Friday, January 06, 2012

Two Brown Sign Gems: Patuxent Research Refuge & The National Cryptologic Museum

For the last 10 years or so, every time we drive the Baltimore-Washington Parkway I see two Brown Signs and always think about stopping. They are the National Wildlife Visitor Center and the National Cryptologic Museum. With my parents in town, and nothing on the agenda, I suggested we finally visit these sites -- whatever they heck they were.

The National Wildlife Refuge Visitor center is located on Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. The visitor center contains a fairly large collection of displays which will teach you more than you wanted to know about how a wildlife refuge works and about some of the animals in the area. For the right age kid, or an adult with interest, this is actually a sweet little setup. There's also an indoor viewing area equipped with binoculars and spotting scopes for checking out wildlife who may be loitering around the lake in back. In the morning, on a spring day, I bet there's a ton to see.

We did about 2.4 miles of hiking on the trails, which were family friendly (read: easy). The hike around Cash Lake really does make for some beautiful views. I suppose there are more adventurous hikes in the area but if you're looking for something the kids will enjoy, I've got to think this is it. In theory, there's about 20 miles of hiking trails (now we're talking!) in the Northern part of the reserve, but that was off limits as they were hunting that day.

The National Crypotlogic Museum is located right next to the NSA, so it just has this air of officialness to it. The actual museum is relatively small, but boy is it packed with amazing things. From classics like the story of the Zimmerman Telegram, to non-military codes like hobo sign. You can listen to what an encrypted phone call sounds like on old school technology, check out a Cray Supercomputer and play with an actual Enigma Machine. Yes, you can actually encrypt/decrypt a message of your choosing on an actual Engima Machine - talk about fun!

In many respects, this was a better museum than say the Spy Museum. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in depth (oh, and being free). There should be plenty for kids to see there, and if you go by yourself there's an audio tour you can get lost in.

Next to the museum is National Vigilance Park: "Dedicated on 2 September 1997, National Vigilance Park and its Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial stands to honor those "silent warriors" who risked, and often lost, their lives performing airborne signals intelligence missions during the Cold War." Did I mention that the park is made up of 3 airplanes? Definitely impressive stuff.

Both of these sights don't get much mention in the usual places. But I say, after you've taken your family and friends to the Smithsonian's and such and you're looking to branch out, definitely take them to both of these sights. What a wonderful way to spend the day.

(Photos from our hike and museum - let's see if you can figure out which belongs to which?)

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