A Natural Beauty
A trip to virginia’s most prominent bridge celebrates history, time-honored traditions and the great outdoors
It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!”
These words from Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia accurately convey The Natural Bridge, but Jefferson, a former owner of the bridge, is also correct in saying that it’s really indescribable. I prove this statement as I stare up at the magnificent structure before me and, with mouth hanging open, utter a simple but highly impressed, “Wow.”
Even though I’d seen photos of this National Historic Landmark, it’s not until my very first visit to The Natural Bridge—just off the Blue Ridge Parkway between Roanoke and Lexington—with my mom that I truly understand what all the fuss is about. As we take in the scenery, Matt Slipkowsky, director of marketing for The Natural Bridge, points out fascinating sights such as George Washington’s initials that he carved after climbing 23 feet up the bridge in 1750. At least that’s what legend says. “They’re believed to be his initials,” Slipkowsky notes, “but it goes back so far that there’s not really a documented occurrence of him actually carving them.”
Past the bridge is a mile-long hiking path called the Cedar Creek Trail. After a bit of walking Momma and I encounter the Monacan Indian Village. This tribe was believed to have discovered The Natural Bridge while escaping an enemy. They considered it to be a sacred site and called it “The Bridge of God.” As we wander around the village, we come across wigwams, cooking sites and workstations. At one of the workstations we meet two guides who share a bit of history about the tribe. Much different than today, the Monacans were a matrilineal society. Women owned everything, and everything was passed down from the mothers.
Feeling empowered by the matrilineal Monacan society, Momma and I continue our hike to the end of the trail, where we reach Lace Waterfalls. The rushing water literally resembles sheets of delicate lace as it plunges 50 feet into the creek bed. We sit on the rock wall next to the falls and watch fish jump out of the water. I consider how refreshing the water appears and how enjoyable a summer swim would be, but upon noticing a water moccasin gliding through the stream, I decide the water wouldn’t be so good for swimming after all.
However, the nearby Upper James River Water Trail is perfect for all kinds of activities. The Natural Bridge, in conjunction with Twin River Outfitters, offers a Great Outdoors Package spring–fall that includes canoeing, kayaking or tubing along with a combination pass that allows access to the bridge, caverns and surrounding attractions, breakfast in the Colonial Dining Room and one night’s stay in the historic Natural Bridge Hotel. From April 12–June 13 and Sept. 3–Oct. 31, visitors can go kayaking or canoeing. From June 14–Sept. 2, tubing is available.
We opt for kayaking, even though Momma has never tried it and is visibly nervous. “Could you check my life vest again?” she asks the guide at Twin Rivers right before we descend into the river. I go in first and begin paddling, constantly looking back to make sure she hasn’t chickened out. Eventually I see her paddling behind me, quickly getting the hang of this new adventure. She catches up to me, and we blissfully paddle along, scanning the banks for wildlife and gazing at the mountainous views around us.
All of a sudden it starts raining—then pouring. Worried that Momma’s first kayaking experience has been ruined, I look over to make sure she’s ok. She grins and keeps on paddling, and I realize the rain isn’t bothering her one bit.
After drying off we head to the Colonial Dining Room located inside The Natural Bridge Hotel. Famished from our journey, we eagerly browse the menu, which features home-style dishes such as meatloaf, chicken pot pie and fried green tomatoes. The restaurant also offers a generous selection of Virginia wines. I opt for a honey and chile glazed salmon served with fresh fruit and without a doubt the best spoonbread I’ve ever tried (available in the gift shop). For dessert, a piece of caramel-salted vanilla crunch cake with whipped cream hits the spot.
Before bed, we journey down to the bridge one last time for a nighttime tradition that’s been held since 1927, The Drama of Creation. Guests take their seats on wooden benches located on either side of the bridge to view a presentation of chromatic lights shone on the bridge paired with a dramatic reading of the Seven Days of Creation from The Book of Genesis. Classical music plays as the slowly changing lights illuminate the bridge in a brilliant spectacle of color. Throughout the program, Cedar Creek rushes peacefully in the background, and lightning bugs flicker softly in the air to join the presentation.
In this perfect moment, I gaze up at the bridge one last time. It’s still breathtaking but in a completely different way now. Feeling so moved by its beauty and so thankful to have experienced this incomparable journey with Momma, I think ahead to the day when I can someday bring a child of my own to let them stand in awe underneath the tremendous bridge. Perhaps by then I will have formulated an eloquent passage to describe it; or maybe I’ll just utter a simple but highly impressed, “Wow.”