Virginia’s Breathtaking Natural Bridge Is a National Treasure

 

Natural Bridge, Virginia’s 37th state park showcases one of the oldest geologic features on the East Coast. Part of a limestone cavern system, the bridge likely formed when the James River changed course and the existing cave collapsed, leaving only part of the ceiling intact. The history of the ownership of this “natural bridge” and its surrounding property goes back to colonial days.

rock face with initials G.W. carved into it, boxed in with white paint
This G.W. engraved in the rock is said to have been carved by George Washington

The recorded history of the 215-foot bridge goes back to 1750, when Lord Fairfax hired Washington to survey the bridge. It is said that at or around this time, he carved his initials into the stone under the bridge where they can still be seen today.

a plaque on a white pillar: George Washington surveyed the patent 1750, granted to Thomas Jeffersn 1774
Plaque commemorating George Washington’s survey of the patent and its granting to Thomas Jefferson

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge, along with another 157 acres of land, from King George III for 20 shillings. He later built a two-room log cabin on the property, one of these rooms was to be used for guests. In 1833, the property was sold and the new owner build the Forest Inn to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the area. During the 1880s, while owned by Colonel Henry Parsons, it became known as a resort. In 1998 it received its National Historic Landmark status and in 2014 ownership transferred to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund.

a plaque on a white stone pillar noting that Natural Bridge is a Virginia Historic Landmark
At the entrance to the park

This natural stone formation is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places and is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature of the park is the 215-foot natural limestone arch. Until recently, the bridge was in private hands. On September  24, 2016, the property was turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia for use as a state park.

A tourist attraction as early as the 18th century, Natural Bridge has attracted guests from all over the world to see the wonder and to explore the area. It has been memorialized in literature; Herman Melville likened the arch formed by Moby Dick to Virginia’s Natural Bridge and William Cullen Bryant said that the bridge and Niagara Falls were the “two most remarkable features of North America.”

a red brick building with white pillars and "Natural Bridge State Park" across the top
The Visitor Center at Natural Bridge State Park

The Visitor Center is a large building with a variety of merchandise emblazoned with the Natural Bridge State Park logo. Also in the center is a small food concession and information booth. There is a small waterfall, Cascade Falls, next to approximately 137 steps (one of the park rangers confessed to having tried to count them and coming up with different answers each time) that go down to the path that leads to the bridge. If you are unable, or do not want to take the stairs, a complimentary bus shuttle goes back and forth at regular intervals.

Monacan longhouse made of sticks and bark
An example of a Monacan longhouse
mud wall
Protective walls were built using sticks and mud

Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to 6 miles of trails on the property as well as the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

 

wood bridge leading to a roped off cave
A bridge off the trail leads to the saltpeter mine

Following the Cedar Creek Trail from the Visitor Center, you can walk across a bridge to look into the saltpeter mine. Continuing along an easy path, you pass the Lost River, which broke through the ground and currently spills into Cedar Creek . The trail ends at the beautiful 30+ foot Lace Falls. There are two other trails on the property, the Monacan Trail is a loop on the other side of Route 11, the Buck Hill Trail, another loop, is near Natural Bridge Caverns.

The bridge is easy to find near the intersection of Route 130 and Route 11, Route 11 goes over the bridge, but you won’t realize the natural wonder beneath you unless you know what to look for.

a series of waterfalls on a creek
The approach to Lace Falls

Nearby are related sites, including Caverns at Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Hotel. (Neither of these is run by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation which manages all of Virginia’s state parks. The town of Lexington is about 20 minutes away heading north on Route 11 and the Blue Ridge Parkway is about a half hour’s drive to the east.

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Lexington, a Charming Virginia Town With a Wealth of History

a street view with brick buildings and a white building with a steeple
Lexington, Virginia

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the charming and historic Lexington, Virginia is a friendly town that is proud of its heritage.  Named one of the “Best Small Towns to Visit” in 2013 by Smithsonian Magazine, the town offers shopping, eating, history, education and the outdoors, all within a short distance. With several hotels and charming bed and breakfasts, the small town can serve as a home base to explore the wider area, or as a relaxing setting for a weekend trip on its own.

The town is home to both Virginia Military Institute (est 1839) and Washington and Lee University (est 1749), each of which hosts museums open to the public. The VMI Museum, the first public museum in Virginia, has 15,000 artifacts, including a Revolutionary War musket, that help trace its heritage; W&L’s Lee Chapel & Museum is dedicated to the university’s history and how it is intertwined with both George Washington and its 11th president, Robert E. Lee.

A shot from the front of Lee Chapel with red bricks in the foreground and a girl sitting on a step
Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University

Lee Chapel is a focal point on the campus and is where you will find what is possibly the first Peale portrait of George Washington. The lower level museum includes Lee’s office, and a changing exhibit as well as the main exhibit, Building and Rebuilding a Nation, which shows the contributions both George Washington and Lee made to education and reveals an interesting family connection between the men.

A monument to Jackson. A white pedestal with a statue of Jackson on top.
Jackson’s grave

The museum offers a glimpse of this Confederate general, and makes it apparent that he was faced with a very difficult choice: either fight for the North, against his family and neighbors, or fight for the South, against the nation he loved. It is also apparent that he was a true gentleman, taking defeat with grace and continuing to serve. The university owes their honor code and more to him.

Colonnade building at Washington and Lee University with green grass in foreground
The Colonnade at Washington and Lee University sits across the green from Lee Chapel

In addition to the history found at these schools, the town is also home to the Lee House (now the residence of W&L president and their families), sign "Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery Jackson's Tomb"the Stonewall Jackson House and the George C. Marshal Museum. Many of the town’s buildings date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. A few blocks away, the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery is the final resting place of the general, as well as many other Confederate veterans.

Named after Lexington, MA, the site of the first shot of the Revolutionary War, the town also has found an interesting way to share the history of her famous people, from George Washington (who endowed the university that now bears his name) to Meriwether Lewis to Patsy Cline. Pavers throughout town commemorate deceased people deemed to be “The Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge County.” The related website offers biographical information and locations of related sites throughout the county.  Several movies have been filmed in and around Lexington, including Sommersby, Gods and Generals, War of the Worlds and Field of Lost Shoes.

The stone Natural Bridge carved by nature
Natural Bridge

Not far outside of town is Natural Bridge State Park, which was once owned by Thomas Jefferson (and is rumored to have been surveyed by George Washington) and is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places. This natural formation is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature is a 215-foot natural limestone arch. Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to a number of trails and the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

Besides this national treasure, outdoor activities in the Lexington area are plentiful. The Maury River, a tributary of the James River, is a popular destination for small watercraft and tubing. There also are many trails for hiking, from the relatively flat 7-mile Chessie Nature Trail, to the rocky Devil’s Marbleyard Trail near Natural Bridge or even the Appalachian Trail in nearby Shenandoah National Park. The area boasts beautiful skies at all times of year.

panoramic view in Lexington Virginia
Lexington, Virginia seems to always have beautiful skies

The surrounding area is home to several wineries and breweries and many antique shops and malls. In addition to the accommodations in town, camping is also available nearby, at one of several state or national forest areas, as well as privately owned campgrounds.

Lexington has a number of chain hotels, though the Hampton, an easy walk from Main Street, blends in to the city charm. Formerly the historic Col Alto Mansion (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), the reception building adjoins the 76 hotel room and also houses the breakfast room as well as 10 restored manor rooms.

When you get hungry, there are a number of options to choose from, such as The Palms Restaurant, featuring “Classic American Fare,” and a regular schedule of live music and Macado’s, a casual, eclectic place popular with the college crowd. Niko’s Grille offers “Authentic Greek Cuisine” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For dessert, you can’t miss with a stop at Sweet Things for homemade ice cream or Pronto for gelato or a pastry and coffee. If you are just looking for a quick pick me up, stop in Lexington Coffee Shop for gourmet coffee and homemade baked goods.

Note: No compensation was provided from any of the businesses mentioned in this article. The opinions are those of the writer.

This was first published as Charming and Historic Lexington Va.

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