Written By Evan Balkan

Hershey Park? Gettysburg? Baltimore Zoo? As the kids might say, “Been there, done that.” Ready for something new? These day trips are within an hour and a half of Westminster – and you don’t have to spend a bundle to enjoy them.

Antietam National Battlefield
Paradoxically, old battlefields can become places of grace and contemplation. Antietam National Battlefield is no exception; it witnessed the Civil War’s bloodiest battle – more than 23,000 killed or wounded. Its numerous stone monuments bring to life the enormity of the loss. But among the open spaces and rolling hills there is a quiet beauty, too. Start with the film in the Visitor Center. An eight-mile driving tour with audio CD is next. It gives a great overview, but the better option is to choose a section and walk. When you stand in Miller’s Cornfield, the site of a devastating fire fight, you might bring to mind Union General Hooker’s words: “ . . . every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife.” Nowadays, kids clamber over the cannons that created so much of the mayhem. Lingering in front of Dunker Church, or along “Bloody Lane,” offers a view you can’t get from your car. And as you walk the banks of Antietam Creek or on a ridge once overrun with soldiers, the battle doesn’t seem so distant. Indeed, as Confederate Lt. Col. A.S. Pendleton did, you can almost hear the “shot and shell shrieking and crashing, canister and bullets whistling and hissing most fiendlike through the air.”

If you have children between the ages of six to 12, check out the junior ranger program. It comes with a free activity booklet; kids earn a badge and certificate for completion. When you want to recharge, head into Sharpsburg. You’ll find restaurants and a few stores catering to tourists.

But Sharpsburg doesn’t feel like an overgrown gift shop.

Take I-70 to Exit 29, Route 65 South toward Sharpsburg. You’ll reach the Visitor Center in 10 miles. It’s open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. June to August, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., September to May. $4 for adults, $6 for families (Children under 16 free). (62 miles from Westminster).

Ladew Topiary Gardens
Imagine romping through a field with several hounds and a fox hunter on horseback. Concentric pie shapes and obelisks abound. Nearby sit Winston Churchill’s top hat and a heart pierced by an arrow. Such is the scene at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, where more than 100 botanical creations, such as swans riding waves of shrubbery and an army of sea horses, come alive among 22 acres of gardens.

Topiary involves trimming shrubs into various designs. The Garden Club of America has dubbed Ladew the “most outstanding topiary garden in America,” earning a listing in the National Registry of Historic Places. Created by self-taught gardener Harvey Ladew after purchasing the site in 1929, word of the gardens spread quickly and Ladew played host to many famous visitors, including Lawrence of Arabia, Cole Porter, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, and the English Royal Family.

Children will love the living sculptures. There is also a 1.5-mile self-guided nature trail winding through fields, forest, and marsh. A frog and tadpole pond will delight. When you’ve had enough of the outdoors, the Manor House, full of antique English furnishings and fox hunting memorabilia, is open for tours. If you’ve worked up a hunger, there’s the Ladew cafŽ, also on the property.

House and garden admission is $13 for adults, $5 for children. For gardens only, it’s $10 and $2. Mid-April through October 31, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends. Located on Route 146 (accessed by Exit 27 off I-695) between Route 23 (accessed by Route 439 – Exit 36 off I-83) and Route 145. (29 miles from Westminster).

Crystal Grottoes Cavern
Weather not cooperating? Head underground, where the weather doesn’t change. At Crystal Grottoes Cavern, you can experience Maryland’s only commercial cave. Discovered in 1920, it has been open to the public since 1922. Entering the cavern, pass through large rooms and smaller passageways where stalagmites, stalactites (remember, “t” is for “top”) and white and pale blue flowstones dominate. There’s even a small “lake,” formed by dripping stalactites.

Different areas of the cavern are called by names such as “Fairyland” and the “Blanket Room.” You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate the raw beauty of Crystal Grottoes. Even in places where there are no stalactites or stalagmites, the pale green residual clay of the walls is as striking as the main attractions.

Those who get antsy in small spaces need not worry: the ceiling in the Blanket Room, for example, is about 30 feet high, and the room itself is roughly 20 by 30 feet.

Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 1 to October 31. The rest of the year, the cavern is open on weekends only, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $8.50 for adults, $4.50 for children. Take I-70 West to US Alt. 40 toward Boonsboro. Go left at MD Rt. 34 and go 1.5 miles. (55 miles from Westminster).

Passing through Frederick on I-70, you might be tempted to dismiss the city as a mŽlange of housing tracts and big box retailers. But head downtown, to old Frederick – really old. History drips from 18th Century houses and the spires of Frederick’s many churches.

Civic energy is a byproduct of Frederick’s growth (now Maryland’s second largest incorporated city). The town seamlessly blends its history with a cosmopolitan feel – cobblestone and neon. Its restaurants’ cuisine includes Indian, Ethiopian, Italian, Mexican, and Spanish, aside from traditional American. And in addition to myriad antique shops, you’ll also find plays and arts presentations at several sites, including the Weinberg Center, housed in a restored 1926 movie house; the Maryland Ensemble Theatre; and the Cultural Arts Center.

At the Visitor Center, pick up a “Destination Frederick” guide, which includes a self-guided walking tour. On the first Saturday of each month, downtown galleries and shops stay open until 9 p.m. Often, there are themes; my favorite: “Dog Days of Summer,” with canines dressed in finery. Everedy Square and Shab Row, once home to 19th-Century factory housing, pulse with live entertainment. In 44-acre Baker Park, you can see children’s theater in July and August during the Summerfest Family Theatre series. You can rent a canoe on the park lake, too. (The same water is frozen in winter for ice-skating). There’s also a pool, picnic areas, and playgrounds.

The kids will love the hands-on Children’s Museum, featuring 18th Century games, at Rose Hill Manor. All ages will be amazed by the Museum of Civil War Medicine with its recreated scenes of field hospitals, embalmings, and amputations. On the way home, stop by the Catoctin Mountain Zoo on Catoctin Furnace Road in Thurmont (Rt. 15 North from Frederick), featuring hundreds of exotic animals: “bears to boas, macaws to monkeys.”

There’s much more to see and do. Get a handle on it all at the Visitor Center, at 19 East Church Street. I-70 West to Exit 54 (MD Rt. 355); bear right. Take the first left onto Market Street and a right onto Church Street. Park in the garage on the left. (33 miles from Westminster).

The Army Ordnance Museum

For a more hands-on military experience, there’s the Army Ordnance Museum. On the grounds, a bomb stands on its nose, looking as if it is ready to explode. Tanks and fighting vehicles get ready to square off. Rapid-fire guns sit at the ready. A railroad cannon awaits the call to action.

Such a scene is enough to scare anyone; thankfully, these weapons are more likely to be climbed upon than go off. Spread over 25 acres, they make up a bizarre sculpture garden that might impress even the most non-militaristic visitor.

Because of its location on Aberdeen Proving Ground, the museum serves as an instructional tool for Army personnel, highlighting the role these machines have played in securing our freedom. Beyond that, the kids will think it’s “just plain cool.” (The museum is not without light moments – dummy grenades in the gift shop come with the admonition, “Don’t pull the pin, or it’s yours”).

Visitors to Aberdeen Proving Ground must obtain a day pass at the Maryland Avenue Gate. From I-95, take Route 22 toward Aberdeen. Take Rt. 40 west to the APG exit (Rt. 715 south). At the Visitor Center, present driver’s license and registration. Tell the personnel that you wish to visit the museum. Open every day, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., closed on national holidays. (60 miles from Westminster).

Fort Frederick, the C&O Canal, Western Maryland Rail Trail

Although most forts built during the mid-1700s were made of earth or wood, Fort Frederick was constructed of stone. That, coupled with restoration work done by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), means it’s in good shape today.

Fort Frederick saw its greatest action during the French and Indian War. But it also saw skirmishes during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. With so much history, it’s no wonder the fort has educational material in two barracks, plus a CCC Museum. There are activities and reenactments year-round, but the best time to visit with children is during summer’s Colonial Children’s Days, featuring hands-on exhibits demonstrating what life was like during the 1700s. Kids ages 7 to 12 can engage in military drills, candle-dipping, gardening, games, cooking, laundry, and wound dressing, led by volunteers in period costume. For information on dates and registration, call 301-842-2155. Hurry – space is limited for this popular series.

But don’t limit yourself to the fort. Picnic areas, nature trails, and camping areas abound. At the south end of the park, you can hike or bike the C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River. Is fishing your thing? In the Potomac, bass, catfish, crappie, suckers, and pickerel flourish. Big Pool, a two-mile section of the C&O Canal,offers bass, carp, catfish, perch, crappie, and bluegill. Before you leave the area, check out the Western Maryland Rail Trail, which begins at the terminus of Route 56 and runs 20 miles along the canal towpath.

Fort Frederick is one mile south of I-70 near Big Pool (Route 56, Exit 12). The grounds are free, but there’s a nominal charge to enter the fort or to attend special events. (74 miles from Westminster).