Williamsburg Basics: The Colonial Parkway
This is another of a series of articles on the basics of Williamsburg – what you need to know about prominent places for your trip to (or life in) Williamsburg, VA.
This time I’m going to be talking about the Colonial Parkway, a beautiful 23-mile road linking Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Not only is it a beautiful park in and of itself, but it’s a great, scenic way to get around town.
I’m going to be starting in Jamestown and going north, since that’s really the way the history of the area works. Jamestown (1607) is where the colonists landed, Williamsburg (1699) took over as the colonial capital of Virginia, and Yorktown (1781) was the site of General Cornwallis’s surrender to George washington.
Things to know
- The parkway doesn’t have any modern markings, so no lines or anything
- In that same vein, the parkway has only necessary signs, and any interaction with other roads usually has you going under a brick bridge
- The speed limit is 45mph, except around the attactions, then it goes down to 35mph
- You can pass other cars on the parkway, except where it is otherwise posted
- You can pull off at several places to take in the sights
Stop 1: Jamestown Island, Historic Jamestowne, and Jamestown Settlement
The southern end of the parkway is a loop around Jamestown Island. It’s a nice little loop, and it’s interesting to see what the colonists saw when they first landed there.
Making your way north, the first thing you’ll see is Historic Jamestowne, the site of the original 1607 James Fort, and for what the little island is famous for. I’ve covered it extensively in this post, but suffice to say it’s something you don’t want to miss, especially if you are interested in history. You came to see history in Williamsburg, why not visit the spot where it all started?
In addition, Jamestown and the Yorktown Battlefield are both National Parks, so if you buy a seven-day pass (prices here), then you can get in to the Yorktown Battlefield as well.
Going a little farther north, you’ll see the glassblowing hut where you can stop and watch someone blow nice glass pieces as well as purchase some for yourself.
Lastly, you’ll see the Jamestown Settlement. It is operated by the state of Virginia, while Historic Jamestowne is a National Park, so they are different and the pass to the National Park will not get you in to this one. This site has a replica of the ships, as well as a living re-enactment of a Powhatan village. This site is connected with the Yorktown Victory Center, a live village depicting revolutionary time in Yorktown.
Parkway stretch 1: 8 miles
The parkway between Jamestown and Williamsburg is scenic – you drive along the James River and there are plenty of places to pull off and swim or fish, just be sure to pay attention to the signs!
Moving north, you’ll come to Colonial Williamsburg. You’ll know when you’ve reached it because there’s a tunnel running underneath.
If you are biking, this is the point where you’ll need to find an alternate route. Biking is allowed everywhere on the parkway except in the tunnel underneath Colonial Williamsburg. That being said, cars on the parkway travel at 45mph (and higher…) so be careful. In addition, the pavement (or lack thereof) on the parkway doesn’t make for the smoothest ride, in a car or on a bike.
Stop 2: Colonial Williamsburg
I could write twenty articles on Colonial Williamsburg, so one paragraph really won’t do. Not only do you have the largest tourist attraction in Virginia, which is a living reenactment of revolutionary America, but you have the beautiful College of William & Mary, historic in its own right, and the charming little Merchant’s Square, which boasts something like 40 restaurants and small stores. It’s a great place, and my wife and I find ourselves down there almost every weekend.
But on to Colonial Williamsburg. For the basics, you can park at the visitors center right off the parkway, or you can find your way to downtown yourself and park in one of the many visitors’ lots. There is a garage which is $1/hour, but honestly you can find a spot on the street even on the busiest days, if you don’t mind driving around looking. The visitors’ lots fill up quickly, even on “off” days, so the garage and streets will be your best bets.
If you park by the visitors center you’ll be able to take a Colonial Williamsburg bus to the area, and if you park downtown you’ll be right there anyway. There are many places in Colonial Williamsburg that don’t require a ticket, and if you are wanting to just get a peek and keep going, that might be the best option. Otherwise, you can buy a ticket to see everything going on at Colonial Williamsburg. From cannon firings, to walking tours of the stables, to asking founding fathers questions, you can see it all. Click here to see the current prices at Colonial Williamsburg.
Parkway Stretch 2: 13 miles
So you’ve seen Colonial Williamsburg, walked around W&M, and gotten a coffee at Aroma’s and want to get back on the road. Navigate your way through that road pretzel by the visitors center or go north and navigate your way on to Layfayette, make a left on Page and a right on Parkway, then follow the signs to go north to Yorktown.
This is a beautiful trek through the woods until you reach the York river to the north. Watch out for deer and park rangers, of course. There’s not much to say other than it is 45 mph and on the other end you see the York river expand on the horizon. You’ll see fences and such on your way, since you are essentially driving right through the middle of a military base. There’s enough trees on either side to disguise that fact, but if you look at Google maps you can’t really miss it.
Stop 3: Yorktown battlefield/Victory Center
Drive two miles further and you are at the Yorktown Victory Center. If you paid for entrance into the Jamestown Settlement, you’ll have a ticket for this. Like Colonial Williamsburg, there are costumed actors reenacting scenes from America at the time of the revolution as well as those dressed as revolutionary soldiers reenacting drills. There are indoor and outdoor exhibits as well.
Where to go from here?
The Yorktown Riverwalk is a very nice place to spend the evening, as it is scenic with a few restaurants. Alternatively you could go back down the parkway to Williamsburg and see even more of what’s down there (it’s only 13 miles, after all).
- Most of the parkway is 45 mph, but the area around cities is 35mph. Watch out for park rangers – they will give you a ticket for speeding.
- Watch out for deer, obviously – you are going through a forest
- It gets dark at night. Really dark, since you are going between cities and there aren’t any lights on the parkway. This are the times I’ve been the most concerned about deer and have opted for another way back from Jamestown or Yorktown
- Google maps doesn’t automatically take you on the parkway, even when it is the best way to get to where you are going. Sometimes it’s necessary to click and drag yourself to the parkway. It’s a good way to get around town even if isn’t a leisurely drive, since it goes right underneath downtown and doesn’t have any stop lights/signs.