More things to do in the national parks this weekend

Spend the Fourth of July weekend in a national park!Earlier this week we recommended a number of fun things to do this long Fourth of July weekend in the national parks. Those suggestions included fireworks displays on the National Mall and a picnic at Valley Forge, amongst other things. It turns out we were just scratching the surface, as here are even more great events happening in the parks this weekend.

Colorado National Monument will once again play host to their annual July 4th rock climbing event, during which skilled climbers will scale the 450-foot tall Independence Monument to plant an American flag at the top. Climbers are encouraged to bring their gear and join in on the fun, while others can simply enjoy the spectacle and take part in the ice cream social and jazz concert.

On Saturday, the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways, located in Missouri, will play host to a good old fashioned Midwest picnic in the form of the “Alley Independence Day” celebration. The event, which is held at Alley Springs, will include music, games, food, and more, all in a turn of the 20th Century setting.

Visitors to Cowens National Battlefield in South Carolina, can celebrate the holiday a few days early with fireworks and live music on the 2nd. Throughout the day there will be Ranger-led walks across the battlefield and demonstrations of Colonial-era weapons, as well as other educational activities for the kids. Fireworks begin promptly at 9 PM.In Maryland, the Antietam National Battlefield, site of one of the most important battles of the Civil War, will hold their festivities on the 2nd as well. They’ll begin the evening at 7:30 PM with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra performing a “Salute to Independence” concert. That will immediately be followed up with a fireworks display at 9:45 PM.

Finally, the birthplaces of two of America’s most important presidents will also be holding special events on the 4th as well. In Kentucky, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park will host a concert performed by the Saxton’s Cornet Band beginning at 11 AM. Not to be outdone, George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument will be holding a costumed interpretation events and other hands-on activities for the kids.

Needless to say, there will be plenty to do in the national parks this weekend. Thanks to the National Park Foundation for these suggestions and checkout NPS.gov for more events in the parks near you. Enjoy the weekend!

Drinking like George Washington – reasons to visit historic Mount Vernon this holiday weekend

george washingtonIf there’s drinking involved, there’s a good chance that a we’re all over it. When the chance to combine drinking (rare liquors), history, and a holiday weekend arises …. well, we’re even more intrigued.

In honor of the country’s most patriotic holiday, Mount Vernon is displaying a rare 18th century letter penned by the first President and country’s most famous distiller, George Washington, at the George Washington Distillery at Mount Vernon in honor of the July 4th holiday weekend. The public display coincides with the release of a limited George Washington Rye Whiskey produced at the distillery and based on the founding father’s recipe.

Just prior to his death in 1799, Washington wrote the letter to his nephew, Colonel William A. Washington, a noted cavalry commander during the Revolution. In the letter, Washington stated “the demand…is brisk” for his locally produced Rye Whiskey.

As part of Mount Vernon’s July 4th festivities, 400 bottles of the limited edition 18th century style George Washington Rye Whiskey will be available for purchase starting at 10 a.m. at Mount Vernon’s main gift shop and at the Distillery site, located three miles from the estate. Visit on the Fourth and you’ll find patriotic events including a naturalization ceremony, daytime fireworks and military drills – it’s a great reason to bring the entire family.

The limited edition run was produced in the reconstructed distillery according to the General’s own grain recipe discovered by historians in the mansion’s extensive records. Each 375 ml bottle will retail for $95 and must be purchased in person.

If you’re near the area and like whiskey, this sounds like a great opportunity.

Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Alternatives to fireworks for July 4th


It’s been 35 years since the city of Austin canceled its July 4th fireworks display, but due to the extreme drought in Travis County, Austin‘s fiery light show has been canceled. Because of the hot, dry, and windy conditions in this section of Texas, the Travis County Fire Marshal decided not to approve any permits for fireworks throughout the county. “We just can’t take that chance”, said Austin’s Fire Chief, Rhonda Mae Kerr. And although I’m disappointed, as an Austin resident who loves fireworks, I’m also comforted, as an Austin resident who doesn’t want to see my house burn down.

So what’s a July 4th celebration without the big bang of those patriotic fireworks? I’ve been doing some brainstorming. I’ve been tracking my memories of July 4th events back to, well, as far as I can remember, and I’ve come up with some tried and true and undeniably traditional ways to celebrate July 4th for those of you also currently living under a burn ban.

  • Grill. As far back as I can remember, grilling has been a part of my July 4th celebrations. I spent several July 4ths in NYC at a party where I was unable to actually see the fireworks shooting off into the thick city air, but still able to successfully grill. An old-fashioned cook-out, even sans fireworks, is a perfectly fine way to spend your holiday.
  • Bake. If you’re hosting or attending a cook-out, summon the baker in you and bring something red, white, and blue to the table. From American flag cakes to red and blue M&M cookies, show your team spirit for America with one of the most popular things in America: sugar.
  • Go outside. One of the things the USA has going for it is the outdoors. No matter where in the states you reside, there’s natural beauty awaiting exploration throughout this country. As a nod to our founding fathers, spend the day outside. Whether you’re soaking up the sun while lounging on a boat or hiking deep within the forest’s shade, you’ll be honoring America by spending some time in its great outdoors.
  • Embrace community. Independence Day has long been a day reserved for community activities. Even if you rarely get out and involved with your community, Independence Day is a good time to start. Honor your country via its residents. Take advantage of the parades, concerts, parties, and other events the members of your community have organized to celebrate this holiday.
  • Dress to Confess–confess your pride in being an American, that is. Red, white, and blue are the colors of the day. Do it up! (And then take photos and tag yourself on Facebook so all of your friends abroad know just how American you are).
  • Faux Fireworks. If you need to have some sort of firework action in your life on the holiday, but you can’t have actual fireworks, then go for some fauxworks. What are fauxworks? Videos of fireworks going off projected onto the wall of your house, fireworks sounds blasting from your speakers, images of fireworks tacked anywhere you can see them, or even a light show aimed to emulate the sparkling rockets.

If you have ideas on how to fill the firework void for those living in a firework-free zone, please comment! Let us know. The more ideas those of us living in these areas have, the more like a regular July 4th this one will be.

July 4th Summer Party Ideas

Vicksburg 1863: America’s most important July 4th (besides 1776)

VicksburgThe Fourth of July has always been an important day in the U.S. It marks the day in 1776 when the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. A new nation was born, at least for a little while.

In 1861 that nation was torn apart by a bloody Civil War that saw its turning point on another fourth of July, that of 1863. On that day the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.

The Union army had been trying to take it since the beginning of the war. The fortified city was the key to the Mississippi River. If the North could control the river it would cut the Confederacy in half, leaving Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and the Indian Territory cut off from the rest of the rebellious nation. The Confederate west was a major source of supplies and men, especially Texas, which had overland access to Mexico and the only reliable contact with the outside world thanks to the Union navy’s effective blockade.

It took General Grant many months and thousands of lives to take the city. He managed to capture Jackson, Mississippi, an important railroad connection, and then surround Vicksburg on the landward side. Then he launched two massive assaults on the fortifications, only to lose hundreds of men.

Grant was not one to repeat mistakes, except for the mistake of drinking too much. He decided not to waste any more men and settled in for a siege. He kept up a constant bombardment on the city as the civilians and rebel soldiers dug in. Eventually the defenders were reduced to eating rats and dogs. One local newspaper ran out of paper and issued the news on wallpaper.

%Gallery-127185%On July 4, 1863, the Confederates had had enough. Their commander John C. Pemberton surrendered, figuring the Union troops would be more merciful on that day than any other. The final and much smaller Confederate stronghold on the river, Port Hudson, surrendered on July 9. Robert E. Lee had lost the battle of Gettysburg on July 3. For the North, winning the war was now only a matter of time.

As the telegraph lines sent the news across the North, there were huge Fourth of July celebrations. There weren’t many in the South, though, and in fact July 4th wasn’t celebrated in Vicksburg again until World War Two made the locals realize that the USA wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

Vicksburg National Military Park is one of the nation’s most impressive battlefields. Parts of the city’s six-and-a-half miles of defenses can still be seen and reconstructions make you feel like you’re back in the nineteenth century. There are living history demonstrations every day as well as visits to the USS Cairo, an ironclad Union gunboat that’s been raised from the water.

So if you’re not sure where to go this Fourth of July, you might consider taking a road trip to either Philadelphia, where this country was formed, or Vicksburg, where this country was saved.

[Photo of Vicksburg graves courtesy user Matito via Flickr]