Got some kids and a weekend day free? Head to TJ’s “little mountain.”
We here in Virginia are the lucky ones. With mountains, caves, beaches, and lots more in between, a bounty of day trips for families. This Saturday, my family spent the day exploring one such destination: Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s “little mountain.”
Family-friendly Monticello Trip Fact #1: An easy drive, if you live in RVA
We packed up the diaper bag, grabbed our coffee and our baby carrier, strapped in the baby, and were there in a little over an hour. Easy peasy!
We were assigned a house tour that started about an hour after we arrived, so we had a little time to kill. While the visitor center boasts a shop, cafe, and clean bathrooms, the toddler was mostly interested in the fountain and the leaves. There’s something for everyone! We could have hiked up to the house, but we opted for the free shuttle. Once at the top of the hill, we were able to self-tour the grounds while we waited for our house tour time slot.
FFM Trip Fact #2: Tours and Tech
Monticello recently unveiled a new app called “Slavery at Monticello: Life & Work at Mulberry Row.” The app features a location notification that gave a cheerful ding! whenever we neared a new point of interest, and it offered narrated segments as well as interactive graphs and timelines about sites, people, and themes. With an almost-toddler, the unstructured nature of using an app to self-tour the grounds was the perfect way to spend an hour. We fed our daughter lunch in the shade of ancient trees while listening to short narratives in the app.
Twice, the app had a little trouble loading an audio portion, but “Slavery at Monticello” has so much to offer in terms of information that when I couldn’t get an audio nugget to load, there was plenty of other information to offset that.
I still haven’t activated every part of the app, there’s so much in there. The amount of history that’s been included is remarkable, and you should absolutely explore it even if you’re not at Monticello right this very moment.1
I am a huge fan of graphic representation of data and the app does not disappoint. Walking along the shady paths with the app as our guide was both informative and leisurely, the perfect way to learn and engage with the plantation without worrying about a fidgety little one detracting from a personally guided tour.
We were lucky to get on a special family-friendly tour of the house led by Lucas Allamon. The children’s tours are designed specifically for families. Winnie ended up waiting outside with my husband for the tour as she was a bit fussy by this point in the day and was clearly more interested in the leaves on the ground as opposed to the house on the grounds (fair enough kiddo, you’re tiny and can enjoy history later!).
Impressively, Allamon asked pointed questions of the kids and talked with them right from the beginning about slavery and the not-so-shining aspects of Jefferson’s actions vs. his shining words (“all men are created equal”). With the patience of a saint, Allamon led the gaggle of chattering kids through the downstairs of the house, telling them stories of the rooms and engaging with them on their level.
FFM Trip Fact #3: Stroller Availability
While I ended up not needing one for my child, had we wanted to, we could have borrowed a stroller narrow enough to fit through the narrow doorways. If you’re in possession of either a back/front baby carrier or a larger stroller, you’d be out of luck, since backpacks are not permitted in the house. You might also take a look at the dimensions of your diaper bag, if you use one–the Guidelines page has lots of handy information.
Beyond the family-friendly house tour, there’s also a seasonal Mountaintop Activity Center. There, kids could try their hands at writing with quill pens, play wooden checkers, crack codes with wheel ciphers, and take a gander at a camera obscura. Bonus: SHADE! Monticello is full of wonderful shady trees in addition to the lush flora, and the Mountaintop Activity Center was particularly shady and had a nice seating area for adults who wanted to take a breather while the kids engage with the activities.
If Winnie had been a little older, I could see spending quite a bit of time there perfecting our John Hancocks!
We wandered the grounds a bit more after the house tour, enjoying the flowers and stopping by the pond where wild-caught fish were once kept before being served at table, and soon the sun was beginning to dip and the almost-toddler was beginning to droop a bit as well. We wandered Mulberry Row with the Monticello app and explored a few more historical tidbits before making our way back down the mountain.
There’s a longer four-mile trail at Monticello if hiking is your thing, but with the sleepy child, we decided to pass by Jefferson’s grave and then walk back to the parking lot. It’s an easy, level pebbled path about a half mile long, and very shady. At the end of a long day, it didn’t take long for Winnie to fall asleep on my back as we walked down the little mountain, and soon we were packing ourselves back into our car for the easy ride home.
— ∮∮∮ —
Monticello has created an experience that actively engages visitors with all aspects of Jefferson’s plantation, refusing to look away from the harsher realities of the place’s history. Jefferson was a man of hypocritical stances, a man with expensive taste who owned slaves, and a man who made a lasting impact on our country, and they don’t shy away from that. The grounds provide a pleasant atmosphere in which to reflect and learn, whether you’re five, 25, or 50.
Quick family day-trip report card:
- Drive time: One hour in easy traffic with rest-stops available on the way
- Clean bathrooms: Yes.
- Food/water available: Yes.
- Pet-friendly: Yes.
- Stroller/wheelchair accessible: Yes.
- Shade: Yes.
- Kid-friendly activities: Yes. I’d recommend this for ages 5+.
- Affordable: Mid-range
- Full day activity: Yes.
- Would go again: Yes!
- If you are, that is a crazy coincidence. ↩