Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

mlk-portraitimage via NPS

From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.


image via

Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

intercontinental-washington-2532396389-2x1image via

The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.


The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.



note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.


In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

Rust Nature Sanctuary + The Winery at Lost Creek

Where: 802 Children’s Center Rd. SW, Leesburg, VA
When: Open year-round “during daylight hours”

I think I’ve mentioned this, but my almost-6 year old is currently obsessed with birds. What began with a fondness for flamingos as a toddler a few years ago has expanded into a deep love that encompasses all birds. We have many conversations about birds all day long, that usually go something like this:

Her: What’s your favorite bird?
Me: Uh, a peacock.
Her: No, it’s a goldfinch.
Me: Okay.

Her: What do geese eat?
Me: Berries and bugs and stuff.
Her: What about toucans?
Me: Froot Loops.

Me: (pointing to a tire cover on a Jeep we’re sitting next to in traffic that has a bald eagle on it) Hey, what kind of bird is that?
Her: That bird is an American.

I wholeheartedly support this interest and have spent a good chunk of the summer finding whatever activity I can that involves birds in some way. Awhile back, my friend told me about Rust Nature Sanctuary, a nature preserve in Leesburg that works in conjunction with the Audubon Society to offer nature programs for young children. I kept it in my back pocket until our differing vacation schedules had us both home at the same time and we were able to go together.

I do think I should admit that we were a bit turned around on the concept of what Rust Nature Sanctuary offers. We were under the impression that there would be an exhibit or display of animals that we would be able to visit. In actuality, Rust is really just a designated spot in nature where you could see animals. In nature. Duly noted.

There is a small area near the parking lot with trail maps, a display of Native Virginian Birds of Prey, and a cool little board with the wingspan of various outstretched birds painted on it so that you can go up next to it and hold your arms out and see what bird you most closely match up to in size. Kind of like at Hersheypark when you have be as tall as Twizzlers to ride a roller coaster. There’s also a small butterfly garden, and a play area tucked into the woods that the kids claimed was an “Eagle’s nest.”

Whether something near this structure identified it as an Eagle’s nest or the kids just made that up, I don’t know. Imagination can be a powerful thing when your mothers have promised you’ll see lots of animals and you realize you’re going to have to just play on some sticks and pretend instead.

The highlight of Rust Nature Sanctuary for me was Rust Manor House. You can’t go inside (unless you’re there for a wedding or have booked it for an event) but you can admire it from the backyard. Which, as you’ve read, I tend to do anyway out of respect for these great homes which do not need to be infiltrated by rambunctious children. That’s what Chibis is for.

The manor house (called Yeocomico) was owned by various members of the Rust family from 1928-1995 at which point it was donated to the Audubon Naturalist Society. NVRPA stepped in in 2013 to help preserve the house and maintain the grounds when upkeep grew to be burdensome for the Audubon Society. And there it sits today as part of this park. Teamwork!

I loved these two trees flanking the entrance to the backyard of the manor. They just looked like a pair of mismatched friends to me.

Along the paths of the manor grounds you’ll see a plot of milkweed that houses monarch butterflies, a small fountain, and a fleur de lis statue upon which we spotted the carcass of a cicada. I was just about to pick it up and show the kids how we used to hang them off our shirts growing up (did you do that?) when, as I turned around to call them over to me, I spotted NATURE:

That would be a (approximately) three foot long black rat snake casually coiling itself up and around the trunk of a large tree. I know I, as a happy dweller of suburbia, tend to forget that snakes are just out and about in the wild and don’t exist solely in small tanks with fake logs inside them, so although I am not afraid of snakes (particularly these, which are harmless), it was definitely a surprise to just see it sharing the space with us. And fascinating to watch!

There are hiking/walking trails in the park that I would love to come back and explore but it was a blistering 98 degrees in the sun the day we went and the gnats were in a frenzy (BRING BUG SPRAY) so after we came down from the excitement of the snake sighting we did what any sane people would do and we put our kids in the car with the AC blasting and headed to a winery.

Though I tend to try and group our outings close together so that we’re not spending more time in the car than necessary, we branched a little further out for this trip due to the fact that many wineries aren’t open on weekdays early in the week. One that is is The Winery at Lost Creek, which is about 10 miles away from Rust Sanctuary, so that’s where we headed.

Lost Creek is located right before you get to Lucketts off of Spinks Ferry Rd. along Rt. 15. It is aptly named because after following the sign that directed us to continue nearly a mile off Spinks Ferry Rd. to reach the tasting room, my GPS did that thing where it shows your car trekking through a completely blank screen with no markers or terrain, like, “You’re on your own now, let me know if you get there safely.” It looks a lot like the wagon progress screen on Oregon Trail actually, except (hopefully) nobody in your party dies of dysentery along the way.

The winery and tasting room itself is beautiful. It did feel a bit monastic in how silent and still it was, but this was a 98 degree Monday afternoon so that’s probably why. We had the grounds entirely to ourselves and the kids played hide and seek while we sat and drank a glass of wine (The 2014 Vidal Blanc was delicious!) and snacked on a cheese plate.

Make a day of it: 

These two excursions themselves took up several hours and would have taken longer if we had attempted the hiking trails at Rust. However, if you’re still looking for more things to do, The Winery at Lost Creek is located right next door to another winery, Hidden Brook Winery, and you could always stop in for a 2 for 1 tasting while you’re there. Just down the road on Rt. 15 is Brossman’s Farm Stand, which is a family-owned farm stand we visit often in the summer. Farmer Rick is warm and friendly and will often take time to chat with kids about the crops- he once brought out a flat of tomatoes to restock the tomato table and let my toddler help by handing her tomatoes to stack.

Leesburg Animal Park

Where: 19270 Monroe-Madison Memorial Hwy., Leesburg, VA
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am- 5 pm (Closed Mondays)

Over the winter, in the midst of a seemingly neverending string of snow days, I purchased a Certifikid deal for a visit to Leesburg Animal Park on a weekday to play in their new indoor play area. I thought this would be a great idea for something to do the next time school was canceled. However, I never used it, because it turns out, if the weather is bad enough to cancel school, I’m not particularly inclined to go out and drive in it. Go figure.

All that is to say when my neighbor and I took our kids to Leesburg Animal Park last week, it was the first time I have been there since the remodel and expansion that now includes the indoor play area, discovery room, indoor small animal exhibits, Lemur Island, and so much more. What used to be a small barnyard with a ticket shack is now a rather impressive little animal park.

Admission for my two kids and myself came to something like $37. I want to unpack this amount a bit, though. My toddler, under 2 years old, was free. My 5 year old was $14.95 because I bought the VIP pass that includes a pink souvenir cup with a bag of food to feed the animals tucked inside. (In theory, you get a free drinking cup to use at home! In reality, I haven’t seen it since we left the park. Whoops.) My admission as an adult was $11.95. Rounding out the total is a stuffed cockatoo my 5 year old saw in the gift shop area that is (conveniently!) located right at the entrance where you wait in line to pay admission. She’s currently very into birds and I’m a chump, so I bought it, but if you aren’t like me and are not a chump, your total would be considerably less once you subtract the cost of a stuffed cockatoo and/or a plastic cup with animal food in it. If you’re trying to avoid the allure of the gift shop, buy your tickets online and bring your confirmation email to the counter.

In any case, all four kids on the trip that day (who ranged in ages from 1.5-8) had a blast at the park for the two hours we were there and I do believe had we not made them leave they could have easily played well for another hour at least, so I considered $37 money well spent. If this is a bit steep for you, consider subscribing to Certifikid, which frequently offers discounted tickets or special admission rates.

Animals at the park include a variety of small mammals in indoor exhibits (chinchilla, sloth, lemur), several reptiles, and outdoors, a variety of animals you can feed and pet.

Lemur Island is accessible via a small bridge that crosses a pond filled to the BRIM with carp and bass. They teem at the edge, trained to expect a shower of kibble from the nearby gumball machine to rain down into their mouths. I have zero doubts some kid has reached down and picked one up straight out of the water with their bare hands. (I didn’t. But I could have.) (It seems there is actually a fishing tournament coming up where visitors are welcome to bring their own poles and compete to see who can catch the largest fish from the pond!)

After crossing the bridge you arrive on Lemur Island. You’re going to look at lemurs in their pen and sing “I like to move it move it” a few times. The lemurs will pay you zero attention.

In the original barnyard area of the park there are still various animals you can pet- alpaca, goats, ox; and a few you just admire- porcupine, kookaburra bird, and a giant tortoise. Various play structures are scattered around the main lawn of the park- several small playhouses, a wooden pirate ship, your traditional tot lot structures to climb and slide down, a castle, a bounce house, and two tube slides built into the hill (which are currently closed until fall). Outside food is permitted and if you pack a lunch, there are picnic tables and umbrellas scattered about.  If it gets too hot outdoors, the indoor play area is fabulous- there’s a smaller area for toddlers and babies to play in, and a large foam-padded climbing structure for the bigger kids.

Make a day of it:

My friend and I had packed a lunch planning to eat at the park, but decided instead to head up the road to Stone Tower Winery, which I have mentioned before but can’t recommend enough. Before leaving Leesburg Animal Park we swung through the produce stand in the parking lot and grabbed a bag of fresh peaches to eat at lunch, then drove two miles up the road to Stone Tower to eat lunch and drink a glass of wine. Here at NOVAdventuring we believe in keeping things entertaining for not just the kids, but the parents as well, which is why you’ll see us recommending not only kid-specific activities, but various places the whole family can enjoy. I can attest after several trips there that not only do the adults love Stone Tower Winery, so do the kids. There’s an open field to run in, cornhole, and if you’re there on a weekday, the place is uncrowded and peaceful. And you just can’t beat the scenery.

If you’ve already visited Stone Tower or are looking for a change of pace, Willowcroft Winery is also near Leesburg Animal Park. Previously reviewed Oatlands Plantation is just five miles up the road as well.

In the fall, Leesburg Animal Park hosts Pumpkin Village, a festival that runs from September 20- November 4. Admission grants you access to the regular sites and activities available at Leesburg Animal Park as well as some additional seasonal activities such as a maze, a spider web crawl, and a pumpkin patch from which you can select one free pumpkin per child. If you don’t make it out this summer, be sure to set aside a day in the fall to attend this festival!

Morven Park

Where: 17263 Southern Planter Ln., Leesburg, VA
When: Grounds are open daily for visiting, and this is free. House and museum tours are available Thursdays-Mondays and begin hourly. Tickets to tour the house and museums are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12, and free for the five and under crew.

The thing that makes Virginia summers so glorious is they are not winter. Like most people, I spend most of winter sitting in my house, watching too much Dance Moms, refereeing sister fights over Shopkins, and looking out my windows trying to pretend the two feet of snow on the ground is actually the white sands of a tropical beach. By the time spring rolls around, I am 155% sick of everything there is to do indoors and I just want to be outside, which means we spend a lot of time outdoors in the summer months. Which is why last Monday morning, when there was a momentary lull in the rain, I threw everyone in the car to make a break for it while we had the chance to get outside.

We ended up at Morven Park in Leesburg, home of former Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis. Fun fact about Westmoreland Davis: he was elected as governor on an anti-Prohibition platform. The year he was elected, 1917, he won with nearly 72% of the vote, confirmation that Virginians like their drinks.

Davis and his wife, Marguerite, bought Morven Park in 1903 and lived there until his death in 1942. The house and grounds are now open to the public for tours. Additionally, there’s a collection of horse drawn carriages in the Winmill Carriage Museum, and the Museum of Hounds & Hunting of North America, located in several rooms within the mansion.

We arrived to an empty parking lot, thanks to the earlier rain, and had the grounds almost entirely to ourselves. After parking at the visitors center and walking past a grove of magnolias, you take a gravel path through the grounds to reach the house.

If your kids are like mine, they do not care a lick for your ramblings about how the columns are Greek Revival and that plant over there is lambs ear, touch it, it’s soft, get away from that door, we’re not going in there, don’t climb that lion statue, etc. etc. This is where the turkeys come in.

Up the hill from the house is the turkey pen where the Thanksgiving Presidential Pardon Turkeys are housed. The history of the Turkey Pardons is kind of hilarious- the whole thing began back with Harry Truman, who was presented with a Thanksgiving turkey. Some sources attribute the “pardoning of the turkey” tradition with Truman but actually, he ate the turkey. So did Eisenhower. Kennedy did pardon a turkey but not out of compassion; after he was presented with a 55 lb turkey with a sign that said “Good eatin’ Mr. President” he sent it back like “thanks but no thanks” and said “We’ll let this one grow.” (Do they grow bigger than 55 lbs??) Eventually, it seems Ronald Reagan was the first to pardon a turkey; that turkey was named Charlie and sent to a petting zoo where I’m sure it spent the remaining years of its life terrifying small children with sudden gobbles just as they got close to the fence. Bush Senior is the President who made this act a permanent act of office in 1989.

Morven Park currently houses the 2013 and 2014 Presidential Pardon Turkeys, named Caramel and Mac and Cheese, respectively. Previously pardoned turkeys have gone to Frying Pan Farm over in Fairfax County, and a couple lucky ones were sent to Disneyland and Disney World. That honestly makes no sense to me so I’m going to assume those turkeys were from the Dubya years because that just sounds like something he would do.

This fine looking specimen of turkey was Mac and Cheese and he was by far the highlight of this excursion for my kids.

Again, we were unable to make it inside for the house tour because of my toddler, but from what I have read, it is impeccably furnished and unlike many homes that have been turned into museums, the rooms are not roped off but open to be explored, which lends the house a very “lived in” feel.

Make a day of it:

Right down the road from Morven Park is Ida Lee Park (60 Ida Lee Dr. NW, Leesburg, VA), which houses the AV Symington Aquatic Center, a small waterpark of sorts with slides, a lazy river, dump buckets, a concession stand, and picnic areas. Open every day of the week from 12 pm- 8 pm for non-residents (11 am-8 pm for residents), ticket prices are $8 for youth, $9 for adults, and free for two and under.

If you’re not in the mood for water play, Ida Lee Park also houses Rust Library with a lovely shaded playground next door.

Check the calendar of events to see what Rust Library has going on each day. Loudoun County Libraries have organized an incredible series of summer events for kids on top of their usual storytime schedule. Upcoming are the Spectacular Science Show with Mad Science of Washington, Superhero Science, and The Uncle Devin Show.

Oatlands Plantation


Where: 20850 Oatlands Plantation Ln., Leesburg, VA 20175
When: Monday-Saturday 10 am- 5 pm, Sunday 1 pm- 5 pm
Tickets for the grounds: $8 for adults, kids 5 and under are free.
Tickets for the grounds and house tour: $12 for adults, $8 for kids 6-16, kids 5 and under are free.

The inaugural NOVAdventuring post! We’re so glad you’re here. Please bear with us as we get the site up and running and looking pretty- I know this isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing page just yet!

Last week the NOVAd family was on vacation in North Carolina (booked before the sharks temporarily went Mother Nature on everyone- luckily, no shark sightings all week). Inspired by all the beautiful historic homes we saw in Wilmington, we arrived back in Virginia ready to get out and see if we could find anything similar here in Loudoun County. Thanks to a quick browse on Instagram (the #loveloudoun and #exploreva tags are particularly useful for digging up new ideas of places to visit), we were able to construct a list of new places we had yet to explore and decided on a weekday morning visit to Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg. By we, I mean I. My kids are just along for the ride. They usually like the ride, but they are not the ones driving the bus.

(I’d like to interject here for a moment and say that Oatlands is one of those places I should have known about long before I actually did- once I Googled it and decided to visit, I noticed all the signs along the highway that indicate Oatlands’ presence. Somehow, they’d never registered with me before. Just a few miles down Highway 15 south, Oatlands is a quick drive from Leesburg or Ashburn. It’s hard to believe it took nearly four years for us to discover it.)

Tours of the Oatlands home are open to the public, but like most toddlers, my toddler and finely decorated homes just don’t mix (please ignore the sidewalk chalk on my wainscoting, thanks), so we opted to skip touring the inside of the home and instead stick to exploring the grounds. The gardens alone were worth the admission- originally designed by George Carter in the style of “Tidewater Virginia” and English gardens, the gardens at Oatlands are even now manicured, impeccably designed, lush and beautiful. Around each corner was some delightful surprise- a portico, a reflecting pool, a hidden staircase, a peach tree in full bloom, a statue of a sitting dog! My girls and I happily wandered around the gardens at Oatlands for quite awhile identifying different flowers and trees. According to the Oatlands Gardens website, many of the boxwoods in the garden are original plantings from when the Carter family originally owned and lived at Oatlands in the 1800s.

(FYI to the stroller crowd: the terracing and steps of the gardens mean that this area is not stroller friendly. H.R.H NOVAd Toddler got some wet grass on her foot and thereafter refused to walk, so I was forced to carry her. If you’re carrying a baby/toddler, watch your footing on the stone steps and enjoy your workout.)




The house is a luscious buttercup yellow, perched atop a hill overseeing the gardens and land. George Carter originally intended for it to be built in the Federal style of the early 1800s, but after taking a break following the War of 1812 to focus on building his mill at Goose Creek, he returned to his house plans with an eye for Greek Revival architecture, which dominated design at the time. The house plans were revamped accordingly and thus the completed mansion was built in the Greek Revival style popular of the day- what we now consider to be the quintessential look of Antebellum homes.

It should be noted that at one point, leading up to the Civil War, Oatlands was home to approximately 133 slaves, which meant Oatlands housed the largest slave population in Loudoun County. Very little is known about the day to day life of slaves at the plantation; however, Elizabeth Carter’s diary and George Carter’s will have been catalogued and cross-referenced in order to create a database of the slaves who lived and worked at Oatlands. The database is located here, and is an interesting read- there are remarks as to the slaves’ daily chores, which slaves were bequeathed to Elizabeth upon George’s death. One slave, Bill, evidently engineered an escape via horse in 1862! GO BILL!

Make sure to do this:

– Stop at the front porch of the Oatlands mansion and sit a spell in the wicker rocking chairs.
– Peek into the Greenhouse to see if anything is growing.
– Keep your eyes open for butterflies. We saw many during our time on the grounds, including a large Pipevine Swallowtail sunning herself on the gravel pathway leading to the gift shop.

Make a day of it: 

Just a few miles down the road from Oatlands Plantation is the stunning Stone Tower Winery, located on top of Hogback Mountain (19925 Hogback Mountain Rd., Leesburg, VA). Stop by on your way home from Oatlands for a glass of wine (can confirm the 2014 Wild Boar Sauvignon Blanc and 2014 Wild Boar Rose are delicious and perfect for a summer afternoon) and some cornhole. Stone Tower Winery is open Thursday-Monday, 11 am- 6 pm.

*As a footnote, I was poking around on the Oatlands website and saw that “paranormal tours” are apparently done at the grounds. Currently, there are no paranormal tours being offered (darn), but you can conduct a private paranormal investigation on the grounds for the cost of $1200 as long as you have a maximum of 10 participants and a minumum $2 million insurance policy. The FAQ also cheekily advises paranormal seekers to “use their common sense” and not bring alcohol, which suggests your odds of discerning paranormal activity may be lower than you might have hoped.