Friday, April 21, 2017

Natural Bridge State Park, Virginia

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Appomattox Court House

We stood on a country lane in Virginia, the sound of musket-fire and cannons bringing history to life as reenactors told the tale of the events that took place precisely 152 years previous. I enjoy putting effort into planning our family vacations, but even my attention to detail neglected to notice that our visit to Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park would coincide with the anniversary of the day in 1865 that General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in what signaled the end of the Confederacy.

Mikus and General Robert E. Lee on the steps of the McLean House

First of all, Appomattox. It’s pronounced ap-uh-mat-uh ks.

Fanning the flames

A second fact that I learned is that Appomattox Court House is the name of the village. None of the events of the surrender took place in the actual courthouse, but are instead named for the village. What was a stop along the Richmond-Lynchburg Stage Road became the county seat with the formation of Appomattox county in 1845. The county courthouse was built in 1846, burned in 1892, was reconstructed in 1964, and today houses the visitor center and museum.

Appomattox county courthouse center, county jail on right

The Battle of Appomattox Court House was fought on the morning of April 9, 1865 and was the final engagement of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond after the ten-month Siege of Petersburg. Retreating west, he hoped to join his army with the Confederate forces in North Carolina but instead were pursued and cut off by Union forces.

Meeks stable

The surrender took place in the parlor of the McLean House. The terms asked that the Confederates pledge not to take up arms against the United States; they would not be imprisoned or prosecuted for treason, officers were allowed to keep their sidearms, the men were allowed to take home their horses and mules to carry out the spring planting, and food rations were provided for the starving troops. Custer and other Union officers purchased the furnishings of the room Lee and Grant met in as souvenirs. In 1893 the house was dismantled by a private company in preparation to move it to Washington DC as a war museum, but the piles of bricks and lumber were never moved. In the 1940s the National Park Service used plans and archaeological evidence to rebuild the house on its 1848 foundation, and today the reconstruction is open to the public as it would have looked at the time of the surrender.

Parlor of the McLean house: Lee sat at the marble table on the left, Grant at the wood table on the right

A few of the original village structures have survived, including the Clover Hill Tavern (1819) and its kitchen (now a bookstore). On the morning of April 12, 1865, about 5,000 Federal troops lined the Richmond-Lynchburg State Road to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. After the Stacking of Arms (weapons, flags and other accoutrements), the Confederates were given passes (paroles) that allowed the soldiers to return home; the Tavern was where these parole passes were printed. At the surrender ceremonies 28,000 Confederate soldiers passed by and stacked their arms. 26,300 of those are listed on the Appomattox Roster lists, while an additional 7,700 who were captured at Sailor's Creek three days earlier were treated as prisoners of war.

view of courthouse through Clover Hill Tavern

The surrender didn’t immediately end the Confederate States of America, but the terms set at Appomattox Court House governed the surrenders of all the other Confederate armies: Johnston’s army in NC, Taylor’s army in Alabama, and Smith’s army in Texas. The end of the war (and of the Confederacy) was final only after Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered on June 2nd.

Nearby Longacre Bed and Breakfast

A few spots associated with the events of the surrender lie outside the village, including Lee and Grant’s headquarters sites, a small Confederate cemetery and the North Carolina monument. Three miles southeast is the town of Appomattox; the closest restaurants, stores and accommodations are located here. We spent the night at Longacre Bed and Breakfast, an English Tudor built in 1933. Located on two ½ acres of secluded gardens, the B&B features 5 guestrooms in the main house and 1 carriage house all with private bathrooms. The breakfast and hospitality couldn’t be beat; I highly recommend booking at Longacre if you’re looking for unique accommodations on the doorstep of Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The new Green Monster at Fluor Field

It’s that time again, when the crack of the bat and fireworks over the West End means baseball has returned to Fluor Field

To mark the start of the 12th season of Greenville Drive baseball we headed to the annual "Meet the Team" event at Fluor Field on Wednesday. Not just a special perk for season ticket holders, the event was also meant to give Reedy’s Kids Club a chance to meet the players who will be representing our town on the field this year. Fluor Field underwent major updates this winter, and the first thing we noticed upon entering were the giant baseballs and Shoeless Joe Jackson; the statue was formerly in front of Smoke on the Water, but seems right at home by the main gates!

The Champions Club presented by Hubbell Lighting was unveiled during the event, a rentable space for group outings that can accommodate up to 300 people. The space features a posh interior and doors that open to outside stadium seating. Famous Drive players are honored on the walls, including my favorite Drive player of all time, Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was selected by the Drive in the 6th round in 2007, and although his 2008 season was cut short by a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he beat cancer and last year helped the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908. 

Following the ribbon-cutting, the 2017 Drive players and coaching staff were introduced, after which the boys got autographs and photographs with the players. We got a glimpse of the new Front Porch, a lounge for Drive ticket holders. With indoor seating, a full service bar, flat-screen televisions, and other amenities such as light snacks and full service buffet options available for purchase, the lounge will be a great place to get out of the heat and relax.

We also got to see the new Green Monster Seats! The 30-foot high wall in left field with a manual scoreboard has the same dimensions as the original Green Monster at Fenway Park, even including “Pesky’s Pole” in right field. The new seating allows for a completely different perspective of Fluor Field!

The Drive are currently hosting the Delmarva Shorebirds for a four-game series that kicked off yesterday. Greenville is going into tonight's game with a 1-0 lead after 3-2 victory on opening day. Tonight will be the first Friday Night Fireworks following the game, and after Sunday’s Safe Kids Upstate Day the Drive will dive right into a three-game stretch against Greensboro. Home games will take place all the way through the end of August, with four away games against Asheville scheduled in September.

If you have any baseball falls under 16 in your family, make sure to sign them up for Reedy’s Kids Club; in addition to invites to fun events such as Meet the Team, members receive a hat, a passport that can be stamped at Drive home games for a chance to win prizes, and a 10% discount at the Drive Team Store. For this season's schedule, roster and ticket info, head over to the official Greenville Drive site here

Let’s play ball!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Greenville in two days!

I often get asked what my favorite spots are to take guests to here in the Upstate, and while there is something to be said for a more tailored itinerary based on interests/season/ability, for first-timers I usually recommend some variety of the following tour.

On his first visit to the Greenville, my younger brother had only two days before he had to get back to work. To maximize his time, we opted to emphasize the awesome scenic vistas and natural beauty of the area on Day 1, while concentrating on downtown and all that it has to offer on Day 2.


Our first stop is Wildcat Wayside. The roadside destination is the perfect introduction to the mountains, as Wildcat Branch tumbles down over three waterfalls in an environs typical of the Bue Ridge Escarpment. Have just 15 minutes? Take a photo at the lower falls and then buy a bag of boiled peanuts from the vendor who has usually set up in the parking lot before heading on. Have 1-2 hours? Hike the 1-mile loop path that leads up past the middle falls to the upper waterfall.

Stop 2 – Caesars Head State Park. In 30 minutes you can visit the overlook to take in one of the most familiar views of the Upstate, climb down through Devil’s Kitchen, and see the side-view of the cliff that earned the Park its name. Make sure to utilize the facilities, and if you need postcards or a keychain souvenir, stop in the Park Visitor Center. If it’s lunchtime, take advantage of the picnic tables before heading on.

(Optional stop – Pretty Place. This stop will add ~45 minutes drive time plus any time spent at Fred W. Symmes Chapel. Make sure to call ahead to verify the Chapel is open to visitors before you go.)

Stop 3 – Bald Rock Heritage Preserve. On your way down from Caesars Head pull off at this granite outcrop for more fantastic views. Pack a picnic lunch, or hike down to the base of the rock dome if you want some exercise.

(Optional stop – cool down. The boys needed some time to explore and splash around, so we took a short side trip to a creek that is a little off the beaten path.)

Stop 4 – Take the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway west. If you’re still hungry you can stop at Pumpkintown Mountain or Aunt Sue’s Country Corner before pulling into Table Rock State Park. We’ll stop at the Visitor Center, walk out on the pier on Lake Oolenoy, and soak in the view from the rocking chairs overlooking a meadow, the lake and Table Rock in the distance. Have more time? Drive over to the other side of the highway and drive Table Rock State Park Road all the way around, with stops at the Lodge, Pinnacle Lake and a scenic overlook as inspired. Note: the north portion of the Park has an entry fee.

(Optional stop – Long Shoals Wayside Park. Another great picnic spot, this roadside park is another ten miles down the road, but it’s a perfect last stop before hitting the road back to Greenville.)

Your route back to town will more than likely take you back through Travelers Rest, and if you didn’t already make a stop on the way up at Tandem Creperie and Coffehouse for breakfast on your way up, now is the time to pull in for ice cream at Pink Mama’s, a celebratory beer at Swamp Rabbit Brewery and Taproom, or dinner at one of the many delicious restaurants. Then it’s home to rest, because coming up is….


We start our tour on the West End, walking from Fluor Field towards downtown. For a more detailed itinerary, see my post Greenville’s West End Tour

Stop 2 – Falls Park. If you cut through from Augusta Street across University Street, you can enter Falls Park at Pedrick’s Garden and pass by the Greenville Chihuly sculpture. Cross the bridge over the Reedy River and continue through the Furman Arboretum to the giant beech tree. Then cross into the heart of the park to the waterfall and Liberty Bridge. Plan on spending several hours in the Park, to allow for all the different views of the waterfall, the many gardens on the banks of the Reedy River, and a stop at Spill the Beans for coffee or ice cream.

(Optional stop – the Children’s Garden at Linky Stone Park. Follow the Swamp Rabbit Trail north along the Reedy, taking in the view of the Wyche Pavilion and TD Stage at the Peace Center before crossing under River Street to this garden oasis in the shade of Academy Street. On your way back let the kids cool off in the water feature near Papi’s Tacos.)

Stop 3 – Enjoy lunch at one of the many acclaimed restaurants that line Main Street. One of our favorites is Chicora Alley, however the brand-new Jianna comes a close second. Then head north up Main Street – you’ll soon see the Visit Greenville SC Visitor Center on your left, a great resource for maps, festival info and all the latest on the #yeahTHATgreenville scene.

Continue up Main Street, allowing for time to stop at the bookstores, coffee shops and other stores. Mast General Store and O.P. Taylor’s are favorite stops for our boys, but we also enjoy the fountains at ONE City Plaza, finding the Mice on Main, and descending to Coffee Underground for an after-lunch digestif. Starting to get tired? No problem, hop on the free trolley for a while!

(Optional stop – McPherson Park. Although College Street usually marks the northern border of our tour, just  ¼ mile north is Greenville’s oldest public park. Anyone up for a round of putt-putt?)

Stop 4 – Heritage Green! In addition to Hughes Main Library and the Children’s Museum of the Upstate, you’ll also find the Upcountry History Museum, the Sargent Wilson Museum & Gallery, the Greenville Little Theatre and Greenville County Museum of Art on this campus. Just a minute from Main Street, Heritage Green is easily accessible by trolley, foot and car. Spend as little or much time as you wish before returning to Main Street to find dinner - making a choice where to eat might be your hardest decision all day.

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