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Sites to See in Washington, D.C., and Beyond During the Shutdown

Of course, it's disappointing if you were planning to visit a national park or Washington, D.C., during the government shutdown, which has seen top attractions, including the 19 Smithsonian Museums, the National Zoo, and the National Mall, closed. It's even more disappointing to all those who rely on the tourism industry in D.C. 

"Tourism, as you may know, is the second-largest employer in the District, after the federal government," says Kate Gibbs, a spokesperson for Destination DC, the official tourism organization for the city. "The truth is, we have no idea what each day will bring, and the situation has the potential to grossly impact the city."

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Those who were planning a fall break to tour the nation's capital or a national park may be understandably rethinking plans; others may not. I'm taking a group to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, even though the battlefields at Gettysburg National Military Park are mostly closed—this during the time Gettysburg was expecting a huge influx of tourists to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle and the upcoming anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The Visitor Center and museum are open (both are funded and operated by a private foundation) and there are still tours we can take, farms we can visit, and even an apple festival we can attend.

The reality is that it would have been too difficult to find another date that works. Another factor: I thought we should support those in Gettysburg whose livelihoods depend on tourism. What's happening in Washington certainly isn't the kids' fault, but they are suffering as a result—as is everyone around the country who depends on tourism near national parks and national historic sites. Even the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France is closed.

I hope you—like me—will opt to continue your planned travels, even if they were to include sites funded by the federal government. Those around the country who depend on tourism need our support. If the national park you were planning to visit is closed, consider a nearby state park where you can still hike, bike, and enjoy glorious foliage. 

Instead of touring the Grand Canyon, spend time exploring the fantastic red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, on off-road tours or hiking and biking excursions in parks like Slide Rock State Park and Red Rock State Park. (The U.S. Tour Operators Association is predicting that the communities surrounding the country's 401 national parks will lose an estimated $30 million a day in combined tourism spending when the parks are shuttered.)

Instead of Mount Rushmore, visit Custer State Park in South Dakota, which proved an especially memorable trip for my kids. Where else can you see roaming buffalo? A herd of 1,500 buffalo lives in Custer State Park, which spans 71,000 acres, making the park one of the largest state parks in the country with plenty of hiking trails and places to horseback ride or take a Jeep safari.

In Washington, D.C., of course, the good news is that there are still plenty of things to see and do, though not all of the attractions are free.

Do you have a budding lawyer in the family? You can still visit the U.S. Supreme Court, which just opened its new term. Here are 10 more kid-tested good bets still operating during the government shutdown:

  • Take a free tour of a D.C. neighborhood with WalkingTown DC (under the auspices of Cultural Tourism DC).
  • Learn about covering the news at the Newseum, which is packed with interactive exhibits that explore how news is covered and how it impacts us.
  • Be a crime solver at The Crime Museum. Check out a crime lab, filming studios for America's Most Wanted, a simulated shooting range, high-speed police chases, and hundreds of interactive elements and artifacts pertaining to America's infamous criminals.
  • See if you have what it takes to be a spy at the International Spy Museum, where you can adopt a cover identity and step into a fictional country on an undercover mission, or see an exhibit on Bond villains.
  • Travel back to George Washington's time and visit him at his Mount Vernon home and tour his farm and gardens.
  • Explore the world at the National Geographic Museum. This museum offers interactive experiences and photography exhibitions featuring the work of National Geographic explorers, photographers, and scientists.
  • Be inspired by art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, with 19th- and 20th-century American and European art, contemporary art, photography, and decorative art. (Use their family guide if visiting with younger kids.)
  • Check out the Family Tool Kit at the National Building Museum and discover what makes a house a home, learn about creating architectural design, and practice with construction tools.
  • While performances at Ford's Theatre have been suspended during the shutdown, the "Investigation: Detective McDevitt" walking tour continues. This tour of downtown D.C. is led by an actor portraying Detective James McDevitt, on duty the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Join the detective as he revisits the sites and reexamines the clues from the investigation into the crime. The Center for Education and Leadership, which is owned and operated by the Ford's Theatre Society, will stay open for daytime visits from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Center includes two floors of permanent exhibits about Lincoln's assassination and his legacy.

So, what are you waiting for?

(c) 2013 Eileen Ogintz Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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