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Strolling through Thomas Jefferson’s natural playground
By Tom Adkinson

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations logical to visit as Americans venture out in a time of coronavirus and perhaps to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

natural bridge
Thomas Jefferson bought this stunning piece of real estate in 1774 for $160 in today’s money. Image by Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

NATURAL BRIDGE, Virginia – Thomas Jefferson fell in love with Natural Bridge the first time he saw the beautiful geologic formation in the Shenandoah Valley about 80 miles from Charlottesville and his home, Monticello. That was in 1767, and he bought it in 1774 from a fellow named George, who never even had seen it for himself.

It’s a good thing Jefferson bought it when he did, because by about two years later, Jefferson and George weren’t exactly on speaking terms. The fellow named George, of course, was King George III of England, and Jefferson had some very unflattering things to say about him in the Declaration of Independence.

lace falls at natural bridge
The one-mile trail that passes under Natural Bridge leads to 50-foot-tall Lace Falls. Image by

For the unlikely sum of about $160 in today’s money, according to the “Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia,” Jefferson acquired 157 acres that included the limestone feature Jefferson called “the most Sublime of nature’s works.”

Looking at Natural Bridge today, and the modest flow of Cedar Creek beneath it, it is impossible to imagine how much time it took to create the impressive arch that stretches 215 to the sky and is 90 feet across. U.S. 11, the leisurely route through the Shenandoah Valley, crosses atop it.

Jefferson had thoughts of “a little hermitage” at the bridge, but built only a two-room cabin. Despite being far from a rival to Monticello, the cabin’s guests included some big names of the time – John Marshall, James Monroe, Henry Clay, Sam Houston and Martin Van Buren among them.

natural bridge
Twin River Outfitters conducts a variety of tubing, canoeing and kayaking trips on the nearby James River. Image by Twin River Outfitters.

natural bridge hotel
The 152-room Natural Bridge Hotel offers a place to use as home base while exploring the Natural Bridge area. Image by

natural bridge
U.S. 11, the leisurely route through the Shenandoah Valley, cross the top of Natural Bridge. Image by Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

Natural Bridge became quite the tourist attraction of the day, even for Europeans. Herman Melville alluded to it in Moby Dick, and poet William Cullen Bryant declared Natural Bridge and Niagara Falls as North America’s two remarkable features.

Bryant, of course, hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon or Mt. Rainier, but you get the sense of how much Natural Bridge impressed people.

Natural Bridge now is part of a Virginia state park, and among its forests and meadows are seven miles of hiking trails, including a one-mile trail that goes under the bridge and leads to the 50-foot-tall Lace Falls.

Additional attractions in the area include the historic 152-room Natural Bridge Hotel, Natural Bridge Caverns and canoe, kayak and tube trips on the nearby James River with Twin River Outfitters.

Trip Planning Resources: NaturalBridgeStatePark,, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published July 17, 2020

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