Ever since getting a National Park annual pass last year, we’ve been trying to see as many US National Parks as possible. Our trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia was great for this goal. The historical town sits on the Colonial National Historical Parkway which connects Historic Jamestowne to Yorktown Battlefield. Basically, it was three parks in one trip!
Set upon the shores of Virginia’s coast, the siege at Yorktown Battlefield is one of the most notable events in US history. Admittedly, we didn’t know much about it before our visit. For us, it was a great opportunity to learn about Yorktown’s role in the Revolutionary War. We are excited to share our tips on visiting.
Yorktown Battlefield does not sponsor us. We just enjoyed our time and thought you would too.
Why is Yorktown Battlefield Important?
Exhausted from six long years of fighting for independence, General George Washington and the US Continental Army needed a decisive win against the British forces. With the support of the French, in 1781, the Continental Army marched from New York to Yorktown, where British General Cornwallis’ troops were garrisoned and awaiting supplies from the Royal Navy.
Encountering the French fleet in the Chesapeake Bay, the Royal Navy never delivered those supplies to Cornwallis. This gave Washington the perfect opportunity to win the war.
Running low on artillery, Cornwallis’ forces could do little to stop the Continental Army’s trench building. Once in range, the American’s were able to continuously bombard the British encampment, causing devastating casualties.
Finally, in a coordinated attack, the French and Continental armies decimated the camp and won a surprising victory over the British. Disgusted, General Cornwallis was a no-show at the surrendering ceremony, sending his second-in-command instead.
Already weary of the war, when news of the surrender hit England, British Prime Minister Lord North declared the war over and resigned weeks later. Despite independence not officially being recognized until the 1783 Paris Treaty, Yorktown was the last military operation of the Revolutionary War. Effectively ending the war.
Basics on Visiting Yorktown Battlefield
Yorktown Battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historical Park. Entrance fees cover visiting the battlefield, the Colonial National Parkway, and the National Park fees* for Historic Jamestowne. Admission is good for seven consecutive days.
The National Park Service (NPS) is in process of raising fees, so check the Colonial National Historical Park website for current charges.
*The NPS co-manages Historic Jamestowne with Preservation Virginia. Fees for Yorktown Battlefield cover the NPS admission fee, but there is a charge for Preservation Virginia.
Though the visitor center only opens from 9-5 daily, the battlefield tour roads open from sunrise to sunset. The site closes for New Years, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Parking at the visitor center is free, which makes it a good spot to pick up the free shuttle. However, the buses only visit the historic Yorktown town center, they don’t stop at the battlefield.
Having your own transportation is the best way to get around the battlefield. It is possible to bike the trail, but traffic can be heavy.
Where to Stay for Yorktown Battlefield
Most visitors stay in Williamsburg. The city’s central location makes it easy to visit the full Historic Triangle: Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg.
- Patriots Inn – We stayed here and felt it was good value. The location was superb, and the large one bedroom included a full kitchen. Oddly, we even had two full bathrooms.
- A Williamsburg White House Inn – Perfect for anyone looking for a Bed and Breakfast experience with tons of character. The rooms in this century-old estate are clean, large, and tastefully decorated.
- Marriott’s Manor Club at Ford’s Colony – A little further out of town, this luxury manor has everything you need to make it a special trip. They have three pools, a hot tub, and a 54-hole golf course. Plus, all the Villas have full kitchens.
Tip 1) Don't Miss Washington's First Oval Office
As Yorktown Battlefield requires a fee, you’ll find yourself starting at the visitor center.
Normally, we grab our passport stamps, a map, and a little info, but this time a giant two-story replica ship caught our attention. Stuffed with unique artifacts, we spent 45-minutes admiring the displays in the visitor center.
Lord Cornwallis’ campaign table and the “Lafayette Gun,” a cannon uniquely dented by allied fire, were among our favorite exhibits. Never heard of the Lafayette Gun? The US Army’s website has a fascinating read on the cannon’s special history.
The park’s most precious and captivating keepsake served as military headquarters to George Washington during the American Revolution. Sitting behind temperature-controlled glass, Washington’s office and sleeping chamber tent is set up as it would have looked during the days of the Revolutionary War.
Tip 2) Ask About the Programs of the Day
Like all National Parks, ranger talks are a terrific way to learn a little history from an expert. However, not all parks have a fife and drum performance. These 30-minute free performances typically take place at 11 am on Saturdays from June through mid-December, next to the Victory Monument. Check the calendar or with the visitor center for updates.
Tip 3) Download the Free Yorktown Tour Guide App
The brochure we picked up in the visitor center worked well for finding our way but gave little insight into the battlefield.
We used a combination of the signs along the route and the “Yorktown Tour Guide” phone app. It did take a little while to download. We suggest downloading the app while you’re on wi-fi.
If you still have a CD player in your car, the gift shop sells a CD tour which has great reviews.
After more history and background on the battle? Amazon sells a short guide, The Greatest Revolutionary War Battles: The Siege of Yorktown, which makes a good supplementary read.
Tip 4) Pick a Route
Yorktown Battlefield has two driving tours.
- Battlefield Tour (red route signs A-F): Seven-mile drive with six stops.
- Allied Encampment Tour (yellow route signs G-L): Nine-mile drive with six stops.
Though we aren’t Revolutionary War buffs, we still enjoyed the Battlefield Tour. With cannons, trenches, and various earthworks to examine, it took us around two hours to complete.
The Allied Encampment Tour felt vastly different. Instead of places to explore, we found mostly signs in fields. Even the tour app just repeated what was on the signs.
If you have a particular interest in the Yorktown Battle, then you may enjoy the second part of the tour. Honestly, with so much to see in the surrounding area, we wish we would have skipped the Allied Encampment Tour and just listened to the excerpts on the tour app.
Tip 5) Get Out of the Car
Some of you might find our final tip obvious. Nevertheless, we are always surprised by how many people pull up to the sites, and never get out.
None of the stops on the Battlefield Tour require a huge amount of walking, but there is a little. Trust us, it will help you get the most of your visit. Sitting in the parking lot guarantees you’ll miss everything.
Other Sites Near Yorktown Battlefield
Here are a few other posts you may be interested in when touring the Williamsburg area.