Did you know that within a one-hour drive on Virginia’s Northern Neck, you can visit 3 different Presidential birthplaces? Virginia is called the Mother of Presidents for a reason! These mostly outdoor sites make great places to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, when families are looking for safe places to social distance. From nature walks to beach fun, these sites are a good place to let your kids run and play while learning more about Presidents George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe!
Spread across two counties, the Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River in the north, Rappahannock River in the south, and the Chesapeake Bay to the east. Home to some of the oldest estates in Virginia, several of the families of future Presidents all got their start here. During the summer, I recommend making this tour in the morning, as it gets very hot after lunch.
George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument
The most extensive of the Presidential sites on the Northern Neck, this national park is where George Washington was born in 1732 and lived until he was almost 4 years old. Even after he moved away, he continued to visit the property many times as an adolescent. At the time, it was a working tobacco farm with its own wharf for shipments. Now a large park with walking trails along picturesque Pope’s Creek, this is a great place to visit for a short, family-friendly hike.
As you pull into the park, you will see the memorial obelisk, which was erected in 1896.
Your first stop should be the visitor center, which overlooks a beautiful part of the creek.
While the visitor center is currently closed due to the pandemic, its foyer is open for obtaining brochures, Junior Ranger stamps and badges, and other information about the park.
There is a wall of maps and info that you can see outside, along with open (and air-conditioned!) bathrooms.
It’s just a short walk from the visitor center parking lot to the historical section, which contains a memorial house, built in 1931, and the foundations of the original house. It’s like a mini-Colonial Williamsburg, with a colonial garden, kitchen, farm, and barn to see as well.
From the historic section, you can walk across a footbridge that spans an inlet on Pope’s Creek and links up to a ¾-mile marsh trail. Or you can drive to the picnic area to access this trail, along with another 1-mile nature trail, as well.
Before you leave, make sure to drive to the family burial ground, which includes the graves of Washington’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and half-brother.
Just past the graveyard is a beach along the Potomac River. You can have a beach day and a historic visit, all in one place!
James Monroe’s Birthplace
Only 9 miles away from George Washington’s birthplace is the site where James Monroe, our nation’s 5th President, was born in 1758. Monroe fought alongside Washington during the Revolutionary War and is one of the 6 Founding Fathers who became President. His humble beginnings on this small farm in Colonial Beach tell the story that not every Founding Father came from the landed gentry who lived on huge plantations.
Monroe’s birthplace contains a small visitor center and replica home. After pulling off of the highway, you can walk around the memorials to Monroe before driving to the visitor center.
While small, the visitor center is packed with portraits, artifacts, and information about Monroe. It also has enthusiastic guides who love to share stories about this often-forgotten Founding Father.
The replica home on the property is still under construction and should be open by 2021.
Kids will love the timeline trail that is located behind the visitor center. A short hike along the paved trail will take you through the many accomplishments from Monroe’s life.
We visited on a very hot day so I am looking forward to completing this on a much more temperate day!
James Madison’s Birthplace
20 minutes from Monroe and Washington’s birth sites is the location of the James Madison birthplace in Port Conway. Called Belle Grove Plantation, this site is now a bed and breakfast inn along the Rappahannock River. While the original Madison home is no longer standing, you can tour the grounds and learn more about the Madisons. Tours are given most afternoons but be sure to call ahead for more information. We just drove by the home but I hope to come back for the tour!
Another historical tidbit: Just south of Madison’s birthplace, along Route 301, you will see historical markers indicating the location of another Presidential piece of history. At this site, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was found by U.S. troops and was shot and killed when he wouldn’t surrender.
There are not many places in America where you can visit 3 Presidential sites in one afternoon! I loved checking these sites off of my Presidential site list, and I know your family will enjoy exploring this area as well!
- Washington site – free
- Monroe site – free but accepts donations
- Madison site – $15/adults; $10/children under 12; free/children under 4
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 3-4 hours (includes time driving between sites)
- Gift shops located at Washington visitor center (currently closed) and Monroe visitor center
- Transportation: Only accessible by car
- Dining options: Washington and Monroe’s sites are close to Colonial Beach, which has many restaurants. We ate right on the water at Dockside Restaurant. Near Madison’s site is Horne’s. With options in short supply, I recommend bringing a picnic and eating at the Washington site.
- Nearby hotels: I recommend staying in Fredericksburg (about 30 minutes from Port Conway) or Richmond (about 1 – 1 ½ hours).
- Nearby attractions: Stratford Hall, Colonial Beach, and Civil War Trails – John Wilkes Booth/Escape of an Assassin sites
Books to Read:
See my Presidential book list at Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative that supports independent bookstores. This link is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.