour the house in Atlanta where Dr. King was born, explore the neighborhood where he grew up, and visit the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was baptized and served as co-pastor with his father. The “Children of Courage” exhibit at the Visitor Center really brings the Civil Rights Movement to life for kids in an engaging, thoughtful way. Tours of Dr. King’s birthplace can’t be booked in advance and go very quickly, so make sure to arrive early in the day to secure a spot. RV camping is available down the road at Stone Mountain Park, which also has a full slate of kid-friendly activities, including a ropes course, train rides and mini-golf.

  1. Collier Memorial State Park

    We chose to stay at this park in Oregon because of its proximity to Crater Lake, but we were pleased to find out that it also has a wonderful outdoor museum all about the history of logging. Located just down the road from the park’s main campground, the museum shows the evolution of logging practices, and houses an impressive collection of old equipment and unique logging tools. There are even some old, reconstructed buildings on-site to show what life was like for early loggers in the area. The campground itself has spacious, full hook-up sites at bargain prices.

  1. Ingalls Homestead

    This farm in South Dakota is not only the exact land where Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up, but it is also one of our favorite stops ever. They have four RV sites right on the property, so you get to be as close to the history as possible. During the day there’s a full slate of activities to help you experience what life was like for 19th century homesteaders—everything from washing clothes on a washboard, to making corn husk dolls, to taking a wagon ride out to the one room schoolhouse for a lesson. When the homestead closes to the public in the evenings, the lucky campers get to have the whole farm to themselves. When we parked our RV there, our kids got to spend the evenings riding bikes across the prairie, roaming through the fields, and visiting the local farm animals, including two very friendly litters of kittens.

The Holcombe's travel in a Jayco Jay Flight Octane Toy Hauler.

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