Nothing beats a day out in nature where history can really come alive for you and your kids. Travel is one of my favorite ways to explore, as everything leads back to some point in history for us to discover.
While in Jamestown, VA, history popped out at us from every corner, whether we were driving down the Colonial Parkway, walking along the James River or interacting with interpreters at the Jamestown Settlement.
It was hard NOT to see the parts of the early American story that helped to shape the nation in the 1600s, and would have lasting effects on what we see today.
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Driving through Jamestown VA
Anywhere you drive in Virginia’s historic triangle you will see bits of the past jumping out of you. To really get a feel for the area though, you have to take a drive down one of my favorite parkways on the East Coast– the Colonial Parkway.
The Colonial Parkways connects Jamestown with Yorktown and Williamsburg, weaving between the three cities to build a tapestry of early American life. Stop at the pull offs along the way to see where English settlers first set foot on U.S. soil, and later built the first permanent English colony in America.
Markers tell you what happened at points along the way, but the parkway is also a great place for kids to run, play on the beach and get some of those wiggles out. It’s also a great place to do some bird watching or hang out as the sunsets over so much history.
Paddle Along the James River
While you can certainly drive around colonial history, you could also take to the waters to see Virginia as the Native Americans and early colonists once did.
Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail
The Chesapeake Bay has been the aquatic hub of the mid-atlantic region of the United States for hundreds of years. Native Americans fished the waters and used the rivers and bay as a transportation hub throughout the area. Colonists sailed into the Chesapeake looking for a safe place to land and set up their colonies.
When John Smith came to the New World, he wandered more than 3000 miles of the Chesapeake Bay area, including the numerous tributaries in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. You can too when you pop your kayak, canoe or paddle board into the water at any one of the access points.
Visitors can download a map of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail via the NPS website.
James City County Marina
Need a boat to explore? Visitors are welcome to rent kayaks at the James City County Marina to do a self-guided paddle up the Powhatan River and James River. Alternatively, you could join a kayak tour.
Personally, I’d recommend the tour.
There are a few companies that can take you out on the water, and this is the best way to really bring history to life. You will get a knowledgeable guide who can paddle you back in time to the days when the Powhatan tribe fished the waters and lived off the land, later sharing their knowledge with the English settlers so they could survive the winter.
Hike through History
Every parent knows you need to let your kids run wild, at least for a bit, when you are on vacation. It can’t be all museums and “hands in your pockets kids– this stuff costs more than your college savings can cover.”
When you need to get the wiggles out, head to a Virginia state park.
Chippokes Plantation State Park
Just across the James River from the Jamestown Settlement you will find Chippokes Plantation State Park. A destination all its own, Chippokes is part historic site, part hiking and outdoor play fun.
Explore the farm (one of the oldest continuously operating farms in the country) and say hello to the animals before you head down the road to the old mansion. You can tour the inside of the mansion, as well as walk around the interpretive exhibit that describes the life of enslaved people who worked on the farm.
If you want to get a little exercise, head to the visitors center at Chippokes Plantation. There are several trails nearby, including one down to the beach just behind the visitor’s center.
How to get to Surry VA
Take the free Jamestown-Scotland Ferry from the docks next to the Jamestown Settlement to the end of Surry just across the James River. The ride takes about 15 minutes, and you can bring your car right onboard.
This is a fun activity in and of itself, as you get easy access to the river and can see Jamestown as the colonists did when they arrived via the river.
Marvel at the Natural Beauty
There are multiple spots to see Virginia wildlife throughout Jamestown. Chippokes has plenty of birds and mammals to look for, while the river is teaming with water fowl, fish and more.
Hog Island Wildlife Management Area
Hog Island Wildlife Management Area, near Surry, VA and just past Chippokes Plantation State Park, is an easy morning adventure for bird lovers. Bald eagles fly overhead as herons swoop across the water looking for their morning meal.
Pack your binoculars and a long lens for your camera so you can capture these gorgeous animals mid-flight.
You can easily park in a pull out along the road to walk past tidal wetlands, climb onto one of the viewing platforms, and sit on the beach to watch the world literally fly around you.
Walk Back in Time
If Jamestown, VA is known for one thing and one thing only, it’s the history of early American life. With two world-class living history museums, you are sure to walk away with a few new fun facts and a whole lot of memories.
Every Jamestown journey should begin at Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the Jamestown fort on Jamestown Island. You will see the town foundations, fort outline and get to speak with historical interpreters who will show you how life was lived during colonial times. A blacksmith and a Native American interpreter (descended from the original tribes who called this part of Virginia home) are on hand to answer many of your questions.
There is also a tour of Historic Jamestowne, run by the National Park Service, that you can hop on to learn more about the site and life in early America.
Jamestown Settlement is the next stop on your history tour of Jamestown. This living history museum has a large interior museum that will walk you through Virginia over the past few centuries as civilization took root and grew.
The story of the Native Americans who first called the area home is told alongside that of the European settlers and enslaved Africans who were taken to the New World. It’s a powerful way to learn history, with many stories you will never see in a school textbook.
Outside there are three living history areas– the Powhatan village, Fort Jamestown and the docks where replicas of the three ships that brought over the first settlers (100+ boys and men) to what would become Jamestown.
Each area has historic interpreters dressed in period costumes who are happy to answer all of your questions, tell you about what life was like and why we should all be very glad we have indoor plumbing and faster transportation today.