A Short Drive: Natural Bridge

This is the third in a series of posts about a recent trip up to the Natural Bridge area about two hours north of Martinsville-Henry County. To recap, we drove up to the area and saw the zoo, Dinosaur Kingdom II, the caverns, and the natural bridge. We didn’t have to leave insanely early and we were back by dark. We even stopped for dinner in Roanoke on the way back.

Natural Bridge Caverns are nice. Worth the visit. There’s a lot to see overhead and they’ve made good use of lighting inside to showcase the fissures.

Word to the wise, here’s a typical conversation after returning from the caverns:

Me: I went to see the Natural Bridge caverns.

Neighbor: Is that the one with the big pond and the lights … (and a lot more descriptions that mean nothing if you haven’t been to Lurray Caverns).

Neighbor’s wife: No, you are thinking of Lurray Caverns.

Neighbor then regales us with stories of Lurray Caverns.

But Natural Bridge caverns is fun. I haven’t seen Lurray so I can’t tell you if one is definitely better than the other. It’s enough of a constant in conversation that I’m going to have to go see Lurray soon.

Natural Bridge has the stalagtites and stalagmites that you’d expect. One of our preteens noticed this formation that looks like a frog.


There is a pond (very small pond) with a boardwalk going around it. At the right time of year, you can see salamanders here. We were not there at the right time of year.

But the big thing in Natural Bridge is the fissures. The highlight of the tour is when the guide takes the group through one of the narrow fissures.

Inside the fissure that you are passing through, and directly overhead, is a massive boulder that fell into the fissure and got stuck. After everyone has passed under the boulder, we gathered in a room with a relatively level floor and hand rails. The guide then extinguished all of the lights so that we could experience “cave dark”.

Needless to say, the caverns may not be the best activity for anyone with a fear of the dark or of being deep underground. It is pretty cool though. And I mean that literally as well as figuratively. Take a jacket. Even on a hot day, the caverns are around 50 degrees.

After you have toured the caverns, you have to drive a short distance to get on the trail to see the Natural Bridge and Lace Falls at the end of the Cedar Creek Trail. “Karst” was a new word for me and I still couldn’t use it in a sentence.

I probably shouldn’t take pictures of placards that no one can actually read after the photo has been scaled and posted to the Internet, but I can’t help it. I have transcribed the sign below and put in bold the parts I found interesting:

It says:

The arch is composed of solid grey limestone. It is 215 feet high (55 feet higher than Niagara Falls) 40 feet thick, 100 feet wide and spans 90 feet between the massive walls. 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 rocks, that fold and break 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 it’s 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 towards the seas. With these, Nature achieved her miracle. She pained 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 up the left wall of the bridge, and carved his initials “G.W.”, which may still be seen today.

On July 5th, 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge and 157 surrounding acres from King George III of England for the “sum of twenty shillings of good and 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 after 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 natural wonder. Edward Hicks, one of America’s foremost folk artists, used the Natural Bridge in his oil painting of about 1825-30. Amongst many famous artists to paint or sketch an image of the bridge was Frederick Edwin Church of the Hudson River School, who came to paint the bridge in 1852, followed in 1860 by David Johnson, a second generation Hudson River School artist.

The Lee Highway, U.S. Route 11, crosses over the Natural Bridge, even today.

First thing, I’m kicking myself for not reading this whole placard while I was actually there. It was “TLDR” (too long didn’t read), in modern parlance. I would have liked to have known to look for George Washington’s initials.

Secondly, did I seriously just read that there’s a state highway on the top of this thing? I’m a little stunned at first. My next thought is, “do the people up there know what they are crossing?”. Seems like there should be some kind of disclaimer. Then I’m thinking about litterbugs tossing trash or debris over the side either intentionally or unintentionally. This just can’t be. I must have read that wrong.

If the students were here, I could ask one of them. I am really going to enjoy becoming a little a old lady and harassing college-aged kids just trying to get through their day. I’ve still got a good two to three decades before I get there but I’m making good time.

But there were no students. The replica Monacan Indian Village was closed while we were there. I believe that it is closed for the duration of the Covid pandemic so it’s anyone’s guess as to when it will reopen.

One of my companions who had been here before said that it was not a village but situated for educating groups on different topics. It looks like fun. And shady. It would be nice to at least read the placards.

After the village, the creek is the star of the show as you make your way to the falls. It’s shallow but beautiful and the rock formations are really intriguing. They seem to be evidence of the highly technical geological term “smushing”. 🙂

There are small fish throughout. Small. A lot of the older men here have told me how they used to come here and fish. I’m not disbelieving anybody but between water flow, visible fish size, and access, I’m not understanding how anyone would have been able to fish here.

Lace Falls – End of the Trail

Too be honest, the waterfall is a little underwhelming. the trail ends a good distance away from the falls. You can see them. If you have a decent zoom, you can snap a picture. Our preteens felt a little duped by the marketing lingo for the falls. “30 Foot cascade” sounded a little … more.

Be that as it may, everyone snapped a photo and sat and rested a while before turning back and heading back out. Don’t oversell Lace Falls to any in your party that are on the grouchy side and you’ll do fine. It is a beautiful walk and a nice thing to do outdoors.

Shortly after I got back and before I started drafting this post, Facebook advertised the Dixie Caverns in Roanoke to me. Then Facebook asked if I would like my targeted advertising to be more like that. I said “yes”. There was no way to respond how creepy that was in the first place though.

A Short Drive: Dinosaur Kingdom II

Sitting directly across the street from the Natural Bridge Zoo is the Dinosaur Kingdom II attraction. You can’t miss it. In fact, there is so much going on in every square foot of your vision that it is hard to draw your attention away from it. I could see the entrance while in the zoo and, even then, it would steal my focus – and that’s just the entrance.

It is really difficult to explain what Dinosaur Kingdom II is and if you will enjoy it. I absolutely loved it but I love things that are absurd and represent imagination run amok. That is what this is, in spades.

The founder is an artist who makes sculptures in fiberglass. Big sculptures. You can see some of his other work in a video from 2018 with the CarpetBagger channel on YouTube. I found the CarpetBagger channel during the height of the lockdown and recommend it if you would like to go to amusement parks, wax museums, and attractions of all kinds vicariously through video.

Dinosaur Kingdom is a series of installations, some animatronic, some interactive. From the ticket booth where the kindly attendant shows you the latest hatched dinosaur (hand puppet) all the way to the maze at the end, it seems like there is something carefully packed into every step of your path through the campus.

The first section is a replica western street front. There is a jail where animatronic eggs are “hatching” and we stopped to take photos of different members of our party “in jail”.

One of the buildings is of the tilting house variety. It is not the easiest to walk through but it can be done and you can make a ball secured to the wall appear to roll “up” its track.

All of the buildings have some sort of story going on inside. For example, you can’t actually go inside the building pictured below because this smart fellow has a big foot creature trapped inside, trying to get out.

Other buildings you can go inside or you are presented with an ongoing story, like the undertaker’s office where young raptors have broken in and turned the room upside down. Not literally upside down, which I would point out is a distinct possibility here. One room had a game based on the classic Operation but dinosaur-themed. My companion said that this one is more difficult.

Even with all of the absurd, whimsical, and funny sights to see, I really appreciated what appeared to me to be real antiques throughout. They had to have spent a lot of time collecting all of this stuff.

At the end of the street is the Big Foot Stage and at set times during the day, there is a water fight between the resident Big Foot and anyone who wants to take up one of the dozens of water canons available in front of the building. The show starts off with Big Foot banging on the doors of the “barn” behind the water canons. I missed the first part of the battle so the video below picks up after Big Foot and abandoned the stage and run to the little house on the right.

It’s all good, clean fun and a nice way to cool off a little. After the Big Foot shoot-out, you begin a path through the woods. The first stop is an attraction that is still in the process of being completed. It is called The Triceratops Bullfight and the rules are posted as follows:

  1. Only two (2) people in the corral at a time.
  2. One person operates the head. One person fights “the bull”.
  3. Only an adult operates the head mechanism.
  4. Place your phone in the clip to make the best video.
  5. Push the button to start the music. Bull Fight is 1 minute.

My only photo of this attraction is not a good one. I look forward to when this opens and people start sharing videos. This could be really fun and a great marketing tool.

The rest of the experience is a walk through the woods, passing by various installations – some animatronic, some not. Several of the installations refer you to a specific page in the the Dinosaurs Kingdom II comic book (a $6 purchase in the gift shop) for explanation.

I did buy a copy of the comic book at the end but I haven’t read it yet. Real life happens after you leave. But I have to hand it to the artist that my photos are probably going to cause me to read the comic book (here eventually) so, in a way, Dinosaur Kingdom is still commanding my attention.

Props, Mr. Cline. A job well done.

And, touché.

A Short Drive: Natural Bridge Zoo

I was lucky enough to be invited along on a day trip to Southern Rockbridge, just about two hours to our north. We covered so much ground that I am going to divide the trip into three posts: the Natural Bridge Zoo, Dinosaurs Attack II, and the Natural Bridge Caverns and river walk. We had two pre-teens and three adults. Everyone had an absolute blast at each stop.

It’s been a hot July so we started off our day at the zoo. This was a really good suggestion by the Natural Bridge Caverns people. They sold us a ticket package for all the events that we would be seeing and suggested that the zoo is better in the morning when temps are cooler. “Hot” in this part of Virginia is generally humid and 90 but it still cools off at night. Nighttime temps generally drop to around 70, a little more if we are lucky. Even when it’s “hot”, it’s reasonably comfortable until around lunchtime.

I really enjoyed the zoo. It was nice. I encourage folks to go and give it a gander. See it for yourself.

There was a good video put out by the zoo but it is no longer available on YouTube. There were a couple of points made in the video that I thought were important. First was that this zoo specializes in birds and hoofstock. I am a bit partial to birds and they do have quite a lot of different varieties. There is an unusual number of monkeys given this specialty. I have no explanation for that.

I’m not a veterinarian and I have no knowledge of what these animals need. As a patron that day, I did not feel like any of the animals looked mistreated. The guys next to the lemurs looked sad (their sign said that they were on the shy side) and some of the birds looked hot (it was a hot day) but, other than that, I did not feel uncomfortable about what I saw.

Most of the enclosures were dedicated to a specific type of animal but one notable exception was the cage for the capuchins. The capuchins look like the kind of monkey from Indiana Jones and they seemed perfectly happy in this conical cage surrounded by chickens, tortoises, and an odd deer/goat animal that seemed very inquisitive and sweet.

The center of the zoo is dedicated to large paddock areas. This is where the elephant is. He has a fairly extensive play area but he was busy dousing himself with water while we were watching.

This big fellow was in a paddock across the lane from one of the types of monkeys that were particularly loud and gymnastic. The sign said that these guys didn’t like noise so they pretty much stayed in the shade on the far side of the paddock.

Can anyone else see a zebra without thinking of the Madagascar movies?

We were followed around for a little while by a lovely little bird that seemed to be able to slip in and out of his or her fenced area at will.

I don’t know if the llamas would spit on you or not but I’ve always heard that they will. While the fellow in the photo below looks friendly, he always had a bubble of spit on his lips. I was never sure that he wasn’t just trying to get us a little closer to improve his aim.

I’m skipping a lot. There were camels and giraffes and exotic birds and just something new in every direction. I’ve selected the shots I’ve included in this post so that you have an idea what the zoo looks like in general. I encourage everyone to go check it out.

I did not see much in the way of snakes. One boa constrictor, I believe. There were two tigers, a huge black bear, and a mountain lion. So, if you are only thrilled by the “fierce creatures”, you will not be disappointed.

Additional tips:

Go in the morning to avoid the heat.

The nicest picnic pavilion is over by the mountain lion and tigers. You’ll end up there if you go in a counter-clockwise direction when starting.

The gift shop is full of good touristy things. I bought my host a commemorative shot glass (go ahead and snicker).

Buy food at the gift shop to feed the animals.

Buy your kid an elephant ride.

Plan on going to the Dinosaurs Attack II (right across the street) afterwards.