Once owned by Thomas Jefferson and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 215-foot tall Natural Bridge is the tallest natural arch in the Southeast United States. More than just a bridge, Natural Bridge State Park is surrounded by beautiful forests, rolling meadows, and the limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek. Considered sacred by the Monocan Nation, Natural Bridge features heavily in the tribes lore and 10,000 year history. Visitors can explore the 2.2 mile Cedar Creek Trail which travels under Natural Bridge to a rebuilt Monacan Indian Village, several caves, an underground river, and the 50-foot Lace Falls.
Cedar Creek Trail | 2.2 Miles Out & Back
Route of Cedar Creek Trail in Natural Bridge State Park via Gaia App.
Visiting Virginias’ Natural Bridge has been on my bucket list ever since becoming an avid arch hunter in my own home state of Kentucky. Planning an entire roadtrip around this visit, I included a stop at Natural Bridge State Park while also exploring the Dragons Tooth and McAfee Knob along the Appalachian Trail, descending down the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the incredible Apple Orchard Falls, and scaling the Peaks of Otter to catch one of the best views in the Southeast from the top of Sharp Top Mountain. Natural Bridge State Park is located 30 minutes east of Roanoke and is also a short drive away from Virginias northern stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Visitors must enter the park through the Visitors Center and pay an admission fee of $9 for adults and $6 for children in order to hike the trails and see the arch.
It is a 137-step descent from the Visitors Center into the gorge of Cedar Creek.
This easy and family friendly 2.0 mile trail is paved from start to finish.
Cedar Creek Trail (2.2 miles)
While there are over 10 miles of hiking trails in Natural Bridge State Park, the Cedar Creek Trail crosses through the heart of the park and visits all of the main attractions. More of a walking nature trail than a traditional hiking trail, this 2.2 mile out and back route is entirely paved from start to finish. While this path leads to the parks centerpiece, Natural Bridge, it also visits a 1600 year old cedar grove, a Monocan Native American Village Exhibit, Saltpeter Cave, an entrance to the Lost River, and ends at the 50-foot tall Lace Falls. If you’re only interested in seeing the arch then this will be a quick 0.25 mile walk there and back.
Part of the 1600 year old cedar grove found within the Cedar Creek gorge.
Natural Bridge “most sublime of Natures’ works”
Upon leaving the Visitors Center through the back door, you’ll have to undertake a 137-step descent into the 200-feet sheer gorge of Cedar Creek. The stairway down follows beside Cascade Creek, which tumbles over a series of limestone cliffs towards one of the oldest known cedar groves in the world. At over 1600 years old when it died in 1980, this lone Arborvitae Tree had a circumference of 56 meters. The Native Americans that once lived here used the leaves of the Arborvitae as a source of vitamin C to help prevent scurvy. Once past the grove, the path reaches the Cedar Creek Pavilion (restrooms, gift shop, picnic area) and the official start of the Cedar Creek Trail. From here, the trail will be following the numerous cascades and whirlpools of Cedar Creek all the way to Lace Falls.
The Monocan Nation lived amongst Natural Bridge for 10,000 years pre-colonization.
This is where Natural Bridge will first come into view at the far end of the gorge. Most visitors rarely notice that if you entered the park by driving south along South Lee Highway Route 11, you have literally crossed over Natural Bridge as the highway is built directly over top of it. Sharing the same name as our local Natural Bridge in the Red River Gorge, Virginias Natural Bridge is over three times taller at 215-feet high. Walking up to it, the bridge feels more like the opening to a mystical realm than simply a natural rock formation. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark in 1988, this natural arch was recorded by early European settlers as early as 1736.
Thomas Jefferson first laid eyes on Natural Bridge in 1767. He eventually purchased the arch and surrounding 157-acre estate for $160 in todays money.
Geologists believe Natural Bridge is the remnant of an underground river tunnel that diverted water from the Blue Ridge south to the James River. When passing through what is now Rockbridge County, Virginia, on August 23, 1767, Thomas Jefferson viewed what was then called “the rock bridge” for the very first time. A source of inspiration and wonder to Jefferson, he proceeded to purchase a 157-acre tract that included Natural Bridge for $160, in todays money. Desiring to keep it for the public domain, Natural Bridge was lost to foreclosure in 1883. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that the State of Virginia would gather the funds to officially repurchase the property and turn it into a state park.
In 1851, the author Herman Melville used Natural Bridge as part of a metaphor in his novel Moby Dick.
Monocan Living History Village Exhibit
The Cedar Creek Trail continues its path by traveling through the 115-foot wide tunnel below Natural Bridge, just past an outdoor amphitheater on the arches north side. From here visitors are transported back to the 17th century to see what a woodlands Indian culture might have looked like pre-colonization. When the first European colonists arrived at Jamestowne in 1607, the piedmont and mountain regions of this area were inhabited by Siouan Indians of the Monacan and Mannahoac tribes that had lived here continuously for 10,000 years.
The Monocan Nation is the only officially recognized Native American tribe in the state of Virginia.
This Monocan Village Exhibit offers insight into the lives of the first Native Americans that colonists met when landing at Jamestown.
Numbering some 10,000 people, they were arranged in a confederation ranging from the Roanoke River Valley to the Potomac River, and from the Fall Line at Richmond and Fredericksburg west through the Blue Ridge Mountains. An interpretive program running from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. offers insight into primitive shelter construction, hide tanning, mat and rope weaving, tool-making, gardening, harvesting, preparing meals, making pots, bowls and baskets and much more.
Entrance to the Saltpeter Cave is via this wooden bridge crossing over Cedar Creek.
Shortly after passing the Monocan Village Exhibit, the trail dips down to a shallow crossing over Cedar Creek and begins a quick ascent to the areas next landmark, the Saltpeter Cave. After unsuccessfully attempting to sell Natural Bridge in 1806, Thomas Jefferson began periodically leasing the property for saltpeter mining. Connected by a wooden bridge, visitors can cross over the rapids of Cedar Creek to enter this large rock shelter. Used in the production of gun powder, the potassium nitrate found in this cave was exhumed from deposits of bird and bat droppings. Saltpeter from this cave can directly be traced to ammunition produced during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
After entering financial troubles, Thomas Jefferson began leasing his estate on Cedar Creek to saltpeter miners.
The Lost River
As we continue to follow along the banks of Cedar Creek, another smaller cave opening will appear on the right side of the trail. This is the entrance into the Lost River. About 1812, workmen from the Saltpetre Cave heard the waters of the Lost River, and blasted the opening to it that you see today. A water main was attached to transport water to the hoppers and kettles used to extract the nitrate from the cave. Legend has it that, in later years, several unsuccessful attempts were made to locate the underground channels of the Lost River. Colored dyes and flotation devices of all types have failed to determine the source and final destination of this mysterious subterranean river.
The Lost River is part of the ancient water stream that initially created underground cavern which eventually collapsed, creating Natural Bridge.
Lace Falls (50 ft)
By the time you pass the Lost River, you’re only 0.15 miles from the final landmark of the Cedar Creek Trail. Viewable from a large overlook extending over the banks of Cedar Creek, Lace Falls marks the northernmost boundary of Thomas Jeffersons original 157-acre property. Consisting of a series of cascades tumbling nearly 50 feet, only the bottom 20 feet are viewable to most visitors. Its delicate veil transforms with each drop into rushing plumes of whitewater by the time it hits the bottom of the narrow chute just ahead of the overlook. This is a nice surprise marking the end of todays adventure, exploring the history of Virginias’ Natural Bridge.
This is the end of the road for the 2.0 mile Cedar Creek Trail.
Lace Falls cascades a total of 50 ft, but only the bottom 20-30 ft are visible from the overlook.
Up next, we will be driving south from Natural Bridge State Park to visit a notable landmark along the northern stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 200-feet tall Apple Orchard Falls is one of the tallest and most photographed waterfalls in the Shenandoah Valley. Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway, this 2.9 mile trail can be reached from the Sunset Field Overlook parking lot on milepost 78. A popular side trip for thru-hikers, this waterfall is accessible from the Appalachian Trail as it traverses the Backbone Ridge near Floyd Mountain and the Cornelius Creek Shelter. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see ya’ll on the trails!