Monticello had long been on our Bucket List so, when we spotted a crazy-low fare to nearby Baltimore, the thought of visiting Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop estate sprang immediately to mind. Plus, it was Cherry Blossom season in the nation’s capital. Turns out, the journey between Washington and Charlottesville, Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson routinely made in four days, would be just a few hours today so we decided to take the car and drive. Within 90 minutes we turned off of the interstate, the roads began to dwindle, and soon we were on VA-20, the Constitution Route.
As we passed through idyllic villages and rolling hills on our way to the college town of Charlottesville, we found ourselves staring wide eyed at the passing scenery: dense forests, green pastures, flowering stands of Dogwood and Redbud. Behind the vistas in either direction, the broad Piedmont plateau and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Along this drive, somewhere around Opal and after a stop at the Moo Thru, I think I understood the word bucolic.
Of course, the many road signs reminded us that this area had also been a virtual hell on more than one occasion. Some of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were fought here. Their scars have healed but the wounds are marked by national monuments and visitor’s centers. You cannot overstate the importance of this region in American history.
We did this beautiful road trip in a rental car. (Not the one pictured, by the way.) If you do the same, be sure to give the car a thorough check before hitting the road.
Virginia, the Heart of Colonial America
Virginia was not just one of the original 13 colonies, it was the wealthiest and most successful. Its leading men were instrumental in forming the young America. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Constitution Route, a few dozen miles of National Scenic Byway that pass by the homes of three of America’s Founding Fathers and presidents.
Did we know that we were taking a road trip on the Constitution Route? No, we just wanted to go see Monticello. Since they are so close by, it seemed a shame not to stay an extra day and visit James Monroe’s Highland, and James Madison’s Montpelier. Along the way, we spotted the Constitution Route highway signs, and the light dawned on us. The men who built these plantation homes were not just friends and, in one case, literally neighbors, they were instrumental in the birth of the United States, drafting the Constitution, and getting it ratified.
We later learned that this stretch of Virginia Byway is part of the larger Journey through Hallowed Ground, as featured in National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime. That route starts in Charlottesville, home Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. The first three stops, as were ours, are Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland, and Montpelier. In 2008, Congress named the four-state Hallowed Ground region, which forms a crescent around Washington, DC, from Charlottesville north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a National Heritage Area.
The Constitution Route, stretching from Charlottesville to Orange, is a gorgeous drive on good roads. The driving is moderately challenging in some sections, and there are plenty of places to pull over for photos or road trip supplies. It is sprinkled with battlefields and historic attractions, but also with wineries, working farms and the foodie restaurants that support them, antique markets, farmer’s markets, and stretches of achingly beautiful vistas. And, of course, a few very presidential estates.
Staying in Charlottesville
We stayed in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia’s quaint Inn at Darden (due in equal parts to our interest in Thomas Jefferson, and a special offer which netted us 7,000 American Airlines miles through RocketMiles*), and were very happy with the decision. Charlottesville itself is beautiful and charming. Its mix of modern college town and gentrified rural atmosphere gives it a very comfortable feel, with ages old cafes alongside upscale strip malls. Besides the University, one can’t miss destination is the pedestrianized historic downtown where you can enjoy coffee shops and diners, entertainment, and unique boutiques. (Starting the day with Eggs Chesapeake at The Nook is highly recommended; we are now spoiled for life!) Our visit to Charlottesville was too brief, but we enjoyed it immensely and are already looking for reasons to return!
Another good reason to stay in the area for a few days is the abundance of things to see! While you could certainly have a look at all three president’s estates in one rushed day, it’s far better to take your time. We allotted a half day to each of the sites, but could easily have spent all day at each one. We recommend scheduling a tour at each of the homes, and taking advantage of your admission to freely explore the grounds and gardens. See the farm animals at Highland. Explore Jefferson’s gardens. Check out the ongoing excavations at Montpelier. The visitor centers are wonderful, with museums, galleries, and gift shops. Both Madison’s and Monroe’s estates have facilities for a picnic lunch, and there are cafes at both Monticello and Montpelier.
Staying longer gives you the option of planning a lunch between Monticello and Highland at the historic Michie Tavern, taking the self-guided tavern tour and seeing it’s collection of working shops. And you won’t regret adding a few more steps on the beautiful Saunders-Monticello Trail. Back in Charlottesville, any Thomas Jefferson fan would appreciate seeing the University of Virginia, which he founded and designed. Along with Monticello, it’s a World Heritage Site worth exploring.
Did we mention the wineries? If you’re so inclined, and have the time, you can pair a Constitution Route drive with the Monticello Wine Trail. We didn’t, which is another reason we want to go back! In addition to being home to so much history, the region is also the self-proclaimed birthplace of American wine! More than two dozen vineyards and wineries inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s vision of winemaking are in the area. Which means you will probably need more than just a few days to explore and enjoy.
Have we inspired you to wander down the Constitution Route? Have you been there yourself? Let us know with a Comment.
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|Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello||James Monroe’s Highland||James Madison’s Montpelier|
Don’t forget to get a Road Trip Checkup before taking off on this adventure!
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The Inn at Darden, The Nook: Accommodations and meals were neither solicited nor compensated; all opinions are our own.