From Appomattox Courthouse we headed west, past Lynchburg and through a mountain pass. We were en route to Interstate 81, which would take us north between Shenandoah National Park and George Washington & Jefferson National Forest all the way into West Virginia. While crossing over the ridge it was tempting to hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway (and Skyline Drive) and follow the ridgeline north through the Blue Ridge Mountains, but in interest of saving some time we continued along the James River down into the valley. Right before hitting the Interstate we reached our next destination: Natural Bridge State Park.
The Monacans are an eastern Siouan nation that has occupied Virginia for up to 10,000 years. Four centuries ago the tribe could be found as far east as the Falls of Richmond, where John Smith and his Jamestown settlers first made contact with the tribe. Legend has it, that the Monacans were fleeing from a band of enemy warriors when they came to a deep, wide chasm. With no way across, they closed their eyes and prayed. When they opened their eyes, a narrow rock bridge provided them escape across the gorge. Once women and children were across, the braves turned to face the enemy with newfound courage, emerging victorious to tell the story that has since been handed down through dozens of generations. The Monacan people call this sacred place Mohomony, meaning ‘Great Mystery’ or the “Bridge of God.” About 1,400 Monacans still reside in Virginia, primarily in the Bear Mountain region near Lynchburg. Within the State Park, the Natural Bridge Monacan Indian Village has been recreated to offer insight into Monacan life in the region in the 1700s.
On July 5, 1774 Thomas Jefferson purchased this piece of land from King George II of England. A frequent visitor, Jefferson was passionate about preserving the awesome natural formations in this corner of Virginia for future generations, as well as making it accessible for all to appreciate. Among visitors to the site during this time are three presidents (James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren), John Marshall (Fourth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court), Henry Clay (Kentucky Statesman) and Daniel Boone. Legend also has it that George Washington helped lay out the 157-acre plat that Thomas Jefferson later purchased. For ten years the land was leased to Patrick Henry, and upon Jefferson’s death in 1826 he left the parcel to his family.
|That white rectangle in the upper left corner supposedly holds George Washington's initials|
Starting with 1811, nitrate (used for making gunpowder) was mined in a cavern beneath the Natural Bridge, evidence of which can still be seen in the Saltpeter Cave just beyond the Monacan village. The bridge was also used as a shot tower for making musket balls for the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Molten lead was dropped through a copper sieve from the bridge, the holes in the sieve controlling the size of lead shot. Surface tension and the cooling of the molten droplet as it fell created a round ball, and the final dunk in the cold creek waters finished the process. During the Civil War both Union and Confederate troops made detours from their marches to see and cross the Natural Bridge.
|The fence can be seen in the distance, the only visual reminder that you're crossing Cedar Creek|
The Indian footpath over the bridge gradually evolved into US Route 11. The highway still crosses the bridge today, although safety fences block the view; if you don’t know it’s there, you might never realize the chasm you’ve just crossed. In 1827 a mule trail was built along Cedar Creek & under the bridge, to allow access all the way to Lace Falls.
In 1830 guests could pay $1 to be lowered from the Bridge in a cage accompanied by violin music. The “Drama of Creation” light and sound extravaganza first started in 1927; President Calvin Coolidge throwing the ceremonial ‘first switch.’ The light show still runs today, beginning after the Park closes in the evening. The Natural Bridge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998. About 2 years ago a real estate investor donated a portion of the acreage that included the Natural Bridge to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, who then deeded it to the State once remaining debt had been paid off. Natural Bridge is the newest state park in the state, only 7 months old (September 2016).
The arch is composed of solid grey limestone, and is 215 feet high, 40 feet thick and 100 feet wide. The rocks that form the bridge are about 500 million years old.
This ancient eastern arborvitae was the oldest and largest in the world before its death in 1980, according to a sign at the site. The 56 inch-diameter evergreen is estimated to be more than 1,600 years old.
If you visit in the spring (as we did), you will be treated to a fantastic display of wildflowers, all visible from the trail. The Natural Bridge was definitely a highlight of our trip north; what a treasure for the Virginia Park Service! To reach the Natural Bridge, proceed to the intersection of Highway 11 and Highway 130, parking in the designated parking lot. After entering the Visitor Center and paying the entrance fee, proceed outside and down the stairs to the Summerhouse Café. From this point it is 450 feet to the Natural Bridge, 1,800 feet to the Monacan Indian Village, 0.4 miles to the Salpetre Mines, ½ mile to the Lost River, and a little less than a mile to the Lace Waterfall. Admission is $8/person, $6/ages 6-12.
|from left: Dutchman's breeches, star chickweed, large-flowered bellwort, spring beauty & Greek valerian|
|from left: golden alexander, wild geranium, green & gold, squawroot and wild blue phlox|
|from left: an aster?, ?, trillium, redbud and wild columbine|