In today's action-packed schedules, a self-proclaimed vacation day for the whole family is just what the doctor ordered. Play hooky from all the usual responsibilities and take the opportunity to share new experiences—or explore old ones! Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the only home in the United States to be designated a World Heritage Site, has long been revered as the quintessential day-trip. With its newly opened 42,000 square-foot Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center, Crossroads exhibition and tours designed specifically for kids, Monticello holds appeal to families of all ages. If you are looking to get away with the kids for the day, but want something a little more substantive and a little less adrenaline-filled than the latest roller coaster, this itinerary is for you. That being said, when is the last time you touched a mastodon jawbone (well, a model of one, at least)?
For the more adventurous day-trippers, begin your day on the Saunders-Monticello Trail. Just two miles from the parking area to the entrance of Monticello, the Trail is comprised of packed stone and a boardwalk that never exceeds a five percent incline, making it the most wheelchair and stroller friendly trail known to mankind. While you're walking, impress the entire family with your knowledge of flora, fauna, and tree variations along the trail. And not to worry if you're a little rusty on your native plantings; most of the inhabitants of Jefferson's landscape are labeled if you look closely enough! With the changing of every season, there is always something new to see on the Trail. Want to reserve your energy? You can also drive to the top of the mountain and park at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center.
See, Touch, Learn
While a regularHouse Tour or a Family Friendly Tour will likely be the centerpiece of your visit, the first stop for drivers and walkers alike is the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center where you can purchase tickets and begin your day. The newly opened 21st -Century gateway to Monticello, the center required nearly a decade of planning. Well worth the wait, its multiple components transform your visit before you even arrive at Jefferson's famous house. In fact, the Visitor Center is a great place for all ages to familiarize themselves with Jefferson and Monticello at their own pace.
Begin your journey in the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center at the highly interactive and exciting exhibition, Thomas Jefferson and 'the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.' One entire wall is filled with 21 flat-panel LCD screens and smaller touch screens that let you control more than 250 mesmerizing image and text displays related to politics, religion and intellectual freedom.
Making Monticello: Jefferson's 'Essay in Architecture' showcases the architectural origins, construction and four-decade evolution of the Monticello house including detailed models, tools used, and displays of Jefferson's zigzag roof. Upstairs, in the Monticello as Experiment: 'To Try All Things' exhibition, you'll find many fresh perspectives on Jefferson's use of Monticello as a laboratory for his belief that "useful knowledge" could make life more efficient and convenient, as well as interesting accounts of some of the very people putting this knowledge to work.
Lastly, don't miss the award-winning film, "Thomas Jefferson's World," spanning Jefferson's core concepts about liberty, and other world-changing ideas, that have reached far beyond his time period to present day. Feeling fidgety already? The film runs only fifteen minutes and is a must-see.
Before heading up to the house is a perfect time to stop for lunch at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center Café and head any low blood sugar incidents off at the pass. Children will rightly insist on well loved Hot Diggity Dogs and triple chunk chocolate cookies, and adults will appreciate the specialty sandwich selection of Black Forest ham, grilled chicken, or fresh mozzarella, just to name a few — all made fresh daily. Many other healthy options are available using seasonal veggies straight from Jefferson's gardens, and there is plenty of comfy indoor and patio seating.
The Kids Are All Right
Now, on to the main house. Designed for children ages 6 to 11 (and other family members of all ages), Monticello's Family Friendly Tours feature hands-on opportunities to learn about Jefferson's mountaintop home while providing kids with a glimpse of what it was like for children living at Monticello in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Jefferson loved his grandchildren and was said to have "delighted in delighting them"—guides take extra care to show and explain things within each room. From the Lewis & Clark expedition artifacts in the Entrance Hall to the bust of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Parlor, Monticello's Family Friendly Tour guides make it a point to emphasize the coolest things in the house while answering children's questions. Inside Jefferson's beloved home, we're all young learners. Admission tickets for Family Friendly Tours include two more optional tours of the Slavery at Monticello, including Mulberry Row and the Gardens and Grounds, where there are plenty of places for kids to roam.
Do the Locomotion
After snapping a few photos of the home's striking West Lawn (photography for personal use is permitted outside the house but not inside), walk around the cellar level of Monticello, a horizontal and vertical crossroads. In this crossroads, Jefferson family members, enslaved workers, visitors, delivery drivers and guests all crossed paths, and motion was constant. Jefferson himself came down to the kitchen once a week to wind the clock there. The newly opened "Crossroads" exhibition in this area of the house brings to life the bustle and hum of activity at the center of the Monticello household. Kids will love the life-sized figures of some of the most important figures in the house such as butler Burwell Colbert, Priscilla Hemmings, and Martha Jefferson Randolph. Beside each figure is a museum case of archaeologically recovered objects representing objects that these people may have worn and used in their jobs. Youngsters will enjoy trying their hand at an interactive bell system that was used to summon domestic workers and a working model of the wine dumbwaiter.
Have You Hugged a Tree Today?
Within the two-acre expanse of Jefferson's extensive flower, vegetable, and fruit gardens, kids can get an up close and personal view of how Jefferson's farm functioned day-to-day. Just outside the house are the Flower Gardens, where Jefferson grew ornamental plants along a winding flower walk and in oval beds on either side of the house. Be alert for some great scents and curious plants.
While making your way to Jefferson's roundabout Flower Gardens, stop and take a peek at his version of the ideal landscape, his "groves," just to the north and west of the winding walk. Jefferson planted many ornamental trees in this grove area adjacent to the West Lawn, trees he loved and considered his "pet trees." Think pet rock, but taller.
From there make your way down to the Vegetable Garden Terrace, where you can get up close to examples of the more than 330 varieties of vegetables Jefferson grew at Monticello. This is also a good chance to rest on benches or chairs in the Garden Pavilion and take in a sweeping vista overlooking the plantation's South Orchard and Vineyards and miles of forest.
Next, head back up the set of wooden steps to get a good look at the center of plantation activity at Monticello, Mulberry Row. Named for the Mulberry trees planted along it, it included dwellings for enslaved and hired workers, wood and ironworking shops, a smokehouse, a dairy, and more.
Getting in Touch, Literally
From Mulberry Row, stroll the short pathway past the cemetery back to the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center to check out the Griffin Discovery Room for some hands-on history. The Room offers a self-directed opportunity for kids, especially those ages 6 to 11, to play with all the things they just learned about! It includes reproductions of Jefferson's alcove bed, the nail-making shop, period clothing, and even a slave dwelling. Creating secret codes on Jefferson's wheel cipher and playing games popular in Jefferson's era is a truly great way for kids to put everything they've just seen into context. Note to kids: If your parents try to hog the model of Jefferson's polygraph machine, this would be a good time to remind them about that sharing thing.
Modern Day Treasure Hunt
There are plenty of great finds in Monticello's Museum Shop with distinct departments that make it easy to find something for everyone. The Shop's book collection alone contains 250 titles—one of the most comprehensive selections out there—with plenty of children's books to boot. Want to take a live piece of history home with you? The all-season garden space offers Monticello's historic plants and seeds harvested from plants grown right in Jefferson's backyard.
Just Fun and Games
The day trip to Monticello doesn't have to end the minute you pile in the car and head for home. Go ahead, hand your kids your smartphone (you shouldn't be texting anyway) and plug in classroom.monticello.org/kids. During the ride, they can learn all kinds of fun Jefferson tidbits, look at cool photos, reinforce the day, and even design their own houses -- with TJ's help, of course. Note to parents: Did we mention this site doubles as a useful homework-helper, too?
Eat Your Applesauce
Not ready to throw in the towel quite yet? If you're looking for just one more stop before you hit the road, why not pop into Carter's Mountain Orchard (1435 Carters Mountain Trail, Charlottesville) and grab some apples (or apple cider donuts and apple pies) for the trek home. Mere minutes from Monticello, there really is no better tribute to your day with Thomas Jefferson, who loved apples, than reaching into a fragrant, scraggly branch and tugging a delicious apple free. Pick you own apples, enjoy a hayride, or just revel in the view. Open April to December.
Doing tours is only an occasional, wee part of my job. However, exploring Monticello with visitors is one of my favorite parts of my work. I'm a goofball by nature, so I don't always play it straight...More >>