When we told him that we were going to Natural Bridge one morning, our innkeeper warned us, “Don’t be put off by the tacky gift shop, where you buy your ticket. I’ve had guests who have just turned around and walked right back out because they saw the gift shop and decided that Natural Bridge would be tacky as well. It’s worth seeing.”
He was right about the gift shop. It was everything that a tourist trap should be. But we were undeterred. We bought our tickets, walked down 137 steps, turned a corner and there it was. He was right about Natural Bridge too. It was worth seeing.
Natural Bridge is a limestone bridge carved by erosion. It’s a National Historic Landmark, a designation of which I’d never heard. A National Historic Landmark is, according to the National Park Service, “a nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.” Natural Bridge was chosen for its contribution “to the way in which Americans created a national self-identity based on the New World’s impressive natural landscape.”1 It epitomized early American romanticism and was a popular destination for tourists, artists and writers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The bridge is associated with two Founding Fathers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There are unsubstantiated claims that George Washington surveyed the land and, along the lines of “Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac,” a legend that he threw a stone over the top of the Bridge from the river bed, a distance of over 200 feet. Thomas Jefferson bought 157 acres that included the bridge, from King George III in 1774, and made several visits to the site. He called it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” He built a two room cabin close by, and kept a guest book in the cabin that lists John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren among its guests. The land was sold in 1835 by Jefferson’s descendants.
After passing under Natural Bridge, we continued on a trail that runs along a creek. The trail would end about a mile later, at some waterfalls, but there were other stops along the way. First came a recreation of a Monacan village – a joint effort by Natural Bridge and the Monacan Nation of Virginia. Early colonial history places the bridge in land controlled – pre-Jefferson — by the Monacans, a small Native American tribe from central western Virginia. During tourist season (March-ish through November-ish), the village is staffed with interpreters who show and explain Monacan life in the 1700s. We were there in late April and there were two interpreters chatting to each other, but otherwise nothing going on.
A little further on were the Saltpetre Caves. Saltpetre caves apparently were abundant in the south and the saltpetre from this and other caves were used to make ammunition during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. This mine is now closed.
Around 1812, men working in the Saltpetre Caves heard running water and blasted a hole in the rock to get to it. Unsuccessful attempts to find the source or destination of the water gave it its name: the Lost River.
The path ends about a mile from Natural Bridge, at the Lace Waterfalls.
Having walked down 137 steps to get to the river bed, there are the same 137 steps to climb back up to get to the parking lot. For those unable or unwilling to climb, there’s a shuttle that transports people up and down the hill.
June 2013 update: Natural Bridge is up for sale.