Often called one of the seven natural wonders of the world, 20-story Natural Bridge has been attracting tourists since Thomas Jefferson built a cabin there for his guests. Now the grand old Natural Bridge Hotel accommodates visitors who want to hang out at the landmark rock bridge and its namesake cave without getting back into the car.
Natural Bridge, Virginia’s newest state park, lies three hours south of the Washington metropolitan area off Interstate 81 at exit 180. The park is more than the bridge, majestic as that is. Wildflowers grow in abundance on the sides of Cedar Creek gorge beneath the bridge. Six miles of trails meander past falls and over Buck Hill. The wheelchair-accessible path along Cedar Creek offers up history and natural points of interest, including an underground stream.
Natural Bridge and the Monacan Indian nation have constructed a Monacan living history village in the gorge, using saplings and reeds. Visitors can hear Monacan tales, help cook food over an open fire and learn about the Monacan way of life. Ms. Victoria, Mr. George, and other interpreters weave vine baskets, knot fish nets, or perform other skills learned from their Monacan ancestors.
When darkness falls, symphonic music swells within the ancient rock walls and colored lights play over the great stone arch. The biblical story of the Drama of Creation is presented below the bridge, weather permitting, where it has been a nightly tradition since 1927.
The gorge is not the only awesome place to hike; Natural Bridge Caverns is the deepest, coolest commercial cave on the East Coast. It doesn’t feel as though you are descending 34 stories into the earth, thanks to gently sloping walkways and tunnels.
Hotels and packages
Hospitality at Natural Bridge Historic Hotel and Conference Center is as genuine and Southern as its scratch-made biscuits. There’s a s’more station in the lobby, bonfires in the evening and shuttle service to the gorge light show. Dining options include the Colonial Dining Room and Red Fox Tavern.
Insider tip: The Friday night seafood buffet is a perennial favorite.
Packages come in all shapes: dining, wining, kayaking, romance and two special favorites for families: Adventure and Dino Zoo packages. Both feature Natural Bridge Zoo and Dinosaur Kingdom, both a mile north on Route 11.
The privately owned zoo features Asian bears, Bengal tigers, monkeys, zebras and feedable giraffes, among other exotic critters. A host of creatures whose names aren’t so familiar also lurk within these pens and pastures — oryx, ibis, coatimundi and the knife-toed cassowaries. If you want more interaction, opt for a feeding session in the parakeet house or a ride on Asha the African elephant.
An even wilder world beckons from across the street. Dinosaur Kingdom is a 16-acre stroll through a crazy, funny nightmare of fiberglass dinosaurs, half-eaten soldiers, shrieks, roars, splashes and lurching floors. It is as wacky as it sounds. The storyline is that dinosaurs awakened by Yankee cannon fire in 1864 defeat the Union in a Civil War battle erased from history. To follow along, you can read the QR codes with your smartphone or buy creator Mark Cline’s illustrated comic book.
Side trip to Lexington
The clip clop of horses’ hooves on brick pavement eases passengers into the 19th century as they travel through this historic college town. The Lexington Carriage Company tour guide knows the history of Lexington and shares stories of the Lee Chapel, Stonewall Jackson’s off-campus house, and Jackson’s tomb in a conversational style. You may even see treats laid out for the ghost of Lee’s horse, Traveler. Tours leave from the hitching post across the street from the Lexington Visitor Center (106 E. Washington St.) between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. in summer months.
From the Carriage Co. hitching post, it’s an easy walk to the VMI Museum. From the mounted hide of Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson’s favorite steed, to class rings with secret compartments, to tours of austere cadet rooms, the museum chronicles the story of the nation’s oldest state-sponsored military college. The museum’s 800-piece collection of muskets, pistols, rifles, and early airguns is a major attraction. Where else can you see the air rifle that explorer Meriwether Lewis carried during his 1803 trek to the Pacific? Or a 7-barrelled Artemus Wheeler flintlock rifle, the first patented revolving firearm. The museum store carries a variety of unique items, many inspired by artifacts in the collection – including a reproduction of Stonewall Jackson’s field desk.
Next door at Washington and Lee University, the Lee Chapel examines iconic portraits of Lee and Washington as well as the history of objects depicted in these paintings. The state-of-the-art museum includes Lee’s office just as he left it. This year the university’s nearby Watson Pavilion is displaying ceramics of the abolitionist movement — medallions, statues and tableware depicting images of kneeling slaves and families being torn apart at slave auctions. W&L has one of the most extensive collections of abolitionist ceramics in the country.
For a camping experience, head to Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista. The riverside park consists of 315 acres of open spaces, campground, pool, and an 18-hole championship golf course, Vista Links. The park also features tennis courts, skate park, playgrounds, pavilions and river fishing for smallmouth bass.
If you go:
Lexington & the Rockbridge Area Tourism Development
(540) 463.3777; lexingtonvirginia.com