When viewed from a high hilltop, the vast expanse of Pennsylvania land that makes up the historic Gettysburg battlefields appears to have few secrets.
Tall bushes and a cluster of rocks seem like small hiding places for the Union and Confederate armies that fought here in July 1863 in the bloodiest confrontation of the Civil War.
But crossing the terrain by foot or bicycle reveals the subtle slopes and turns that made the wide-open spaces of Gettysburg such a complex and perilous arena for battle.
Bruce Rice, a licensed Gettysburg guide who leads bicycle tours through the national park, believes pedaling the hills gives visitors a deeper understanding of what it meant to fight there.
“You get to experience the ground, the lay of the land and so many important sites in the battle,” said Rice, who works for Gettysbike Tours, a 6-year-old bicycle rental and guided tour outfit just inside the park’s visitor center. “When you’re in a car, you’re in a cocoon; you don’t know when you’re going uphill, you don’t feel the physiology.”
Fall is perhaps the best season to take a tour because the weather cools, the trees change colors and the crowds thin out, Rice said. He, of course, recommends traveling by bike, although other tour groups transport visitors via double-decker buses, horses and Segways.
“Any time’s a good time when you’re on a bicycle!” Rice laughed during a tour last month.
Gettysbike offers a comprehensive 13-mile tour that takes visitors around the battlefields and into town over the course of four hours.
A 7.5-mile, two-and-a-half-hour tour caters to riders who want to skip the town and its traffic, are pressed for time, are accompanied by young children or simply want a shorter ride. It sets out later in the day and focuses on the areas where the Northern army waited for the Southern troops and the path of the Union’s retreat.
That tour follows a meandering loop punctuated by several stops, where the guide describes the pivotal three-day battle that put an end to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North. The story continues as the group pedals, with the tour guide speaking into a microphone patched into ear pieces worn by the riders.
During last month’s tour, Rice narrated the scenery and pointed out details in the landscape, while keeping the group focused on the significance of its journey.
Monuments are scattered throughout the park, and some were erected by veterans as soon as 15 years after the battle, according to Rice. The tour’s first stop was the Pennsylvania Memorial, the largest of the markers commemorating the Union regiments that fought at Gettysburg.