Natural Bridge, Virginia

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Natural Bridge in Virginia

My son Alex is a senior at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.  In early October, when we attended parents weekend, we decided to take in some of the local sites.  We had a wonderful visit to the Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Caverns just off Interstate 81 about an hour north of Roanoke in the heart of the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains.  I highly recommend a stop if you are in the area.

You enter the gorge where the bridge is located down this steep stairway through the woods (or you can take a shuttle bus).

The Natural Bridge was created when an underground cavern, carved by Cedar Creek, a tributary of the James River, collapsed and left behind a span of its rock roof 215 feet high and 90 feet wide.  It is the kind of mammoth natural site that we normally only find in the western US.  The bridge is so big and substantial that Route 11, the state highway, runs across the top of it, and you don’t even notice the road.

The trail to the bridge is lovely and runs along Cedar Creek, a tributary of the James River.

The Natural Bridge is not only a natural wonder, but it is also a very significant  historic site. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been selected from that list of 65,000 to be one of only 2,430 National Historic Landmarks. The Natural Bridge was a sacred site of the Monacan Indians.  In 1750, it was surveyed by George Washington for Lord Fairfax, the owner of the original Virginia land grant of 1649.  In 1774, it was purchased by Thomas Jefferson as part of a 157 acre parcel acquired from King George III for 20 shillings.  Jefferson built a log cabin retreat there and entertained many famous guests.

When you see the Natural Bridge with people in front of it (bottom middle), you get an idea of how gigantic it is.

Like Niagara Falls, the Natural Bridge has been a tourist site since the late 18th century.  An inn was built in 1833, and today there is an on site hotel.  The property has always been privately owned and remains so today.  With tourist dollars a motivation for private owners, the surrounding area is somewhat degraded by unrelated attractions, including a wax museum, live butterfly exhibit, toy museum, and an extensive gift shop.  However the bridge area remains pristine, and the bridge itself is spectacular.  My photos taken on an overcast and dreary day do not do it justice.

Route 11 runs along the top.

The rock walls that line the gorge are very beautiful.

Along the trail we saw a lot of mostly native flora and fauna (I don’t know the exact IDs so no labels except the bird is a great blue heron):

When we were there, we also toured the Natural Bridge Caverns, the deepest caverns on the East Coast.  I didn’t take any photos, but the caverns were as spectacular as the bridge and well worth a visit.



Nursery Happenings:  Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is done for the fall.  Thanks for a great year.  See you in spring 2013.

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46 Responses to “Natural Bridge, Virginia”

  1. Glad you enjoyed your visit to Natural Bridge. My wife, dog and I spent a week relaxing there last summer- it was great! The room was clean and spacious. We were able to take our dog for a small fee though he isn’t small! I’ve enjoyed your gardening posts this season! !

  2. What beautiful countryside, and such a fabulous natural bridge! I love the little blue wild flower, so prolific!

  3. I hope you didn’t miss the dinosaur “museum”.

    I have been here twice, once recently. The bridge was beautiful, but the surrounding area seemed more run-down then it did in my childhood visit.

    • Les, Fortunately, I did miss even the existence of the dinosaur museum. Evidently the area is now owned by an international investor whose main focus is not the bridge or the caverns. Virginia has tried to buy them unsuccessfully. It is a shame that such national treasures are exploited in such a tacky way, but it really doesn’t detract from them once you are away from the “museums”. Doesn’t everything look better in childhood? Carolyn

  4. James P Savage III Says:

    Welcome to the neighborhood. I had just discovered you and your beautiful website within the past couple of weeks. I live in Glasgow, Virginia just a few miles north of the Natural bridge. I have just begun the development of a woodland garden of perennials and ground cover plants on the west and south sides of my property which separates us from our near and dear friend and neighbor Martha.
    I delighted in seeing in the pictures you took at the Bridge the profusion of plants that prosper in the areas under the Natural Bridge since this is basically what my property could look like (except for the Bridge).
    This will be my second try at creating a woodland garden. The first was stopped by drought and the economic and financial crisis that exploded in 2008 and 2009. Your site and the American Meadows website were the inspiration for this second attempt. Wish me luck!
    Big Jim

  5. Just beautiful Carolyn… thank you for sharing! Larry

  6. Caroline, thank you for sharing your visit to this wonderful place. I will add it to my list of places I would like to visit. Incredible that the road runs across the natural bridge. Christina

  7. I read a biography about Thomas Jefferson and he wrote a lot about the Natural Bridge. It does indeed look like a beautiful spot.

  8. Wow-the natural bridge is spectacular. Makes me want to get out and see more of America!

  9. How amazing is that! I remember this well as a child. I was born in Richmond, Va and our family holidays were near Roanoke.

  10. How beautiful! Such a very impressive natural wonder, and the plants are so pretty. What a lovely part of the country. When you described how the cave fell to make this bridge, I thought how it might collapse completely someday! I wonder how many people traveling on the interstate realize they are going over a natural bridge!

  11. Phenomenal! There is just so much to see in this world. Thanks for sharing. I was thinking the same as HolleyGarden…if one part collapsed, could the rest? But it definitely looks substantial.

    • Cat, The bridge does raise a lot of geologic issues. I guess because it is privately owned there is not much information out there about it. The Natural Bridge website and Wikipedia were the only places with any information, and it is scanty. Odd because it was once called one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Carolyn

  12. How beautiful! It was hard to get the magnitude of how big it was in the first pictures, but the pictures that have people in them help – wow, is that big! And many of the people traveling over the bridge probably have no idea that such a magnificent site is right below them!

  13. This really is a beautiful place, well worth the inclusion on the National Registry. I love that you got a photo with people for scale. I would not have envisioned the bridge so large. It is an amazing natural architectural wonder. I like your critter captures too. That is one tiny toad.

  14. quite a feature and I love those little flower finds!

  15. bethstetenfeld Says:

    Ah, so beautiful! I’ve heard a lot about it, and I’m going to have to make a point to get there one of these days. Your photos really display it well, too. Thanks for the tour!

  16. nature is always fascinating! What an amazing visit you must have had

  17. Carolyn, when I think of a natural bridge I expect to see a huge log spanning a stream. This brings a whole new meaning to it and so remarkable.

  18. I love these naturally occurring places and the natural areas around them…too bad it is in private hands.

    • Donna, An employee who shall remain nameless said that the owner really doesn’t care about the bridge or the caverns and doesn’t put much into their maintenance. He is much more interested in the “museums”. In some ways, that is good because the natural attractions have not been made too touristy and are able to display their unadorned charms. Carolyn

  19. It truly is wonder! I love these gorgeous historic sites. Thomas Jefferson had an amazing retreat for entertaining guests! Too bad about the cheap shops, but at least they don’t spoil the site itself and the natural bridge will prevail long after they are gone.

  20. Thanks for the great photos, and hope you can take us on your next trip into the backwoods and nature. Thanks!

  21. Oh I love stone, and that’s a lot of it! Just awesome. It recalls Middle Earth and the Mines of Moria– I can almost hear Gandalf shouting. But clearly this bridge is not in danger of collapse!

  22. Thanks for the great tour. Someplace else to add to my “must visit” list!

    • Jean, It is very easy to access if you are going down Interstate 81 which we always pick up around Gettysburg. We also visited the Army War College, which was interesting for my son but I won’t be profiling it despite the beautiful abelias in its parking lot. Carolyn

  23. A wonderful post featuring this beautiful place. I grew up not very far from here, and you brought back memories. When we were children, we visited Natural Bridge and went swimming in the pond at the end of the trail. It was a long time ago.

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