Natural Bridge Has Caverns Too!

The Caverns of Natural Bridge can’t be more than a 15-minute walk from the Natural Bridge State Park parking lot. Along the way, it’s impossible to miss the Natural Bridge Hotel poised on it’s perch across the road…

where very little has changed as a popular destination for tourists since its rebuilding in 1964 after a doomsday fire.

Continuing up the road and around the corner, stands a rustic cabin set back from the parking lot that’s been open for business since 1977.

The attendant tells us that this is a quiet time for tourists–middle of the week, before Memorial Day–and that’s fine with us. In fact, so far, we are the only spelunkers to have signed up for the 2 o’clock tour. As the hour draws near, only two other women have joined us. But as a party of four, Brian, our guide assures us that we can linger longer at each attraction, since our group is so small.

We are descending into a wet cave (as opposed to a dry cave),

34 stories below the earth’s surface…

where an underwater spring still feeds the formation of speleothems (e.g. stalactites and stalagmites).

The temperature is a humid 54o F, and with masks on

my glasses can’t help but fog with each breath I take. It’s never been so frustrating looking through a viewfinder to frame a photograph.

But as we snake our way through low overheads…

we are surprised to see boxwork, an uncommon, venous formation of calcite residue…

which forms when calcium carbonate dissolves within the cracks, resulting in unusual honeycomb patterns.

While not the biggest cave system (that belongs to Mammoth Cave), or the most ornate (that belongs to Carlsbad Cavern), Natural Bridge has a pleasant complement of columns…

and detailed domes,

and no shortage of surprises between the cracks and crevices.

Natural Bridge

If you’re searching for a town that’s so proud of their community attraction that their town is named after it, look no further than Natural Bridge, Virginia. It’s an unincorporated town tucked within the Shenandoah Valley…

that unsurprisingly features a rock bridge of limestone located in Rockbridge County.

Leah and I masked up, and approached the Georgian-styled Visitor Center to surrender $18 to view this natural wonder.

Our downward trail followed a moss-laden terrace of twisted roots and vines laced with wisps of water…

descending into enchanted dripping pools falling on flat rocks…

until we reached a T-shirt concession at rock bottom and an imposing graphic…

that tells the story of Natural Bridge:

The arch is composed of solid grey limestone. It is 215 feet high (55 feet wider than Niagara Falls) 40 feet thick, 100 feet wide and spans 90 feet between the massive walls.

Looking up at Natural Bridge

The span contains 450,000 cubic feet of rock. If man had scales to weigh it, the mass would balance about 72,000,000 pounds, or 36,000 tons. The rocks that compose the bridge are early Ordovician, about 500 million years old. The internal forms of these rocks that break and fold in the layers were imposed on them during the Appalachian Mountain building process toward the end of the Paleozoic Era, more than 200 million years ago. At its highest point, the bridge is approximately 1160 feet above sea level.

This was Nature’s working material. Her tool, Cedar Creek–a simple mountain stream flowing toward the sea. With these, Nature achieved her miracle. She painted her masterpiece with dull red and ochre, soft shades of yellow and cream, delicate tracings of blueish-grey.

Before white men came to our shores, the Monacan Indians considered this ancient wonder a sacred site, and called it “The Bridge of God.”

According to legend, in 1750 the youthful George Washington, engaged by Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, surveyed the surrounding acreage of Natural Bridge. During his visit, he scaled some 23 feet upon the left wall of the bridge and carved his initials, which may still be seen today.

On July 5, 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge and 157 surrounding acres from King George III of England for the “sum of twenty shillings of good lawful money” (about $2.40). Jefferson visited the bridge often, surveyed the area, and even drew a map in his own hand. In 1803, two years before becoming the President of the United States, he constructed a two-room cabin on the grounds.

From the literary classic Moby Dick, to such paintings as The Peaceable Kingdom, Natural Bridge has been used to portray the ultimate wonder. Edward Hicks, one of America’s foremost folk artists, used the Natural Bridge in his oil painting of about 1825-30.

Amongst many artists to paint or sketch an image of the bridge was Frederic Edwin Church, followed in 1860 by Davis Johnson, a second generation Hudson River School artist.

In later years, Natural Bridge became a merchandising magnet.

Personally, I was equally as intrigued with Cedar Creek as I was impressed by the monolithic bridge…

Even today, Lee Highway (U.S. Route 11) runs across the Natural Bridge, and that’s a very good thing, because we crossed many times to access our KOA campground down the road, and more importantly to visit Elvis at the Pink Cadillac Diner.