Gettysburg National Military Park | Exploring the Civil War Battlefield on the Auto Tour Route

Learn how to explore Gettysburg National Military Park from the comfort of your car on the Auto Tour Route.

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Written by Jason Barnette
on April 17, 2021
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I was utterly lost during my first visit to Gettysburg National Military Park. Even with the park’s map in one hand, I found the crisscrossing one-way and two-way roads confusing at best. On my second visit, I realized there was a bit of method to the madness – and I finally saw the entire park. The key to it all was understanding the Gettysburg Auto Tour Route.

Most national military parks have an auto tour route because the battlefields are so large and spread out. At Vicksburg National Military Park, the auto tour route follows a 16-mile path across two sides of a major highway. At Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, the auto tour route winds through battlefields and memorials on one-way roads.

In Gettysburg, the auto tour route rides along ridges. Oak Ridge with a mild view, Seminary Ridge with a stunning view, and then Houck’s Ridge with the best view in the park. The route passes through downtown Gettysburg several times – those are good opportunities to visit a museum or get something to eat.

It is entirely possible to enjoy Gettysburg National Military Park from the comfort of your car.

Gettysburg National Military Park

In 1863, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg resulted in the largest number of casualties of any battle during the American Civil War. It was a turning point during the war, halting Confederate General Lee’s invasion of the North.

Shortly after the pivotal battle, local attorney and Union soldier David McConaughy suggested the state of Pennsylvania create an association to preserve the battlefield site. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was formed in early 1864 and immediately purchased the nearly 600 acres McConaughy had already preserved.

In 1893, the War Department began purchasing land from the GBMA to create a national park. Two years later, Gettysburg National Military Park was established by an act of Congress – it was the third such park in the country at the time.

1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, PA | 717-334-1124 | www.nps.gov/gett

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Gettysburg National Military Park Fees

There is no admission fee to travel the roads throughout Gettysburg National Military Park and no fee to enter the Visitor Center. However, beyond those free areas, there are a number of fees involved with activities and attractions.

Fees are charged for admission into the Museum, Cyclorama, and Film. Interestingly, the America the Beautiful Pass and other federal agencies passes are not accepted at Gettysburg National Military Park.

READ MORE: Skip the Entrance Fee During the National Park Free Entrance Days in 2021

One of the best ways to explore the national park site is with a Licensed Battlefield Tour. These tour guides drive your personal vehicle for you, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the history and sights. The typical tour lasts two hours, and the fee is based on the number of people per vehicle. Find more information or purchase a ticket at https://gettysburgtourguides.org/.

Technically, visiting Eisenhower National Historic Site is free – but you can’t drive to the national park site. Instead, visitors must purchase a transportation ticket at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center and then ride a public transportation bus between the two historic sites.

A small admission fee is required for entry into the David Wills House – the historic home where President Abraham Lincoln finished writing the Gettysburg Address.

Find more information about the specific fees at www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/fees.htm.

Foggy mornings happen in Gettysburg – and those tend to my among my favorite.

Gettysburg Auto Tour Route

Unlike many of the sites in the National Park System, Gettysburg National Military Park is not self-contained. The park’s roads intertwine with county roads throughout town. Getting around is easy enough – if you know where to drive.

The visitor center has a great brochure map with a simple route to follow. It’s certainly easier if you have a co-pilot – but if you’re a solo traveler like me, you might want to study the map before hitting the road. Some of the turns involve busy traffic intersections throughout Gettysburg, and you won’t have time to look at a map first.

The Gettysburg Auto Tour Route is a whopping 25 miles of roads – some of them one-way only – wrapping around the town and national park site. The guide I have written here is how I explored the route during my second visit to the park – I spent three days driving this route twice each day.

READ MORE: Exploring Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi

01 | Visitor Center, Museum, and Cyclorama

All adventures begin at the Visitor Center, but at Gettysburg National Military Park, it is practically its own experience.

Inside the Visitor Center, you will find a park information desk operated by friendly park rangers ready to help you plan your adventure. The ticket windows nearby – frequently plagued by enormous lines – are where you’ll pay for admission into the various attractions in the park.

The Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War is a fascinating walk through the history of the War Between the States and the Battle of Gettysburg. The museum is divided into thirds – the first and last third is devoted to the Civil War before and after the Battle of Gettysburg, explained in the center third. The museum contains the largest collection of Gettysburg artifacts in the world.

The Kinsley and Lenfest Theaters show the film A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by Morgan Freeman. The theaters are a comfortable place to enjoy the 20-minute film about the history surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Refreshment Saloon is an interesting place to get something to eat – the design is modeled after a Civil War-era saloon! The menu includes hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and pizza.

The Museum Bookstore is a fantastic resource for shopping while visiting the park site. Books, clothing, and souvenirs line the walls and fill the shelves. Pick up a history book first because it might enhance your experience visiting the park but be sure to return later for something to take home.

The most interesting thing to see at the Visitor Center – and maybe through the entire national park – is the Cyclorama Painting. French artist Paul Philippoteaux visiting the battlefield shortly after the war and painted a ginormous 377 foot long, 42-foot-tall canvas panorama depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. In order to produce an authentic Cyclorama, the canvas has to be displayed in a full circle with foreground elements to create a three-dimensional effect.

The Gettysburg Cyclorama

The first thing I noticed was the enormous 42-foot-tall oil-on-canvas painting wrapped in a full circle around the viewing platform. That alone would have made the admission price worth it – but there was more.

Depicting the peak of the Battle of Gettysburg from a vantage point in the middle of all the action, the painting was enhanced with rocks, dirt, and shrubbery added in front of the painting for a three-dimensional feel.

As the lights dimmed, the voices of a dozen spectators hushed. A boom of thunder signaled the beginning of the battle. I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye – but surely, I had been mistaken. But a moment later, my initial thought was confirmed. A smoke cloud had appeared on the canvas! Then, the cloud lit up for the briefest of moments, followed by another boom.

The Cyclorama was one of the most breathtaking attractions I had ever seen at a national park site. The artistry of Paul Philipoteaux alone would have been worthwhile, but the addition of lights, sound, and foreground elements made it a stunning audio-visual presentation. I walked out twenty minutes later with my jaw firmly hung open and slightly giggling with delight.  

Insider Tip

Because of all the attractions and crowds inside the Visitor Center, large backpacks and shoulder bags are not allowed. I had just spent fifteen minutes walking from my car at the far end of the parking lot when I noticed the sign – I had my camera bag on my back. Doh!

02 | McPherson Ridge

The Gettysburg Auto Tour Route begins with a long drive from the Visitor Center, through the town of Gettysburg, to McPherson Ridge. It was almost difficult to recognize the ridge – the one-way paved road now rides the crest of maybe ten feet or so. On either side of the ridge are vast fields and distant trees.

The first of many concrete and bronze monuments greets visitors on the left – there are more further down the road. Some serve as interpretive displays explaining key moments of the Battle of Gettysburg, while others are memorials to the soldiers who fought in the campaign. At the far end of the road, a series of interpretive panels explain the battle on McPherson’s Ridge.

Insider Tip

Most of the one-way roads in Gettysburg National Military Park are wide enough to allow two lanes of traffic. Sometimes, marked spaces on the right indicate where parking is allowed – but the proper etiquette is to always pull over for faster-moving traffic to let them pass. The biggest rule in the park is to never park on the grass but instead, keep all four tires on the pavement at all times.

Monument on Reynolds Avenue with a view of the Gettysburg Information Booth in the distance.

03 | Gettysburg Information Booth

The Gettysburg Information Booth on Lincoln Highway is open during the summer months, but parking is always available. Across the road, it would be impossible to miss the Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery Monument. The bronze cavalryman atop a stone pedestal towers above the field.

Insider Tip

Although the roads throughout Gettysburg National Military Park do not have gates, they do have standard hours. From April 1 through October 1 – the “prime season” for the National Park System – the park grounds and roads are open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. During the off-peak season from November 1 until March 31, park grounds and roads are open from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.

04 | Eternal Light Peace Memorial

Turning onto Reynolds Avenue, you’ll see the towering Eternal Light Peace Memorial long before you arrive. In 1887, a movement began to create a grand monument overlooking the Battle of Gettysburg site. Despite the quick approval of the project, it took nearly sixty years for it to be completed.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial in front of a crowd of 250,000 people. A 47 ½ foot tall stone pedestal supports a one-ton bronze urn continuously lit with natural gas. The flame can be seen for nearly twenty miles on a clear day.

READ MORE: Discover Soldiers’ Stories at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA

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05 | Oak Ridge Observation Tower

From 1895-1896, five observation towers were built throughout Gettysburg National Military Park. The idea was to create observation platforms to allow visitors a bird’s eye view of the relatively flat battlefields.

Of the original five, only three towers remain today. The Oak Ridge Observation Tower is the first along this auto tour route. The twenty-two-square-foot platform stands 23-feet above the ground with a single metal staircase to reach the top. From the top of the platform, visitors can see for miles across Gettysburg’s various battlefields and town.

The thing that surprised me the most about visiting Gettysburg National Military Park was the beautiful landscape.

06 | Barlow Knoll

Barlow Knoll is one of the least-visited sections of Gettysburg National Military Park because there isn’t much to see – but it’s still fun to explore. The one-way road loops across Barlow Knoll, where one of the many skirmishes happened early in the battle.

The Old Alms House Cemetery – a burial spot for Civil War soldiers – is located beside the road leading around Barlow Knoll. Dozens of monuments, memorials, and markers tell the story of the fight between Confederate General Richard Ewell and Union General Francis Barlow.

07 | General Lee’s Headquarters Museum

The American Battlefield Trust is one of the most important non-profits in preserving historic battlefields from all wars. When the trust purchased the house used for Lee’s headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg, they immediately conducted an extensive restoration of the home and grounds – returning it to the historical condition.

The house is not open to the public; however, there is a short self-guided interpretive trail with signs detailing the events that unfolded at Mary Thompson’s home during the Battle of Gettysburg.

READ MORE: The Complete List of Presidential Burial Sites You Can Visit in the U.S. – Travel Tips, Details, and Interesting Facts

08 | Seminary Ridge Museum

In 1823, Samuel Schmucker – founder of a Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg – completed a four-story brick building for the new campus. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Brigadier General John Buford used the cupola as a lookout tower for spotting nearby Confederate movements. After the battle, the Confederates used the building as a field hospital for hundreds of wounded soldiers.

Visitors to the Seminary Ridge Museum can explore three floors of exhibits covering the history of Gettysburg, the Seminary school, and the important Civil War battle. Modern, interactive exhibits make it a fun place to explore.

Did You Know?

You may see the word “pike” several times throughout Gettysburg when referring to a road. In the 1800s, a pike was a toll road. Pikes were typically built by private owners to allow easy access for distance farmers into towns to sell their goods. Gates were placed at either end of the pike, and fees were collected from travelers to pay for the private roads.

09 | North Carolina Memorial

West Confederate Road on Seminary Ridge is one of the most scenic drives in Gettysburg National Military Park. A loose-fit stone wall lines with canons marks the spot where Confederate artillery set up during the Battle of Gettysburg. Located beneath the shade of massive trees, these battle sites are often quite beautiful to admire today.

The State of North Carolina Monument depicts an interesting scene of a wounded soldier pointing toward the Union lines with three fellow soldiers standing over him. North Carolina contributed over 14,000 soldiers to the Battle of Gettysburg – and nearly 40% of them died by the end of the battle.

Get out of the car and admire this memorial during your visit. It’s the most complex in the park.

10 | Virginia Memorial

Dedicated in 1917 by Virginia Carter – Robert E. Lee’s niece – the Virginia Memorial depicts General Lee on horseback standing high over seven Confederate soldiers. It’s one of the most complex sculptures in Gettysburg National Military Park.

Virginia contributed 19,000 soldiers to the Battle of Gettysburg – the most of any Confederate state – but only saw about 25% of them killed.

11 | Warfield Ridge Observation Tower

The Warfield Ridge Observation Tower – one of three at Gettysburg National Military Park – offers one of the best views of the battlefield in the park. Towering above the tree line, the observation deck is covered and offers views along Seminary Ridge and the local landscape.

READ MORE: The Definitive List of Every Presidential Home You Can Visit in the U.S.

12 | Picnic Area

Snacking is generally allowed anywhere along the Gettysburg Auto Tour Route, but this is the best place to actually sit outside for a meal. Several tables scattered through a wooded area provide an opportunity to sit for a meal with plenty of shade from the summer sun. A concrete path leads to public restrooms nearby that are open throughout the year.

A national park ranger leads an activity at the Brigadier General Gouverneur Kemble Warren Monument on Little Round Top.

13 | Little Round Top

When you drive up a little hill and notice more parking spaces than anywhere else on the auto tour route, you’ll know this is an important place. Little Round Top played a pivotal role in the Battle of Gettysburg – but it also offers one of the most fantastic overlooks of the battlefield that does not involve climbing an observation tower.

A series of concrete paths outline the edge of the hill where Brigadier General Gouverneur Kemble Warren scouted enemy soldier movements. At the southern end of the trail, the 12th & 44th New York Infantry Monument is interesting, with a high arching interior offering a window onto the battlefield.

Devils Den was the location of Confederate snipers 500 feet away. The Union snipers were located on Little Round Top where this photo was captured – and they had a range of 1,000 feet.

14 | Devils Den

Below Little Round Top, a collection of boulders along a curvy section of the road marks the location of Devils Den. Although the area did play an important part in the Battle of Gettysburg, today is more known as a place to get out and stretch your legs. Visitors climb across the boulders, stand on top for a nice view and explore inside a small cave.

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15 | The Wheatfield

A single interpretive panel titled “The Bloody Wheatfield” tells the story of a battle between Union soldiers and General William Barksdale. After Barksdale was fatally shot at the wheatfield, General Paul Semmes moved his Georgia soldiers into the battle when he, too, was fatally shot.

Today, The Wheatfield is a small stop on the Gettysburg Auto Tour Trail. A grassy path leads to a memorial in the middle of the field.

16 | The Peach Orchard

The Peach Orchard represents the National Park Service’s endeavors to restore Gettysburg National Military Park to the time of the pivotal battle. In fact, it’s one of the core beliefs of the NPS to not only preserve historical sites but restore them to their most historical conditions.

The peach orchard was the site of a skirmish during the Battle of Gettysburg. Today, neat rows of recently planted peach trees stretch across a small field. Surrounded by rustic wooden fences, the peach orchard is a frequent photographic subject in the park.

17 | Plum Run

Plum Run is the name of a trickling creek that runs through a field and past Devils Den. During the Battle of Gettysburg, it was the site of a skirmish between Union and Confederate soldiers.

But today, I remember Plum Run as the first place to see the Pennsylvania Memorial. The towering memorial – the largest in the park – is seen across a vast empty field. The rustic stone wall and wooden fence provide an excellent opportunity for photos before arriving at the memorial.

It’s difficult to miss the Pennsylvania Memorial.

18 | Pennsylvania Memorial

Completed in 1914, the Pennsylvania Memorial is the largest memorial in Gettysburg National Military Park. The gargantuan memorial was first suggested by Senator Andrew Curtin in the 1880s, who wanted to commemorate the 34,000 soldiers who fought at Gettysburg from Pennsylvania.

The domed memorial stands on a square marble base 100 feet long on each side. Nearly a dozen bronze sculptures of military leaders and Governor Andrew Curtin are located inside. The best feature is a staircase leading to a hidden observation deck on the roof of the memorial. It offers a stunning view of the battlefield from the Union lines.

There are more canons, marker, and memorials near the High Water Mark than any other section of the park.

19 | High Water Mark

The High Water Mark is the furthest point Confederate troops made into the Union lines during Pickett’s Charge. On the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet to attack the middle of the Union lines.

The attack – named after Major General George Pickett, who led the assault along with Longstreet – utterly failed. Nearly 50% of the 12,500 Confederate soldiers in the attack died by the end of the attempt. The failed Pickett’s Charge is largely considered the turning point in both the Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War.

Nearby, the Copse of Trees has been preserved along with a small memorial. The natural landmark was used by Lee and Longstreet to plan the failed attack on the Union line.

READ MORE: The Ultimate Road Trip on the Skyline Drive Through Shenandoah National Park

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20 | Gettysburg National Cemetery Parking

Almost 9,000 soldiers died during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. There were so many casualties that locals were hired as contractors to bury the dead – often buried where they died. Plans of a national cemetery were announced almost immediately – and left open to Union and Confederate soldiers alike.

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address during the dedication of Soldier’s National Cemetery – the original name for the national cemetery. By March 1864, 3,512 soldiers had been reinterred at the national cemetery. In 1869, the Soldiers’ National Monument was completed – a 60-foot-tall granite monument and focal point of the national cemetery.

Vehicles are not allowed inside Gettysburg National Cemetery. In recent years, a new parking lot was completed across the road from the cemetery for visitors. A crosswalk leads visitors across Taneytown Road into the cemetery to explore on foot during daylight hours.

21 | Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station

With the impending completion of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln was invited to speak at the dedication ceremony. With few existing roads, the only way for the president to travel was by train.

The Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station was completely restored in 2006 to resemble what it would have looked like with Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg. With free admission, visitors can explore the historic site, admire the gorgeous architecture, and learn about the history of the railroad station.

22 | Gettysburg Museum of History

Erik Dorr was the fourth generation of his family to live in the modest two-story home on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg. But in 2006, he moved out of the house and converted it into the Gettysburg Museum of History, where he displays one of the largest private collections of military artifacts in the state.

The museum goes beyond telling just the story of the American Civil War and Battle of Gettysburg – although both are featured among the vast collections. Explore the relics Dorr has collected since childhood and learn about the history of world wars and local heroes. The best part, though, might be the fact admission is free.

READ MORE: 27 National Park Sites to Learn About the American Revolutionary War

23 | Ronn Palm’s Museum of Gettysburg Images

The primary exhibit on display at Ronn Palm’s Museum of Gettysburg Images is a vast collection of original photography from the Civil War. Located inside one of the oldest homes in downtown Gettysburg, the collection of photographs is fascinating to admire, considering the delicacy of capturing them during that day and age.

Admission to the museum is free but open on the weekends only.

24 | Spangler’s Spring

Colgrove Avenue begins a one-way journey through Spangler’s Spring and Culp’s Hill – two of the lesser-visited areas of Gettysburg National Military Park. It’s ironic, considering the short drive is located across from the entrance to the Visitor Center.

Spangler’s Spring is a natural water source that was used by Union and Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1895, the War Department built a stone structure over the spring to protect from heavy usage by park visitors. When the National Park Service took over the site’s administration in 1916, access to the spring was sealed.

25 | Culp’s Hill Observation Tower

Culp’s Hill was the location of the far-right wing of the Union line during the Battle of Gettysburg. The Culp’s Hill Observation Tower is one of five built in the 1890s – and one of only three remaining – offering views above the tree line of the local landscape. The climb to the covered observation deck 60 feet above the ground is a moderate exercise but worth the views it provides.

Where to Stay in Gettysburg

There is no shortage of great places to stay when visiting Gettysburg. It is one of the rare destinations that has a wide assortment of boutique inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels that are surprisingly not that expensive. Here are some of my top recommendations.

The Inn at Lincoln Square is a charming two-story brick home in the heart of downtown Gettysburg. However, this is not a typical inn with lots of lodging options – it is a townhouse apartment available for nightly stays. The townhouse features three bedrooms and can comfortably sleep seven.

The Farnsworth House Inn is a downtown bed and breakfast. The rooms feature a double bed, private bathroom, and working fireplace. Guests at the beautiful property can enjoy the on-site restaurant, bar, and garden.

Don’t let the name of the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg fool you – it’s a motel. But it’s a very nice motel. Recent renovations have added faux hardwood floors and new furniture to all of the rooms. The location at the edge of downtown is convenient and the swimming pool a welcome break in the summers.

Located about ten minutes from Gettysburg, the Lightner Farmhouse B&B is a wonderfully comfortable place to spend a few nights. The two-story brick house features several rooms to choose from – the Deluxe Queen Suite even includes two sleeper sofas in the living room.

The Days Inn is a refreshing place to stay in Gettysburg. Choose from rooms with a king bed or two queen beds, take advantage of the swimming pool, and rest easily with just a five minute drive to the park.

Comfort Suites is certainly the closet hotel to the national military park – you can almost see it from the Visitor Center. It’s the most affordable option for lodging in Gettysburg – it’s a no-frills hotel, but it’s comfortable and safe.

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